Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski’s first book, a collection of stories, concerns itself with life in Pilsen, where he grew up. The stories are narrated by neighborhood guys—ranging from elementary school kids to young husbands and fathers—and they touch on violence, graffiti, gang boundaries, drugs, weddings, tenement fires, and the garlic-and-onion smell of the neighborhood on Sundays, when everybody’s mom makes frijoles.
The narratives take place between 18th and 22nd—streets one character describes as “night and day, two opposite sides of the universe”—stretching roughly from Western to Racine, and seemingly every alley in between is mentioned at some point. A character in “The City That Works,” for instance, “strums his strings on Eighteenth Street and Wolcott, in the narrow gangway between Zefran’s funeral home and the El Milagro tortilla factory.”
Other settings include Woolworth’s, Paul’s Drug Store, Dvorak Park, the old pierogi factory on 22nd, Speedy’s Corner Store, Benito Juarez High School, and Trebol’s tavern. The 70s and 80s of Galaviz-Budziszewski’s childhood spring up like a diorama, and eventually Painted Cities begins to feel less like the encyclopedia of a six-by-12-block expanse and more like a journey through a living, breathing (and dying) universe.
The narrator of “God’s Country” says of that universe: “I felt like we were all in the same boat, like our neighborhood, Pilsen, was just a rut people fell into.” The rut can be inescapable. Many characters are introduced with the details of their eventual deaths, as in the opening line of “Freedom”: “I knew Buff before he was a Latin Count, before he was shot dead.”
But many of the stories show how the people of Pilsen redefine their environment—and explore it in new ways. Two boys in “Freedom” build a one-room hut from scrap wood and metal on the roof of a building and talk about living there. In “Snake Dance” climbers traverse the neighborhood by rooftop and spelunkers by rail tunnel and pedway. In “Painted Cities” a graffiti artist covers the neighborhood in murals, painting an entire galaxy on the side of the corner store. And in “God’s Country” a 14-year-old boy named Chuey realizes he has the power to raise the neighborhood’s dead.
Painted Cities is a moving, nuanced portrayal of how a neighborhood shapes people, as well as a study in how they sometimes find ways to shape themselves. “Things suddenly seemed possible,” Chuey’s friend says at one point. In the universe between 18th and 22nd the possibility of something different is a powerful force.