Pilsen Landmark Designation Is Dead Amidst Opposition From Residents

Pilsen Street
An attempt to create a Pilsen landmark district died in Chicago's city council Tuesday. Courtesy of Sumner_/Creative Commons
Pilsen Street
An attempt to create a Pilsen landmark district died in Chicago's city council Tuesday. Courtesy of Sumner_/Creative Commons

Pilsen Landmark Designation Is Dead Amidst Opposition From Residents

The Chicago City Council zoning committee unanimously voted to reject a controversial landmark ordinance on Tuesday.

The Pilsen Historical Landmark ordinance was proposed two years ago in an effort to protect hundreds of “Bohemian Baroque” structures along 14 blocks of 18th Street built between 1875 and 1910. The ordinance would have protected 465 buildings stretching from Sangamon Street west along 18th Street ending on Leavitt Street. This would have been the city’s first in a Latino neighborhood.

“I think it is clear that we are not only doing the right thing by democratically listening to my constituents — over 500 residents, that’s unpresidented in terms of community engagement — but we also have the support of experts in the field,” said Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents Pilsen and campaigned on an anti-gentrification platform.

Sigcho-Lopez said some of the analysis has been focused on preserving buildings, not the people who live in them.

“I think what my constituents are worried about is not only the people but the social fabric of a beautiful thriving community,” he said.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks introduced the landmark recommendation in December 2018, part of an effort to stop the demolition of historic buildings. That allowed the city to reject 13 demolition permits over the last two years, city officials told the committee during Tuesday’s meeting. Another 90 buildings have been demolished in the neighborhood over the last 14 years.

Sigcho-Lopez acknowledged that a growing number of demolitions were a problem. Rather than supporting the landmark designation he introduced a six-month demolition moratorium, but that was rejected by the committee.

For months, Pilsen residents have been organizing against the designation. They’ve organized protests in the community to inform other residents and outside the homes of the aldermen that are part of the zoning committee. And Sigcho-Lopez said about 500 property owners in Pilsen submitted written opposition to the plan.

Adriana Diaz, a Pilsen resident, spoke against the ordinance at Tuesday’s zoning committee meeting. Her parents moved to a house in the neighborhood in 1957. Her 85-year-old mother still lives in that house.

“Pilsen was a welcoming community to Mexican immigrants,” Diaz said, adding that the only reason her parents were able to move there was because white Czech immigrants that built the housing stock were moving out to the suburbs. “My parents lived in Pilsen before it was trendy, and it was labeled blighted.”

Diaz said she worried the landmark designation would speed up gentrification.

“A seemingly innocuous policy such as this one is at its core insidious in nature, because it only exacerbates the gentrification process. Let’s be clear: Why are we valuing bohemian-inspired over people’s lives?” she said.

Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox told the committee that residents overwhelmingly did not support the designation. Cox said the planning department held a series of virtual community meetings.

Alderman James Cappleman said he was concerned residents did not understand how the designation worked.

“My concern is that this is not an informed decision” Cappleman said before voting against the designation.

Since 2000, the Latino population in Pilsen has declined by more than 14,000, according to the most recent census data. And the number of households earning less than $50,000 a year has declined by 1,700, while the number of households earning $50,000 a year or more has increased by 1,700.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.