Chicago’s neighborhoods have been changing for generations, but the latest wave of gentrification is causing turmoil in Pilsen on the southwest side where longtime residents fed up with high-end restaurant openings and creeping tax and rent increases have continued fighting back against what some see as an inevitability for the longtime Hispanic stronghold originally founded by Czech immigrants at the turn of the century.
In the latest acts of rebellion against surging gentrification, a group of activists squared off Sunday night with operators of the new S.K.Y Restaurant on Allport and 18th St. which opens officially Nov. 17, telling manager Charles Ford that the restaurant’s presence was “putting their lives in danger” before telling him and customers to “go fuck themselves” and “get the fuck out”. Monday night, the words ‘Get Out’ were spray painted over the windows of Dusek’s across the street, part of Thalia Hall.
The pushback towards the gradually-changing trend of the neighborhood has been ongoing, and seems to be getting more aggressive as new taxes and higher rents start to become a reality for an area that has largely served as a home for the city’s working class and immigrant populations, mostly Hispanic. Back in 2014 and 2015, graffiti was found on the windows of Bow Truss Coffeeshop in what was seen as an early battle in the gentrification war of Pilsen. Painted words reading “Pilsen is not for sale” and “white people get out” are regularities around the area, which can be interpreted several ways.
While the “activists” that squared off with S.K.Y may have had good intentions, the young twenty-somethings and teens led with emotion rather than strategy in showing up in masks and declaring that the restaurant’s location “puts their lives at risk”. More important to the neighborhood than eateries or concert venues in driving up rent and tax prices that could potentially force them to find new places in the city to live, is the fact that one of the central tenants of their perceived home is the the actual villain helping to move gentrification along stronger than ever. See, churches has been one of the largest owners of land in Pilsen since the 19th Century when it was founded. Between early Czech immigrants and later Hispanic residents, the area has been populated by countless churches which today stand in various states of upkeep. Because of dwindling attendances and decreased relevance, many churches have been forced to close or sell off land and assets. In February of last year the Archdiocese made the decision to close St. Adalbert’s Church at 1650 W. 17th St. The 115-year old church with 185-foot towers which have been surrounded by scaffolding for years and have a reported $3 million price tag to fix, plus the fact that no less than four other churches exist within blocks of it. Parishioners have protested in the last couple of years to keep condos from going in and last year it was announced that the Chicago Academy of Music has agreed to purchase the property. While that sale eventually worked out in the neighborhood’s favor, the overwhelming amount of land that is owned in Pilsen by churches eager to sell could well prove to be the biggest threat to what sort of developments are realized there in the near future. That many of these same churches are supported by the same families and residents that are often highlighted protesting gentrification makes for a more muddled conversation than either side likes to admit.
Likewise, the speculation on the Near West Side is not without typically predatory tactics from those looking to turn a buck and turn it into another cookie-cutter of high-end coffeeshops and boutiques no one can afford to shop at a la Wicker Park and the West Loop. The longtime arts-based neighborhood which hosts a monthly Art Walk along Halsted Street on the second Friday of every month was rocked by the purchase of the iconic APO building, a haven for artists and young adults, as well as the nearby Casa Aztlan Community Center which was foreclosed in 2012. Both victims of speculative purchasing that is beginning to rear its head such as this past year when added garbage and beautification taxes were added. While there’s a litany of reasons and was to handle the creeping gentrification in Pilsen, it’s important to understand that people’s lives are being affected and with that, frustrations are bound to arise.
With that in mind, a more open-faced discussion is absolutely necessary. The emotions of current and longstanding Pilsen residents should by no means be disregarded; what they are dealing with and what they’ve seen elsewhere in the city underlines that fact. However, there are more constructive ways to deal with what happens moving forward than defacing businesses which, ultimately, will simply clean off the paint and continue operation. What should be discussed is the amount of affordable housing new developers are adding to the area without paying loophole fines to get out of it, or taking a deeper dive into things like rent control that allow breaks for those of us not in the six-figure range. As a Pilsen resident for the last three years, I’ve seen the most recent changes and try to be empathetic to the feelings of my neighbors and those near me, shop in the neighborhood and eat and mom and pop places, but regardless it’s not going to stop the flow of bodies around the city.
It’s a beaten-down sentiment, but Pilsen was originally a Czech neighborhood and has transitioned several times throughout it’s lengthy history as on of the only spaces to not be touched by the Great Fire. You can literally see the generations go by as you walk down 18th Street and lately the neighborhood is preparing for yet another change. All of us, regardless of background or ethnicity should do our best to make sure that doesn’t come at the cost of anyone’s well-being.