From Working-Class to Hipsterland: Gentrification in Pilsen

by Marvin Sanchez

Pilsen and Gentrification

Nuevo Leon restaurant to the left, with a new restaurant and an older medicine store to the right

Gentrification is a topic that is currently being discussed much more often in the modern world, not just by individuals who live in areas that experience gentrification, but also by the academic and scholarly world. The question that is often asked is: What is gentrification? Urban designer and city planner in the San Francisco Bay area Benjamin Grant says that, “Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture” (Grant 2003). While gentrification does cause many ethnic minorities such as African-Americans and Latinos to become displaced from their communities, the act of gentrification does not occur over-night. The restructuring of communities is not a simple task, and usually requires an extensive amount of time and multiple groups of individuals to come into contact with each other. This article aims to examine the interaction amongst differing ethnic groups and how cultural objects from distinct cultures come into play, and how the receivers and creators interact with these objects on a daily basis during the gentrification process. This study focuses on a neighborhood in the Lower West Side of Chicago known as Pilsen, and the current gentrification process that is occurring. However, it is important to note that this article is not an in-depth research project that has been done over the course of many years like many other research projects; it is instead an accumulation of ethnographic research done through a ten week sociology seminar at Northwestern University and was compiled by visiting Pilsen a couple of times throughout this ten week seminar and applying material learned.

Pilsen’s Humble Beginnings

Czech Sokol Parade, August 29th, 1909. Blue Island & West 19th Sreet.

In order to understand gentrification in Pilsen, and the sociology behind it, it is important to first begin with its history. Pilsen, a community in the Lower west part of Chicago, IL is best known for the large cultural influence of Mexican-Americans and other Latin American ethnic groups; these groups call this 2.8 square mile area their home; however, this hasn’t always been their home. In the 1840s Pilsen was an enclave that was refuge to German and Irish immigrants, and in the late 1800s to Bohemians from the current day Czech Republic. The latter actually named the neighborhood Pilsen after a town in their home country. Many of these immigrants were part of the working-class and found employment in construction and other industries. It wasn’t until the 1900s that a change in Pilsen began to occur. During World War I, “labor shortages in area industries induced over two dozen different immigrant groups to settle in Pilsen, including a modest number of Mexicans” (The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago 2005). Mexicans were also forcefully removed from their original home in the West Side neighborhood when the neighborhood was “decimated by ‘urban renewal’ projects associated with the construction of expressways and the University of Illinois’s Chicago Campus during the 1950s and ‘60s. Much of the Mexican community, however, was merely displaced to the adjacent Pilsen neighborhood” (Genova &Ramos-Zayas 2003).

In a new environment this group was quick to dominate the space by creating murals and increasing the population; the demographics changed to 88.9% Latino by 2000 from 99.3% White in 1930s, and as a result the European ethnic groups fled from this region. Reasons for fleeing the area varied greatly; however, ethnic and racial tension played a large part in the interaction of these two groups of people. While there were great divisions in terms of race and ethnicity, class remained the same. To learn more about the history of Pilsen, see the Encyclopedia of Chicago. The migration of different groups into Pilsen with the same class background helps this area of Chicago develop what Sociologist Wendy Griswold would call a collective identity. Collective identity can be summarized by Alberto Melucci as “an interactive and shared definition produced by several interacting individuals who are concerned with orientations of their action as well as the field of opportunities and constraints in which their actions place” (Griswold 2013). These several interacting individuals are the Irish, German, Eastern European, Mexican, and Latin American immigrants who all have came to the United States for opportunity and create their home in an area where they occupy working-class jobs, and create a community of working-class individuals. This is a central identity attached to Pilsen over history and it is important to note.

Chicago: Lower West Side in Red
Map of the Lower West Side
A clothing store located on 18th St. right after Ashland St.

Recently this identity has been under attacked through the process of gentrification. Gentrification makes it difficult and nearly impossible for native individuals to stay in their respective communities. This project is an attempt to understand gentrification in Pilsen, and the sociology behind it. I will be focusing specifically on the interaction between two different communities in Pilsen, and how the cultural objects, such as art and murals from the Mexican-American community interact with high-end coffee shops opened by middle- and upper-middle class residents and other cultural objects such as yoga mats and the interaction between them. Also, I will examine the sociological meanings of these cultural objects and elaborate on the interactions these groups have with them as receivers and producers if any relationship exists. Ultimately, the goal of the article is to understand sociology of two distinct cultures when gentrification is occurring.

