Pilsen: A Neighborhood’s Fight to Protect Its Roots

Murals (now gone) depicting prominent Latino heroes on facade of the former Casa Aztlán community center. (Image courtesy Robert Valadez)

What does it look like when a neighborhood faces the larger market forces driving gentrification? Can a neighborhood resist developer pressures? These are some of the questions I am interested in exploring through the history of Pilsen, a working-class Mexican neighborhood in Chicago about three miles southwest of the city center. Pilsen has historically had strong grassroots organizations protecting the welfare of the community’s residents, but due to its proximity to downtown Chicago, Pilsen is also beginning to gentrify.

I wanted to explore the development of this neighborhood — and their strong activist culture, in particular — in the context of the larger trends in housing and urban development such as urban renewal and suburbanization that I wrote about last time. Pilsen’s reactions to this current wave of gentrification will no doubt be quite informative to follow.

A History of Pilsen

Pre-fire iron works industry at24th Street and Western Avenue. (Image courtesy of Roosevelt University’s Archives)

The first immigrants to Pilsen were the Irish in the mid-1800s, who came to Chicago to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which connected the Great lakes to the Mississippi River. A construction and industrial boom in the aftermath of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire attracted a second wave of German, Polish, and Bohemian workers to the area. The neighborhood got its name from a popular Bohemian hangout called At the City of Plzen, West Bohemia’s (now the Czech Republic) second largest city. Once Czechoslovakia gained its independence in the 1918, however, the arrival of immigrants slowed. This, combined with the onset of the Great Depression, WWII, and suburbanization in the early 20th century resulted in a drop in the neighborhood’s population to 48,400 in 1960, compared with 66,200 in 1930.[1]

Beginning in the 1950s, Mexican immigrants moved to Pilsen in larger numbers. The origins of Mexican families in the neighborhood follows the general history of displacement resulting from infrastructure construction and urban renewal projects. The construction of the Stevenson Expressway, which began construction in the 1950s, displaced many families living in the Near West Side. Taking advantage of the region’s “blighted” status, residents began a grassroots campaign to lobby for housing in the Halsted and Harrison streets region, which eventually led to plans for a new, mixed-used affordable housing project there. These plans came to halt, however, when (the first) Mayor Daley decided in 1960 the site was to be the new location of the University of Illinois’ downtown campus.

It is estimated that around 5,000 people were further displaced to construct the UIC campus [2]. Many of the Mexican families decided to move south of the campus to the neighborhood of Pilsen. Between 1960 and 1980, the Mexican population in Pilsen grew from 7,000 to 83,000. [3]

A History of Activism

One of Pilsen’s unique qualities is the neighborhood’s cohesive community activism, which has no doubt strengthened their response to the pressures of gentrification. Contemporarily known for Latino activist movements such as the “Brown Berets” (Latino allies to the Black Panther Party) in the 1960s and community-wide protests for bilingual schools, and for social and political institutions such Casa Aztlán, Pilsen’s community organizing roots were grew during labor battles in the neighborhood’s industrial heyday.

In July 1877, Pilsen was one the sites of violent disputes between railroad workers and the Chicago police, backed eventually by the armed US Infantry. The Chicago Railroad strike was the local manifestation of a national railroad workers’ strike to protest wages, work hours, and the safety conditions in the railroad industry. Sympathetic workers from other industry joined in, and Chicago nearly went into a state of general strike.[4] On May 1, 1886, a call for an eight-hour workday led to 35,000 workers in Chicago walking off the job, and protests across the city killing two workers. A bomb thrown at police during one of the riots sparked the Haymarket riots — a series of events that marked led to the creation the May Day, an international observation of workers’ rights.

In moving to the neighborhood in the 1960s, the Mexican residents began to strengthen their community ties and building political roots through joining organizations, starting business, and signaling their presence and political beliefs through murals.

Pilsen residents protesting in front of Chicago Board of Education for a bilingual high school. (Image courtesy Mary Gonzales)

The Pilsen Neighborhood Community Council, an organization created by the Eastern European residents of the area to fight urban renewal in the 1950s, saw new membership from Mexican residents, many in leadership positions. Activists also took over ownership of the settlement house Howell House, renaming the building Casa Aztlán, which eventually became a center for political organization. Women-led demonstrations in 1997 at the Chicago Public School headquarters and school walkouts from the Spanish-speaking students — who were put into special education classes instead bilingual programs — and their parents led to the construction of the Benito Juarez Community Academy for the neighborhood. [5]

So strong was the community activism in Pilsen that the combined forces of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, Casa Aztlán, business and religious leaders in Pilsen, and community leaders other neighborhoods were able to halt an urban renewal plan for East Pilsen other regions near the Loop — part of Chicago 21 Plan released in 1973.

