Lori Rotenberk is a Chicago-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Newsweek, Grist, and several other publications.
The new plan to landmark Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood aims to protect more than just buildings: It’s designed to curb gentrification.
CHICAGO—Eleazar Delgado watched the transformation of the Pilsen neighborhood from the storefront windows of Cafe Jumping Bean, the bustling coffee shop he opened on 18th Street in 1994. Back in the 1990s, he said, there were a handful of bakeries and taco bars. Gangs ran the neighborhood; gunshots rang through the night.
Delgado, a former bike messenger, opened the cafe as a gathering place for the artists then gravitating to Pilsen, home to the largest community of Mexican-Americans in the Midwest. “I wanted to make a place like those we had in Mexico,” he said.
Drawn by the vibe and low rents, a wave of newcomers began to arrive here around in the early 2000s; art galleries and music venues opened, and upscale restaurants followed. In 2018, Forbes called Pilsen “One of the 12 Coolest Neighborhoods in the World.” The change has been good for Delgado’s business—he opened a second cafe a few blocks away—but it has come at a price. “Now the neighborhood is lively from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said. “People are out jogging and walking their dogs. But at the same time, the rents are insane. I’m losing customers I’ve had for years because they can’t afford living here.”
Since 2000, an estimated 10,300 Hispanic residents have left this neighborhood just southwest of Chicago’s Loop, according to a 2016 study by University of Illinois at Chicago urban planning professor John Betancur. Meanwhile, the number of whites grew by 22 percent, from 3,587 in 2000 to 4,385 in 2013.
“We all understand change and development, but these are staggering numbers,” said new 25th Ward alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who was previously the executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots organization that has fought displacement. “Property taxes, for example, that were once $1,500 a year are now $4,000.”
Stories circulate about elderly residents forced to put out for ads for roommates and developers cold-calling longtime homeowners with $800,000 offers for houses worth $20,000 two decades ago. Perhaps the most vivid sign of the neighborhood’s transformation happened in 2017, when Casa Aztlan, a Hispanic community center, was converted to market-priced condos by a developer who removed the historic murals of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata that had adorned the building.
Many fear that gentrification could pick up even more momentum if El Paseo (“The Walk”), a proposed bike and pedestrian trail, opens in a few years on a four-mile stretch of rail line. The 606, a similar trail project on the city’s Northwest side, hastened gentrification in adjacent neighborhoods, and it’s a blueprint neither the city nor Pilsen activists want to duplicate.
In an effort to put the brakes on displacement, last month the city’s Landmarks Commission advanced a proposal to designate a 1.5-mile stretch of 18th Street—Pilsen’s main retail corridor—a Historic Landmark District. The plan would not only protect more than 800 late-19th century homes and businesses on the strip from being torn down and redeveloped: It covers the dozens of murals that have become icons of the neighborhood, painted by the likes of Hector Duarte, Mario Castillo, and Jeff Maldonago. If approved, the historic district would become one of Chicago’s largest.
Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, described the proposal as “a holistic preservation plan, not a growth plan,” that would honor both the Eastern European immigrants who settled here in the 1870s and the Mexican-Americans who arrived a century later. He thinks the city’s plan could be a model both for other Chicago neighborhoods and others nationally.
Using historic preservation to preserve affordability isn’t unheard of, but landmarking has something of a reputation for hastening gentrification, not halting it. In New York City, for example, researchers found that neighborhoods grew more affluent after historic designations; current efforts to establish a historic district in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood involve fierce debates over displacement fears. But the Pilsen plan aims to protect both the neighborhood’s cultural fabric and the existing residents who are living in it: Woven into the landmark district is a pilot Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) requiring developers of larger residential projects to set at least 20 percent of their units for lower-income residents. (The citywide ARO is 10 percent.)
Developers who choose to opt out of building those units are required to place $180,000 in-lieu fees, pay money for the units not built, per unit into a city-wide in-lieu building fund that will be used to refurbish or build affordable housing in the city, including Pilsen. For example, the developer of The 78, a $5 billion mixed-use complex set to add some 10,000 new housing units to a riverfront parcel adjacent to Pilsen, plans to meet their ARO obligation by building up to 1,000 affordable units in Pilsen or the neighboring Little Village neighborhood.