In order to study Pilsen, I visited a part of Pilsen that were very active with many storefronts and where individuals were visibly walking through the street.

Map of where I traveled during my research

I spent a good portion of my time walking down 18th Street and the area between Loomis St. and Paulina St., which cover about three blocks. I also explored south of Ashland St., prior to hitting Cermak Rd. All of these locations are a central part of Pilsen and contain elements of gentrification, as well as elements of the vibrant Mexican-American community. In order to analyze gentrification and the interactions of different ethnic groups, and cultural objects I went to multiple shops including a well-known Mexican restaurant and a high-end coffee shop. I also walked through the neighborhoods taking notes of the types of people that were present, and how they differed from each other. Lastly, I took several photos of murals, shops, and even people to examine their interactions, and where and how they differ. I also interviewed people in the neighborhood

Above: Photo in 2011 on 18th St. and Paulina St. Below: Photo of housing unite for art students in 2014

In order to understand the current situation in Pilsen, it’s important to outline the different groups that are present in Pilsen. The two main ethnic groups that this study focuses on are the Mexican migrants, and the Mexican-American community and their interaction with the white middle- and upper-middle class population. The influx of these people can be attributed to many white art students who attend the Art Institute of Chicago, and have found homes in Pilsen. A housing unit has been set up on the intersection of 18th st and Ashland St. that accommodates these students as well. The influx of these students changes the dynamic of the community, specifically through a population change and the addition of new businesses. Many White art students have a different lifestyle than most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans; their presence in Pilsen gives the opportunity for other institutions, specifically businesses tailored to their needs, to infiltrate Pilsen and set up shop. They find a clientele that is willing to sustain these businesses economically, which in turn attracts other upper-white class individuals, and thus a restructuring of community can be seen. However, through a sociological lens, one can examine the appearance of cultural objects and how they shape the community.

Pilsen’s Hidden Cultural Objects

White women with yoga mats in Pilsen

A cultural object can be defined as a “socially meaningful expression that is audible, visible or tangible or that can be articulated. A cultural object, moreover, tells a story, and that story may sung, told, set in stone, enacted, or painted on the body” (Griswold 2013:11). During my observations in Pilsen, I noticed many young White women in the area. Most of these women seemed to be in a good financial situation based on the quality and brand of clothing they wore. To further examine their lifestyles I paid close attention to any objects that essentially told a story or were a significant indicator of their culture. I noticed that on Sunday during the mid-day hours White women strolled the streets with yoga mats. This wasn’t an isolated incident, instead this was a common reoccurrence as I walked down 18th Street. A yoga mat is an odd cultural object, but nonetheless it is important to note how commonly it reoccurred. This cultural object was only used by solely White women based on my observations, and reflected a specific lifestyle.

Above: Nuevo Leon restaurant (authentic Mexican food) Below: High End Coffee Shop

Another cultural object that can be seen that is representative of the middle- and upper-middle class White lifestyle is high-end coffee shops. These high-end coffee shops began to spring up with the influx of White residents, and usually have higher prices than local coffee shops. These coffee shops just like the yoga maps are a large representative of a different community than the known Mexican-American community. A cultural object such as a high-end coffee shop can be tied to the sudden change in the cost of living, specifically through the prices, and the way the coffee shop is set up. These high-end coffee shops are very distinct in who they attract compared to other shops around Pilsen that have been in the community for prolonged periods of time. Coffee shops such as these have the ability to reveal the creators and the receivers when discussing cultural objects, and the greater community at large.

Another finding of mine was the cultural objects of the Mexican-American community, which were murals. These murals are scattered throughout all of Pilsen and illustrate the politics and social issues that Pilsen and specifically the Latino community face. This can be attributed to the great variety of “grassroots community organizations, representing a broad spectrum political perspectives, which devoted themselves primarily to struggles for better public services, education, and housing” in present and past times (Genova & Ramos-Zayas 2003:39). These cultural objects play a large role in the community of Pilsen, specifically because they vary in messages, and are reoccurring throughout the neighborhood. Some of these murals have been restored, some added, and others stripped from the walls. However, an interesting portion of murals as cultural objects is their interaction with other cultural objects and gentrification. For example, as high-end coffee shops begin to spring up, these shops are usually renovated. With renovation comes the removal of pieces such as murals; this can illustrate a fight for space that will be discussed later.