Current Gentrification Pressures

Due to its proximity to Chicago’s downtown and the UIC campus and its Mexican identity as a cultural commodity, Pilsen has been feeling the pressure gentrification. Pilsen is part of the National Register of Historic Places due to the distinctive character of its urban fabric, from the Bohemian architecture circa the 19th century to cultural and political murals painted on building facades in the 20th century. Census data shows that the neighborhood is increasingly white, though population is declining.[6]

Kathryn Saclarides, writing in the Advocates’ Forum, suggests that there are three major forces at play: the push from developers to create an attractive destination for “outside” consumers; the city, which aims to market Pilsen as a “Mexican gem of Chicago”; and the residents, who want to preserve the immigrant, working class character of the neighborhood and the availability of affordable housing.[7]

There seems to be a precarious balance between slowing or mediating change (typically driven by outside resident and commercial developments), especially as it relates to housing protection, and allowing certain kinds of change such as the creation of business improvement districts and initiatives such as tax increment financing (TIFs). Mixed into this process is the system of power and corruption that exists at every level in the Chicago city government.

Tax Increment Financing Zone

Pilsen’s industrial TIF boundaries. (Image courtesy City of Chicago DPD)

In 1998, Pilsen became an industrial TIF zone due to it’s “blighted” status. The mandate for the TIF is to strengthen local businesses and boost employment for residents; however, the TIF status allows the mayor and city council to make final decisions proposal and redevelopment plans for the area. The TIF zones are given a property tax rate freeze over a 23-year period and all further revenue increases are put aside (and controlled by the mayor and city council with virtually no oversight) to be used strictly for that district. A 2005 City Hall TIF report listed nineteen vendors who were welcome into TIF zones, almost all of whom had donated money to Mayor Daley or Pilsen Alderman Danny Solis’s political campaigns.[7]

The city aldermans hold a great deal of control over the development of the neighborhood. In addition to deciding on redevelopment plans and how to use the revenues from the TIF, they are also the ones primarily in control of zoning decisions. The construction of large developments in Pilsen also appears to be primarily in the hands of Alderman Solis. The alderman helped raise the neighborhood’s affordable housing quota to 21 percent (it is 10 percent citywide; and in 2015 and prevented the construction of a 500-unit residential development from Property Market Group (PMG). (Though, in true Chicago-style politics, did this through re-zoning the lot in question from residential to industrial.) But Solis is also responsible for the transformation of a former paint factory into a retail and “creative” office space originally (ill-)named The Gentry.

Providing oversight and informing residents are neighborhood organizations such as the Protect Pilsen Coalition, Pilsen Neighbors, the Neighborhood Resurrection Project, and the Pilsen Alliance. In 2004, the Pilsen Alliance organized neighborhood members to vote on whether the alderman should hold public meetings on zoning changes, which passed with 95% approval and led to the creation of the Pilsen Community Zoning Board.

Community Organization

Even though, we did not intend it this way, Sophia and I have written about two diametrically different neighborhoods in the process of gentrification. Both Society Hill and Pilsen are products of urban renewal schemes: the former being the site of developments, while the latter represents the site of those suffering from the fallout of urban renewal. Whereas the stated goal for Society Hill was to attract larger populations of middle and upper class residents, Pilsen’s strong working-class organizing forces were able to protect and the improve residents’ welfare.

[1]“History of Pilsen.” 2017. WTTW Chicago Public Media — Television and Interactive. April 12, 2017. https://interactive.wttw.com/my-neighborhood/pilsen/history.

[2] ibid.

[3]“Selling Chicago as a Global City: Redevelopment and Ethnic Neighborhoods | University of Chicago - SSA.” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://www.ssa.uchicago.edu/selling-chicago-global-city-redevelopment-and-ethnic-neighborhoods.

[4] “Railroad Strike of 1877.” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1037.html.

[5]“How Pilsen’s Founding Mothers Built a High School.” 2017. WTTW Chicago Public Media — Television and Interactive. October 13, 2017. https://interactive.wttw.com/my-neighborhood/pilsen/founding-mothers-built-a-high-school.

[6] “Pilsen-Existing-Conditions-Report” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://greatcities.uic.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Pilsen-Existing-Conditions-Report.pdf.

[7] “Selling Chicago as a Global City: Redevelopment and Ethnic Neighborhoods | University of Chicago - SSA.” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://www.ssa.uchicago.edu/selling-chicago-global-city-redevelopment-and-ethnic-neighborhoods.

[7] “There It Is, Right on Page 19 | Essay | Chicago Reader.” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/there-it-is-right-on-page-19/Content?oid=923635.

[8] “New Plans Emerge For Controversial Development Of Massive Pilsen Lot: Chicagoist.” n.d. Accessed June 15, 2018. http://chicagoist.com/2017/04/25/mixed-use_development_put_forth_for.php.