At the Pink Line 18th Street Station, street art dances upon otherwise ordinary concrete walls. The Virgin Mary, enveloped in strokes of yellow, rests in prayer upon the side of a wall. Vibrant colors overwhelm the sides of brownstones, depicting women dancing in traditional Mexican dress and blue and white stripes that border four red stars, in a rendition of Chicago’s flag.
This is art that waves bienvenidos – welcome.
Just a block over from these murals looms a plain brick building, four windows tall and eight across. It is distinct in its monotony: it is the mold for the developments that continue to crop up in Pilsen.
Jordan Swanson moved to Pilsen two months ago. She lives in an apartment building that sits above a Wells Fargo. Swanson graduated from Columbia College Chicago last year with a degree in television production and direction and currently freelances, creating music videos and audio recordings for Chicago dancers and musicians.
“I lived in Humboldt Park before, but it was a little bit dangerous so we wanted to look for cheap living that had a little bit of a better neighborhood,” Swanson says, of herself and her roommates. “Pilsen just seemed very lively and nice.”
Pilsen’s latest development trend is precisely what attracted Swanson: affordable new buildings that are completely devoid of the neighborhood’s rich history. While young people may not intentionally aim to transform historically ethnic neighborhoods like Pilsen, their migration creates a lasting impact.
Like any neighborhood, rising rents play a key factor in the gentrifcation of Pilsen. The number of units in Pilsen’s top rent category – $1,500 or more per month – grew by 55 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census. Rising rents hit working-class, predominantly Mexican residents the hardest. In 2016, 42.1 percent of Pilsen residents spent 35 percent or more of their household income on rent. This designates households as rent burdened, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.
Juliana Iturralde, a Communications sophomore, has witnessed this disparity first hand. She spent her childhood in Pilsen before heading to Evanston last year. Iturralde has seen neighbors forced out due to rising property taxes and a steep hike in expenses. She traces the transition to her sophomore year of high school. Small businesses and segundas – family-owned second-hand retailers – gave way to “hipster” coffee shops and high-end thrift stores that “would resell things that cost more than what people pay for new things in my neighborhood,” Iturralde says.
Meanwhile, the amount of wealth in Evanston shocked Iturralde. Though she had attended magnet schools in the city attended by rich, white kids, Northwestern still surprised her.
“Living in a suburb like Evanston, where everything is so expensive and so white, was just like a culture shock to me,” Iturralde says. “I didn’t expect it.”
A phenomenon called intimate segregation occurs in the midst of gentrification.
In neighborhoods like Pilsen, residents live in close quarters but might never interact with one another. Financially comfortable post-grads like Swanson create alternate “communities” within such neighborhoods that attract luxury business and exclude existing working-class residents, who are often people of color. Such businesses appeal to the millennial taste and average income bracket: young people who can’t quite afford a place in River North, but have the cash for new buildings in Pilsen.
“Each of us as individuals has to live somewhere and has to make an individual choice about where we can afford to live, given we want to have a little disposable income,” says Mary Pattillo, Northwestern’s Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies. “It’s not that you have individual bad guys who are trying to displace somebody. But the aggregation of our decisions, which are not usually malicious decisions, creates the kinds of outcomes that we’re talking about.”
When a flood of incoming millennials move in, they set the stage for new housing developments — the physical gauge of gentrification, says Byron Sigcho, director of the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization focused on developing grassroots leadership in Chicago’s Lower West Side working class and immigrant communities.
Apartment complexes akin to Park Evanston and E2 now swell the streets of Pilsen, taking over huge blocks of the neighborhood, breaking up the cultural homogeneity of the community.
“[Development] is not in itself a bad idea as long as you have a balance,” Sigcho says. “But if that’s all you propose, well obviously, you have a massive effect on everyone else. You have not developed a balanced economy. You have not developed a sustainable economy. You are creating bubbles. I think it creates a false narrative and a false notion of development that all, sooner or later, is going to crash.”
Real-estate agents often approach Iturralde’s father, she says, taking the UIC Leadership Coach out to dinner and propositioning him to sell his house. They set out to buy such properties and ip them for higher prices. It’s not too different from the specialty thrift shops that resell clothes at a much higher price tag than the segundas .
“You’ll see people photographing stuff to plan the new developments that they’re going to be building,” Iturradle says.
While gentrification is often labelled as an infiltration of whiteness, the reality of these newcomers’ identities is complex. The residents of these new developments are often considered white in the sense that they have more money and occupy a different social sphere, Pattillo says. Even when new inhabitants are people of color, whiteness is a stand in for not being Mexican and not being working class. According to U.S. Census data, Pilsen lost over 6,000 Mexican residents between 2012 and 2016.
“People are not totally off-base to see the Mexican core of Pilsen being threatened by newcomers,” Pattillo says. “Even if they’re not white, they may not be Mexican. And that in and of itself dilutes the Mexican predominance.”
Swanson frequents the flower shops and savors fresh fruit from the local markets near her home. She says she doesn’t see much gentrification in Pilsen, “other than [herself].” Iturralde, however, notices it in more than Swanson – she sees it in the coffee shops and the people who remind her of her life at Northwestern.
“Anyone who does move in that is marketable to be your ‘friendly neighbor’ kind of makes it more appealing for other people to come in and further gentrify it,” Iturralde says. “It’s kind of scary. Like, every time I go back to my neighborhood, it’s like a little less like it used to be before.”
Neighborhoods change, Pattillo says. For example, Lincoln Park used to be predominantly Puerto Rican, and “Pilsen” itself is a Czech name from the Bohemians who first settled the area.
“The only way to interrupt this process requires very aggressive public policy intervention, because the private market is not going to do it,” Pattillo says. “The history tells us that the city also does not do it. What means it doesn’t get done. It requires really radically rethinking housing, for example, to stop the kinds of changes that we’re talking about.”