Photo a mural that depicts communities coming together, mural is located on the alley way on the side of Taqueria Los Comales on 18th St.

Lastly, some important findings were conducted through interviews. I interviewed two distinct figures in Pilsen that had varying ideas. The first was an employee of a high-end coffee shop that has worked there for quite some time. The second individual is an older woman who has lived in the community for about 50 years and has had her own store for approximately 34 years. Both of these individuals had stores that were very distinct, and did not align with each other in terms of clientele, culture, and product. Their interviews will be further discussed later in this article.

Gentrification in Sociological Terms

French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, acknowledges that a creator creates cultural objects; however, he finds that cultural objects are “collective representations. They represent not just a particular society but social experience itself” (Griswold 2013:53). Durkheim’s sociological theory stands true with what was observed in Pilsen, specifically with cultural objects like the yoga mat and the high-end coffee shops. Both of these cultural objects are representatives of a wealthier lifestyle. High-end coffee shops usually price their coffee at about $2–3 more than what is usually offered. In Pilsen, there exists coffee shops that are much more affordable. The experience of being wealthy is directly attached to the collective representation of wealthier White residents. Furthermore, yoga mats also act as a representative of an upper class lifestyle. This is due to the fact that Pilsen has had a collective identity of a working-class neighborhood despite the ethnic and racial changes. Diverging from this collective identity that has been historically established illustrates the movement of a different groups within the neighborhood. While this indicates a changing demographic it also explains why yoga mats represent the social experience of the White community. Pilsen, at the height of embodying its collective identity was known as “the poorest Mexican neighborhood in the city and ranked in the bottom fifth among the city’s most impoverished areas” (Genova & Ramos-Zayas 2003:39). Yoga is known as a leisure activity that usually requires time, and a flexible income that allows individuals to pay for yoga classes. Pilsen’s working class Mexican population has neither the time, nor the flexible income to afford the leisure activity. As a result these cultural objects are consistent with Durkheim’s idea of cultural objects as social experience.

One aspect concerning these cultural objects was the relationship they have with receivers and the social world. The creators of these cultural objects derive from cultural norms that are not included in this analysis. However, these cultural objects define the receivers. The receivers of yoga mats and high-end coffee shops are in fact middle- and upper-middle class White people. This all occurs in the social world known as Pilsen, which becomes an interesting dynamic considering that Pilsen is a Mexican neighborhood and these cultural objects do not set up the receivers as Mexicans due to the large economic differences in play. In an interview conducted with an employee at a high end coffee shop and a resident of Pilsen for five years, they stated: “Every single person who works in this shop lives in the neighborhood” and went on to say, “A lot of the folks who work in the businesses around us come in every day and get coffee” (Interview 2015). This was an interesting comment as all of the employees were White, with an exception of someone who is Asian. They all seemed to have cultural values that diverged from those in Pilsen, which furthers the claim that their receivers are a select group and not the entire community. Furthermore, all the times that I visited the coffee shop there were no Mexican or Latin Americans present, and instead the store was full of White people. It was apparent that their receivers are individuals who have recently moved in the neighborhood.

To continue the discussion surrounding these cultural objects it is clear to see that Weber’s sociological theory can be applied to the high-end coffee shops and yoga mats. Weber’s theory emphasizes, “how social structures respond to cultural meanings” and focuses on how certain cultural objects may change the social world (Griswold 2013:44). The social world in Pilsen is indeed changing due to the influx of middle class White people; however, the cultural objects in place cater to this group. The introduction of these objects in this social world caters to receivers that differ from the historically native Mexicans that inhabited this area. This is due to the relationship between power and culture. For cultural creators that develop cultural objects and implant them in a neighborhood such as Pilsen they have the opportunity to use power. If a cultural object creates a message so that “it resonates with a frame that [an] audience already possesses, they are more likely to persuade that audience to “buy” the message” (Griswold 2013:172). This relationship between power and culture can be seen in Pilsen, specifically with the changing demographics. Cultural objects that resonate with middle-class White people become implanted in areas like Pilsen, which convinces middle-class White people to move in and integrate with the area. However, these individuals have economic mobility and bring in other higher-end businesses; once they began to purchase property they price it to cater to individuals like themselves, this in turn “displaces poor-and working class residents from neighborhoods [such as Pilsen] where they have established rich networks of support among family, friends, and local businesses” (Pérez 2004). This is how gentrification begins in sociological terms, and it is imperative to understand the relation of cultural objects and audiences to fully understand gentrification.

