The towering brick buildings that cluster around where Cermak Road crosses the Chicago River in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, on the city’s near Southwest Side, once hosted everything from cloth manufacturers to food warehouses.
There’s still an industrial feel in the area, with barges floating up and down the river and trucks hurrying across a bridge on their delivery routes. The buildings, however, are mostly empty and the community is now debating how best to revitalize them.
In June, Alderman Danny Solis (25), who represents the area in Chicago's City Council, introduced an ordinance that calls for allowing "work-live units" in the buildings, where artists and small-scale producers would be able to collapse their home and professional lives into the same space.
It’s an idea he says is tied to the changing nature of Pilsen itself, a historically immigrant neighborhood that once helped form the core of Chicago's industrial economy. Now, there are fashion stores and art galleries amidst the cement makers and light industry.
The emergence of an arts-centric economy isn't new to Pilsen. It’s already the home of the National Museum of Mexican Art and a gallery row along Halsted. Over by Cermak and the river, the ex-industrial buildings have been mostly vacant during the 15 years Solis has served in City Council. The alderman argues that companies, especially industrial ones, were simply not going to locate in structures built for an entirely different economy.
What Pilsen does have, according to the alderman, is a set of residents — younger professionals, artists and "hipster types" — who need space. The work-live idea is aimed squarely at them.
"That's a very creative group, and I think their talents can be used to stimulate the economies of the neighborhoods around here," Solis says.
City Council members have shown interest in work-live as of late. This summer Aldermen Tom Tunney (44) and Joe Moreno (1) co-sponsored a bill that would make it easier for professionals to set up homes in their places of work.
Solis' legislation is a bit different in that it would cover only a small part of his ward rather than the entire city.
Significantly, should it pass in its current form, the bill would represent the first time residential uses would be allowed in any of what the city calls “planned manufacturing districts.”
When the council first created such districts in 1988, industrial jobs were bleeding out of Chicago, and factories in some parts of the city were feeling pressured by the pace of new commercial and residential developments mushrooming up around them.
The manufacturing districts were meant to give industry based in Chicago a little breathing room — sections of town where people would work but where no one, officially at least, would live.
In early 2005, the council ratified such a district for a 900-acre swath of Pilsen, including the land around Cermak and the river. Back then, as Solis recalls it, the housing boom was full-on, and developers were looking for opportunities in his ward, especially along the river. The worry was, once again, residences would replace employers.
"I think a lot of people were looking at this great asset we had, the Chicago River, and envisioning town homes and condos on along the river," he says. "And so that kind of pushed the necessity to make it pretty clear to a lot of people with ownership along the river … that this was going to be maintained as a manufacturing community."
City of Chicago planners agree with the alderman's vision for the area — to a certain degree.
In 2008, the city council amended the Pilsen manufacturing designation to allow more commercial businesses in the industrial buildings around Cermak and the river. The amendment allowed artists and small entertainment venues to set up shop, but it still did not allow those venues to double as residential spaces. Later, one building was zoned for a hotel. The whole area was branded as a Creative Industry District, with the hope of attracting arts-related businesses.
Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, however, says that permitting residences in a manufacturing district is a bridge too far. The department is recommending against Solis' ordinance. It doesn’t like that the bill is written for a single ward. And there are concerns about what happens when homes and industry are adjacent to each other. "The uses don't necessarily get along very well," Strazzabosco says. "When residences encroach on manufacturing areas, the residents sometimes complain about sounds, smells, traffic."
Just to the south of Cermak Road, Ozinga Bros., Inc. runs a busy facility, offloading raw materials from barges on the river for its concrete products and sending them out in red trucks that rumble in and out of the gates. One of the last, larger industrial facilities in the eastern side of the Pilsen manufacturing district, the Ozinga operation is south of two of the buildings Solis is targeting to become work-live.
Thomas Van Etten, the company's president, is skeptical of the idea, saying it "just doesn't make sense." He worries about complaints people might levy about his trucks. Sometimes work starts at the site at 5 a.m. and doesn’t end until 11 p.m. "I picture a husband and wife across the street from us," he says. "It would be dreadful."
Lauren Pacheco, co-founder of the Chicago Urban Arts Society, an art gallery over by Cermak and Halsted, is enthusiastic about adding work-live options in Pilsen. She’s not an artist herself, but says she knows a number of people who already live in their studio spaces or are practicing art out of their homes. “Creatives,” she says, need options to practice their craft.
But any roll-out of the idea would have to be done right, according to Pacheco — you don’t want to create an apartment complex, and the units need to be accessible.
"If you're going to explore live-work options, you really need to be able to accommodate … those academic types who just graduated from school, so they can continue their work," she says. "But you also have to look at creatives who aren't academically trained, who are seeing affordable space and the opportunity to continue their practice."
In the neighborhood just north of Cermak and the river, a number of residents interviewed had not heard about the possibility of adding housing in the old structures. Some, like Wally Lockard, a resident of the area since the 1960s, thought it was a good idea. “Why not do something with them,” he says of the buildings, “and put some economy back in the neighborhood?”
Regardless of whether the council ultimately signs off on Solis' original idea for work-live or another version of it, some arts-centric projects — and other businesses for that matter — are already filling up some of the buildings around Cermak and the river.
Matthew Johnson, who has run a martial arts studio in 500 W. Cermak since 2007, says he is of two minds when it comes to adding residential to the building. A Chinatown resident, Johnson says he’d even consider taking advantage of the work-live option should it occur.
But he also likes the building as it exists — a little rough around the edges but affordable at a $1 a square foot. Johnson also talks about a kind of mutual respect among some of the existing tenants in the building, describing the ease with which he was able to get a woodworker and musician occupying a space beneath his to not start band practice until one of his classes ended. That could get harder if there was residential, he says. And he wonders if residential units would drive up building rents.
“These buildings are perfect for that sort of thing,” Johnson says. “I think that would be a good thing, again, you know, provided it would stay affordable for the people that would be renting. It’s always been my sort of fear that what would happen is that these places would basically go condo, and you had to buy a unit, and the rental aspect, you know, the artists, would be pushed out even further from this area.”
Another tenant in 500 W. Cermak is the Object Design League. The group, says co-founder Caroline Linder, showcases Chicago designers, operates a wood shop and is launching an online store from a 740 square-foot space in the building.
She says she wouldn't mind if the structure offered work-live units. But anyone wanting to live in what she calls a 24-hour environment should come prepared.
"There's going to be loud music, there's going to be machines going, though not that frequently," Linder says. "The boundary between work and residential is gone, so it's kind of messy all over."
Pablo Sanches & Watch TV, "Sunstar", from the album Nicodemus Presents Turntables on the Hudson Vol. 8 (ESL/Wonderwheel)