Pilsen residents prepare for a gentrification wave through example of the South Loop

May 13, 2016

Once underinvested and unappreciated, urban areas around the nation are slowly becoming unrecognizable versions of their former selves. Affordable and spacious houses have become small one bedroom apartments with rents above $1,000. Local coffee shops and eateries have been run over by Starbucks and McDonald’s. Streets once filled with hundreds of children and families are now filled with hip youngsters with high aspirations. Chicago is no exception to these changes, although it uniquely has a multitude of different versions of it. South Prairie Avenue’s famous mansions reflect the South Loop, a neighborhood that has gentrified rapidly from railroads to the upper-middle class neighborhood that it is today. Less than two miles West, Pilsen/Little Village, of the Lower West Side, is undergoing a rougher gentrification facing plenty of opposition.

Walking past Peter Cooper Public School, Arturo Garza and his friend see hundreds of Mexican children excitedly approaching their parents. The two observe as the families go to local Taquerias for lunch, enjoying some of the best Mexican food in the city. The crowd, as vibrant as ever, is strolling up and down 18th street in Pilsen as if it is Michigan Avenue. Garza’s friend turns to him and asks, “What is this? Is this a parade?” “No,” he replies. “All of these people live here.”

23 years later, gentrification has hit Pilsen. Arturo Garza, a real estate broker in Pilsen, is now 55. “The inertia of gentrification is relentless. Money is relentless.” he said. “They mail me asking if I’m ready to sell every week. They want this land.”

According to Garza, Pilsen used to be 100% Mexican. All of his friends, renters and colleagues were Mexican. Now, the story is not the same. “Mexican, Airbnb, two lesbians, single white guy, Russian, 4 white people and a Pakistani.” Garza’s friend and coworker Alberto Gonzalez said. “Those are my renters right now. 20 years ago you couldn’t find a single non-immigrant.”

The average rent for an apartment with large living rooms and small bedrooms (for immigrant workers with families) in Pilsen in the 90s was only $200. Today, small 1 bedroom Pilsen apartments average a rent of $850-$900. “Now the rents are so high up north, that all of the white and LGBTQ people are coming down south and increasing our rents.” Garza said. “They ran out of northside. Now it’s just another white neighborhood with snobby people.”

Pilsen residents, however, are not ready for their neighborhood to become another Brooklyn, a prime example of gentrification. Anti-gentrification signs appear frequently at Bow Truss coffee shop on 18th street, reading: “White people out of Pilsen!” or “Fresh roasted gentrification served here!”

Residents have not only gone to the streets to protest, but have also taken a political approach. Pilsen Alliance is one of many social justice organizations fighting for Pilsen against gentrification. “This is the community we like to protect.” Byron Sigcho, Executive Director of the Pilsen Alliance said. “We see many people moving into Pilsen. What’s crazy is that the residents who created this neighborhood are struggling to stay in the neighborhood. It’s sad to see them run out of options to stay in the community that they grew up in.”

While many Pilsen residents are outraged by the recent gentrification in their neighborhood, 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis maintains that it is beneficial for the city. “The city’s finances will be stronger now, and hence more investment will come to the city’s neighborhoods like Pilsen,” Solis told Gazette Chicago. “Pilsen can both respect its traditions and grow more prosperous if we work together.” He cites Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development’s plan to address property owners’ concerns, from residential affordability to home improvement resources. The plan calls for working with community-based organizations, such as Pilsen Alliance, which will help collect data, do analysis, and conduct focus groups with residents to develop plans and recommendations to improve the neighborhood.

Although Solis is a strong advocate for the initiatives, Pilsen Alliance is not buying it. “We are completely opposite with the Alderman. Those kind of projects that [he] is approving are going to devastate the lives of residents by price of rent,” Sigcho said. “Obviously we welcome change and diversity, but what is happening is not diversity. It’s not inclusion. It’s displacement.”
Fortunately, gentrification has not affected the South Loop the way it has plagued Pilsen; In fact, residents of the South Loop have never quite been a victim of it.

“Gentrification is just not part of the story in the South Loop,” remarked Dennis McClendon, the Director of Planning and Development at South Loop Neighbors, a non-profit organization concerned with protecting residential and pedestrian interests through the preservation of landmark districts. “We were very proud of being urban pioneers who were reusing parts of the city that had been discarded, such as all the vacant rail yards and buildings. We’re very pleased to revitalize the city without pushing anyone out.”

Forty years ago, South Loop was merely a void within the confines of an industrial sector. The neighborhood then began to change as investors determined that its proximity to the downtown area, which boasts a formidable financial district, various cultural landmarks and Lake Michigan, could hold serious potential for residential development. When Central Station extended its railroads into South Loop, the push for development was firmly legitimized. Pricey apartment units and lofts rapidly sprung up in order to cater to the bevy of young professionals that began to settle into the area. Following these entrepreneurial youngsters were a number of upper-middle class families that have taken up residence in many of the townhouses that the South Loop offers.

Architect Preethi Srikanth, who recently moved into the neighborhood with her husband and two children, embodies the sort of person that South Loop has come to attract. “Proximity to my workplace was the biggest influence in making this decision,” Srikanth said. “I think I made a right choice.”

As rampant development continued onwards into the new millennium, McClendon and his adversaries at the South Loop Neighbors began to promote a plan to put a halt to it all before things got out of hand. However, these efforts for the most part have been fruitless.
“We have a city neighborhood plan called the Near South Community Plan which was developed in 2004, but the city has been pretty steadfastly ignoring it ever since,” said McClendon. “We’re not quite sure what the future holds because the administration really wants to capitalize on the prosperity of the downtown neighborhoods like ours.”

What this eventually led to was the housing crisis of the 2000s, which ultimately caused what is now known as the Great Recession. During the recession, the developments thankfully slowed down. However, after the recession concluded, the rapid growth continued where it left off, which has continued to cause worries. Even more concerning is the fact that recently elected Alderman Dowell does not seem committed to assisting South Loop Neighbors achieves their goals.

“We’re a little concerned about our plan that we worked so hard to get,” remarked McClendon. “Our only firebreak is to get our alderman to pay attention to it. We have begun that conversation with her and she seemed noncommittal. She wanted to talk with planning staff beforehand.”

Although disappointed, McClendon still has high hopes for his community. “As long as they’re not tearing anything down,” he said, “It seems as if the sky’s the limit these days in the South loop.”

Gentrification has been the catalyst of political activism throughout neighborhoods like Pilsen and the South Loop. Although Aldermen and other City officials maintain that gentrification is overall positive and will lead to an increase in neighborhood wealth, groups like Pilsen Alliance is just one example of communities getting together to resist the rapid change of their neighborhoods. On the other side of the spectrum are groups like South Loop Neighbors, who have accepted the growth of their communities and are working with officials to make gentrification pleasant for its residents. As gentrification continues to progress, residents will have two choices: continue the political battle or embrace the development of their neighborhood.

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