Jakob Lazzaro

The Changing Face of Pilsen

by Brock Colyar, Justin Curto and Jakob Lazzaro

Situated in the Lower West Side of Chicago, Pilsen is a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. Once a haven for Czech and Polish immigrants, it is now undergoing gentrification as more young white people move to the neighborhood for cheaper property. [Justin Curto/Medill]

by Brock Colyar on March 7, 2017
When Chicago natives and visitors step off the Pink Line at 18th street, they are greeted by a sight not common to most ‘L’ stations in the city: colorful murals rather than monotone walls, and a window to buy churros rather than a typical Dunkin’ Donuts.On the streets of Pilsen, Chicago’s most prominent Mexican-American neighborhood, Hispanic music drifts out of barbershops, older women sell food on the streets and the local McDonald’s advertises chorizo burritos.However, the Mexican bakeries and tamale stands are surrounded by newer, non-Hispanic businesses such as vintage record stores and modern-looking coffee houses — an effect of Pilsen’s gradual and current gentrification.John-Jairo Betancur, a professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has conducted extensive research on gentrification in Pilsen. Unlike other gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods such as Wicker Park and Logan Square, Pilsen has not gentrified very quickly, according to Betancur — partially because of Pilsen’s industrial appearance, underground first floors and local resistance.“The neighborhood wasn’t built for gentrification,” Betancur said, due to its history as a working class neighborhood for Chicago’s transportation industry. “Nobody likes to live near smokestacks.”


Discussing the reasons Pilsen has gentrified following the entrance of artists and developers into the neighborhood in the late 1980s, Betancur said, “Accessibility is critical.” Pilsen is very close to downtown Chicago and has an abundance of options for public transportation.

“What allowed it to be gentrified is the attractiveness of the location,” Betancur said.

However, in the past years, the process of gentrification has accelerated. Betancur’s study shows a 26 percent drop in Pilsen’s Hispanic population and a 22 percent rise in its white population between 2000 and 2013.

Moreover, Pilsen has lost its categorization as a “gateway” neighborhood for immigrants. Many households are now filled with second- and third-generation Hispanics.

In Pilsen, concerns are rising in tandem with the acceleration of gentrification. This sentiment is felt among many community activists, including Byron Sigcho, the director of the Pilsen Alliance.

The Pilsen Alliance, founded in 1998, is a grassroots and non-profit organization devoted to working for the Mexican-American community’s well-being in Pilsen.

“The wave of gentrification and the forces within gentrification have changed,” Sigcho said.

Sigcho cites the increasing amount of money entering Pilsen and the area’s growing attractiveness as reasons for this change.

Sigcho explains that the Pilsen Alliance is careful not to “racialize” the issue of gentrification. Rather, they strive to preserve the neighborhood’s identity and look after its Mexican-American and working-class residents.

Sigcho said they don’t want “another segregated neighborhood.”

“We want an inclusive neighborhood,” Sigcho said. “We oppose displacement. We are not only against displacement, we are proposing revitalization or development without displacement.”

Despite the mounting problems for the community that Sigcho believes are created by politicians and the “complicit” silence of the Catholic Church, he sees hope in Pilsen’s resistance of gentrification.

“There’s not a lot of neighborhoods like Pilsen left,” Sigcho said. “Our ability to organize has helped to alleviate and push back.”

For residents of Pilsen, feelings towards these forces of gentrification are both negative and positive.

Letisha Velasquez, who lived in Pilsen for 25 years, said the amount of gang activity and violence that consumed the area when she was a child has decreased. Looking at 18th Street now, she appreciates the neighborhood’s newfound safety and its “urban upcoming.” Nevertheless, Velasquez is also bothered by the changes.

“I feel sorry for the people who are longtime residents and who can’t afford their homes anymore,” she said. “[I know] a lot of people who are scared and here illegally and who are hard workers and want to stay with their families.”

Sandra Gutierrez, a stay-at-home mother from Pilsen, has similar concerns for her husband, an undocumented immigrant.

“It’s going to be harder for me to raise six kids alone,” she said, expressing concern over how her family’s food and housing will be financed if he were to be removed from the country.

These concerns, however, stem more from recent politics rather than a fear of gentrification. Gutierrez believes that Pilsen looks “more remodeled” and “more upgraded.” Like Velasquez, she also sees safer streets and a stronger community.

“I see people more united,” Gutierrez said.

Reservations about gentrification are also present within Pilsen’s white community. Laurel Foglia moved to Pilsen a year ago after she and her partner could no longer afford their Logan Square apartment.

“We had a lot of conversations about it,” Foglia said, concerning the decision to move to Pilsen. “It felt like I was caught between myself trying to find something inexpensive and myself being a gentrifier.”

Nevertheless, the low price of the apartment she found in Pilsen encouraged her to make the move, despite the uncomfortable nature of her participation as a gentrifier.

“I can’t really justify it. I can just accept my role in a complicated situation,” Foglia said, after revealing that her apartment’s former residents were priced out.

To reconcile the situation with herself, Foglia said that she makes strong efforts to talk to her neighbors, frequent local businesses and participate in the community, in order to preserve the essence of the neighborhood.

Preserving this Mexican-American identity will remain a critical concern for groups like the Pilsen Alliance, but as Sigcho stresses, “change is always coming.” 

“As long as we are honest and we are consistent,” Sigcho said, “we will be able to maintain Pilsen’s identity and preserve what is left.”

Most of Pilsen’s businesses call 18th Street home, from restaurants and shops that have been there for decades to fairly recent coffeehouses and bars. [Justin Curto/Medill]