Still, some residents are wary of the landmarking proposal. Sigcho-Lopez is planning a community meeting with the city zoning board next month to give residents an opportunity to learn more. He’s not yet convinced that the plan would not escalate the current gentrification trends.
Waiting too long, however, could be costly: At the moment, there are three pending building demolition permits for structures within the landmark district. The proposal will go before Chicago’s City Council on June 25. If the council doesn’t pass the ordinance granting landmark designation within 90 days of the Landmark Commission’s May 16 recommendation, those demolition permits will be approved, said Strazzabosco. But if the City Council sits on the idea for a year, the landmark designation will automatically take place.
“As it stands now, their plan is insufficient,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “It’s not enough to address the larger issue of displacement. We have to make sure that residents will not be suffocated by high housing costs, and we have a year to work with the city on the designation. If it takes that long to get what we want, we will wait.”
Some of this caution, Sigcho-Lopez said, comes from recent Chicago political scandals, in which zoning permits were handed out on a pay-to-play basis. In the June 12 City Council meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her intent to crack down on outside jobs and activities of the city’s aldermen, an anti-corruption campaign inspired at least in part by the recent activities of 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, who is now under federal indictment for making sure that developers seeking city zoning permits used his law firm. Burke allegedly worked closely with former 25th Ward alderman and city zoning committee chairman Danny Solis, who represented Pilsen and is now involved in his own related corruption scandal.
Because of this rich history of corruption, Sigcho-Lopez is calling for new guidelines on zoning permit distribution. “I would like to seen an investigation into all of the decisions that were made on permits by proxy in the past and that were given without community discussion,” he said. “We have local, small businesses asking for permits and licenses and they’ve been on the waiting list. They never got a chance because they couldn’t pay-to-play.”
Mark Walden owns several apartment buildings in Pilsen that will fall within the landmark district. He’s struggled to keep them affordable, and wonders whether the landmark plan would help or hinder him. “No one is yet sure what the responsibilities will be for owners in the district,” Walden said. “It’s possible that the landmark district could reduce gentrification by preventing developers from taking properties upscale by demolishing cheaper working-class buildings and replacing them with more expensive, yuppie-oriented ones.”
But there’s also the other scenario—in which the landmarking prevents small, older buildings from being replaced by newer ones with more units, further limiting housing supply and driving up prices. “This is why it’s important that the community has say.”
Chicago urban planner Pete Saunders, who often writes about the city’s gentrification landscape, thinks that the Pilsen landmark district should “lock in” local control of redevelopment, potentially halting displacement. “I don’t think Pilsen residents will be against the landmarking plan,” Saunders said. “I believe they don’t want to be told by the city what to do. They want to have that control.”
That’s a theme echoed by Mer Mansuria, a 36-year old chef who recently moved back to the neighborhood to open Cafe Indigo, a small 18th Street restaurant serving Mexican street food. The move, he said, was to fortify the presence of locally owned businesses as more upscale restaurants eye space in Pilsen. “The wrong people are coming here for the wrong reasons,” he said. “They hear that it is a hot neighborhood and want to live here. They are not coming for the values that make up Pilsen.” Like many business owners, he sees the benefits of a landmark district—but wants to make sure it is tailored to meet the needs of a less-affluent population.
So does Alexandra Curatolo, 31. She’s lived in Pilsen for more than a decade, settling there after attending the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago. She’s reaped some of the economic benefits of the changes in the neighborhood: In 2013, she opened Belli’s, a juice bar frequented both by newcomers and longtime residents. And she has worked with residents to start a farmer’s market and community gardens. “I decided to stay here because of community. I got to know my neighbors. Pilsen is a place where people look out for one another. We invite one another to front-yard fiestas and barbecues,” she said. “Change is good, and the landmark district is likely good, but it all depends on who is directing that change.”
On a recent afternoon, Lauren Angeles sat in Belli’s, one of her routine stops along 18th Street. A 29-year old nursing student, she moved to Pilsen three years ago from the West Town neighborhood because of its proximity to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and because she felt at home in the neighborhood. Now, just like many older residents, she finds herself forced to move on.
“Our rent increased $100 each year due to the landlord’s increased property taxes,” Angeles said. “I wanted to stay—I love it here. But it got too expensive and I’m moving to Humbolt Park. Goodbye, Pilsen.”