To further illustrate the issues with economic disparities, I conducted another interview. This interview was with a Mexican woman who has lived in Pilsen for 55 years, and has owned a shop for 34 years. She states “White people have came and open up many new shops in this neighborhood…White people are currently looking for houses to buy, and in my apartment there are only White people” she goes on to say “the taxes and the insurance have skyrocketed since their arrival” (Interview 2015). However, the most interesting part was when she stated “People like me have suffered a lot, especially when gangs were present, and we withstood that. It’s not just for someone to come in and take what we have worked for and withstood” (Interview 2015). While she did not directly blame gentrification, this woman certainly made a connection to the displacement of her community.

Jail mural that discusses social and political issues

When it comes to the cultural objects such as murals, murals can be seen as a mirror, and makes it clear that “the meaning of a particular of cultural object lies in the social structures and social pattern it reflects” (Griswold 2013:23). Murals in Pilsen certainly do reflect political and social issues. In the case of this mural it is clear to see that the artist tackles on the criminalization of Brown bodies, which was prevalent prior to the beginning of gentrification. It sends a political message concerning the plight of Mexicans in Pilsen. Furthermore other murals can do the same thing such as the common immigration mural that tackles the criminalization of immigrants that was rampant in the 1960s and 1970s. These murals represent the social reality, and newer murals have even come to do so similarly. This mural directly tackles the issue of gentrification and the displacement of those in the community. However, this mural was removed. I tried to contact the owner of the warehouse it was on, but did not have the time or the resources. It makes me question weather individuals were uncomfortable with it, or the owners simply didn’t want it on their wall.

Gentrification mural as of now
original mural

Murals now seem to act as an object that can secure space. In gentrification many buildings are remodeled, however, spaces with murals are rarely remodeled. The latter serve as an object that claims space in the neighborhood and thus can be seen as a resistance strategy. This resistance to gentrification can be seen as the mirror theory that reflects the social reality at the time.

There was one thing that surprised me during my research. The first was that there seems to be no ethnic tensions amongst the Mexican/Latin American community and the White community especially with the ongoing gentrification. Most people seem to be at peace with the community. I expected some ethnic conflict due to what is occurring but could not find any during my research.

Gentrification is a real process that occurs in many areas, but especially in communities of color. While it is important to understand gentrification it is also important to understand the sociology behind it and the ways that cultural objects and individuals play a part in it. This gives individuals a better understanding of how gentrification can actually occur through sociological terms. Of course this article does not discuss every sociological aspect of gentrification but it touches on a few important ones. This project, however, does discuss how the cultural diamond (Griswold 2013) comes into play in gentrification with cultural objects, creators and receivers in a particular social world. If I could I would have done a more expansive project; this is mostly because gentrification requires extensive research and deals with other sociological issues that went beyond the scope of the seminar. This made it a bit difficult when trying to make sense of gentrification. Overall, gentrification is occurring in Pilsen and it can be seen with the interactions of cultural objects and the interaction between the two communities. One thing that is clear is that the Pilsen community does lack a large interaction within the White and Mexican/Latin American community, even though they live in the same area at the time.

Work Cited

De Genova, N., & Ramos-Zayas, A. (2003). “Latino” Locations: The Politics of Space in Chicago. In Latino crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. New York: Routledge.

Grant, B. (2003, June 17). What is Gentrification? Retrieved March 10, 2015, from

Griswold, W. (2013). Cultures and Societies in a Changing World (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

Pérez, G. (2004). Gentrification, Intrametropolitan Migration, and the Politics of Place. InThe Near Northwest Side Story Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.