Over the last 14 years, 90 buildings have been demolished in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Two years ago, city officials proposed an historic landmark district to protect hundreds of “Bohemian Baroque” structures along 18th Street that were built between 1875 and 1910. The pending district restricts what property owners can do to the facades of hundreds of buildings. If approved, the district would be the city’s first in a Latino neighborhood.
City officials say the district will help preserve the neighborhood’s history — and offer some protection from the effects of gentrification.
“When I come to Pilsen, I come with a very different lens than how preservation districts have been used,” Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said in a recent virtual meeting. “I see them as a tool of empowerment, and we’re here to work with residents.”
Cox and his staff shared an alternative plan that tries to tackle community concerns about displacement. It would protect 465 buildings stretching from Sangamon Street west along 18th Street ending on Leavitt Street. A new financial resource for residents was also included — $3 million for Pilsen and Little Village residents to help pay for repairs.
But some residents remain steadfast in their opposition to the district. They say the designation might save the buildings, but it will displace working-class families.
The threat of gentrification is very real for many long-time Pilsen residents. They’ve seen it up close. And it’s through that lens that they judge the city’s intentions.
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.
“Many families are facing very difficult times. This pandemic is making matters worse, and the city is only adding to already burdened families, like my mom,” said Pilsen resident Vicky Lugo during a recent protest against the designation. “It’s pushing low-income families out of Pilsen.”
Pilsen has been home to waves of working-class immigrants.
Czech immigrants rebuilt the neighborhood after the Great Chicago fire. These immigrants built structures described as “Bohemian Baroque,” which has unusual shaped parapets, carved stone lintents and other decorative patterns in the brickwork, according to a 120-page city report.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood started to change when many European immigrants moved to the suburbs and Mexican immigrants started to move in. By 1970, Mexican-born residents accounted for half of Pilsen’s population. New businesses started opening to accommodate the new population.
Carnitas Uruapan, a restaurant, was among them.
Marcos Carbajal’s father immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico in 1969. By 1975, his father opened Carnitas Uruapan, and it’s still open.
Carbajal questions whether the designation will displace people who can’t afford to keep up with rising costs.
Earlier this year, Carbajal tried to get a permit to update a sign. But the process cost him more than expected because of the pending historical landmark designation.
“Something that was supposed to be a $150 dollar permit renewal morphed into a $3,000 expense,” Carbajal said, adding that he had to hire a permit expediter to help him navigate the new restrictions.
He fears the bureaucracy could be used to push residents out.
“There’s now going to be more red tape around getting building permits and navigating a committee for approval for any changes to my building beyond the scope of what my neighbors might have to deal with just because my building is a baroque-style building from a certain era and a building across the street or next door to me might not be,” he said.
Carbajal is not alone. More than 400 property owners have signed affidavits opposing the landmark designation. And dozens have organized protests. On a recent Monday evening, a caravan of cars took over 18th Street honking for a couple of blocks.
Some residents say the city is not listening to them and that the designation will be used against them. They fear that the city will use code enforcement to go after older structures that need repairs.
The use of code enforcement has contributed to the displacement of people of color in gentrifying neighborhoods of other cities.
Stacey Sutton, an urban planning associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she’s documented how land-use policies and code enforcement were used to displace a Black business owner in the Fort Greene neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
“The city used building code enforcement to put pressure on small business owners to the point some business owners had to close because they couldn’t afford the fines and fees. So we know that’s something that happens,” Sutton said.
Decades ago, as the racial identity of many Pilsen residents changed, so did the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Chicago artists were influenced by the Mexican mural movement in the 1920s, including murals by Mexican muralists like José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. These Chicago artists, including Mario Castillo, brought these types of murals to Pilsen.
Among the neighborhood’s most celebrated murals were the ones that adorned the former community center Casa Aztlán, which fostered arts and education and also housed a health clinic run by the Brown Berets. Chicago artist Ray Patlán painted the building with dozens of artists and young community members.
Patlán painted portraits of community members along with icons from Mexico and Latin America, including Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and Argentinian leftist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Patlán was inspired to paint the political message after meeting Mexican muralist Siqueiros.
In 2017, City Pads LLC painted over the façade of Casa Aztlán. The property had been auctioned off years earlier because of unpaid debts, the Chicago Tribune reported. When the building’s vibrant murals were painted grey, community members were outraged.
The city says it wants to protect the neighborhood’s existing murals because many of the original murals have been destroyed.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks introduced the landmark recommendation in December 2018. That was just before a chaotic time in the 25th Ward. Former Ald. Danny Solis, who had been involved with the initial process, disappeared in early 2019 as allegations surfaced that he helped federal authorities investigate fellow Illinois politicians.
Incoming Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who was elected in April 2019, opposed the designation. In August, Sigcho-Lopez, who serves on the city’s zoning committee, was able to get a six-month extension on the designation. He remains opposed to the historic landmark district and is now pushing for the zoning committee to vote on the measure. If the committee doesn’t vote it down, the designation will automatically become law next February.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.