Pilsen proposes historic landmark to slow gentrification


Mackenzie Murtaugh / The DePaulia

Pilsen has seen the opening of trendy spots that invite people with a higher income, including Pinwheel Records which opened in 2015.

Gentrification across Chicago could potentially slow down in the Pilsen neighborhood. On Thursday, May 16, the Chicago Landmarks Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend a proposal to turn a 1.5-mile stretch on 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood into a historic landmark. The plan will now go to City Council’s Zoning Committee.

The yearslong activism to slow down gentrification in the Pilsen community has been aided by both DePaul’s Chair of the Geography Department Winifred Curran and Professor of the Geography department Euan Hague.

“Gentrification has long faced community backlash. One critical element is that there is a lack of respect by developers, investors and new residents from finding a hot new neighborhood,” Hague said. “It’s a disregard of the lives that previous residents have made in the neighborhood previously. People feel a loss of control over their neighborhood.”

Both professors have been part of this activist movement since the early 2000s by helping the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization that fights for public education, affordable housing and government accountability. Curran mentioned that after doing some research in their academic studies on Pilsen, they had discovered useful policy tools that could slow down gentrification. They felt a responsibility to do something about it.

To help the organization, both professors research and provide relevant information to either figure out which buildings are being considered for either renovation or razing or how to combat any movements made to further gentrify the neighborhood.

“I think some of the technical aspects such as zoning laws, historic preservation policy, city ordinances that control urban development were not necessarily understood,” Hague said. “We’re teachers, we’re educators, so one of the things we always try to do is help people in the neighborhood through the Pilsen Alliance seeking answers to questions.”

Gentrification is the phenomena of a low-income neighborhood that becomes targeted because of the easy renovation of the neighborhood into a high value neighborhood to reap the benefits. According to both professors, Logan Square, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Uptown and Bronzeville have become successfully gentrified.

“The location is one of the main reasons it’s such a target. It’s close to public transit, it’s close to highways, it’s relatively close to the Loop,” Curran said in reference to Pilsen. “The current Mexican identify which used to be something that people used to stay away. Once it became clear that Pilsen wasn’t going to be a Mexican neighborhood, city developers tried to turn it into something to use to their advantage and be a tourist version of a Mexican neighborhood.”

With the growth of gentrification throughout the city, the core experience of gentrification, according to Curran, is displacement. This displacement, to both professors, is interconnected to other factors in the economy.

On April 10, WalletHub published a study on the diversity of U.S cities. This diversity did not include just cultural diversity but also economic, socioeconomic and household diversity. Chicago scored seventh overall among large cities.

In the study, a score of 250 indicated an average result among 501 of the largest cities. Although Chicago scored high in cultural diversity with a score of 39 and socioeconomic diversity with 90, Chicago’s scores in economic and household diversity scored average.

The bulk of the study was reporting only the results found, without an explanation for the “why” in each result. Curran highlighted a problem in what many of these studies miss in these reports.

“It’s how we rank and what we’re ranking. Obviously, Chicago is a diverse city but it’s not an integrated city,” she said. “You’ve got lots of different people from different backgrounds that live in Chicago, but they’re living with people that look like them. That segregation in of itself hurts the economy; it costs Chicago to be as segregated as it is.”

One argued discrepancy between what WalletHub reported and what missed the underlying issue in Chicago is educational attainment, which received a score of 43.

“Just like with housing, you have a legacy of differential schooling. In the public school system, you have two systems,” Hague said. “In one, you have some of the highest-ranked schools in the North Side and the lowest rated in the South Side. What we’re seeing now in Chicago is the concentration of people in certain neighborhoods that have certain amenities. This group is often called ‘the creative class.’”

Alexandria Corriveau, a resource coordinator in charge of managing the budget from state grants for after school programs at McCormick Elementary School, felt that score was not representative of the state of education in the Little Village neighborhood.

“I do not see that reflected in our community. Less than 25 percent of residents in Little Village have a college degree. Only half [have] a high school degree. Educational attainment is really low in Little Village,” she said. “A significant amount of Little Village residents are immigrants, and that really affects educational attainment.” 

Corriveau said she thinks it is possible to be optimistic.

“Public schools are funded by property taxes, and when you’re in a low-income neighborhood like Little Village that isn’t bringing in a lot of money to education, with grants we’re pouring money into our schools,” she said. “We’re able to provide quality programs that students and families are interested in. It’s a big step in achieving grassroot change that we want to see in the community.”

Hague stressed the importance of awareness of the issues affecting Chicago’s communities with numerous urban problems in his classes.

“Unless you’re aware of this history and study it, you don’t really think about it. Especially for young people,” he said. “It’s important to remember how our cities and housing markets were like. The legacy of housing discrimination is with us.”

Pilsen’s landmark proposal could potentially transform 850 buildings and numerous murals on 18th street into landmarks, making it one of the city’s largest historic districts.