Ten days after Pablo and Elvia Mendoza ran across the Mexico-Arizona border with their three small children, they found themselves in Pilsen.
They reached the Chicago area on a Monday in 1995. By Friday, Pablo, a trumpet player, had work with a mariachi band. The only condition was that the Mendozas, who were staying with a relative in the northwest suburbs, move to the neighborhood. “They told my husband, ‘If you want to work with us, you’ve got to come to 18th Street,'” says Elvia. “We didn’t have anything, nothing. Not even a plate.”
The mariachi leader found the family a single room in the back of an apartment at 18th Place and Loomis, a stone’s throw from the Church’s Chicken parking lot on Blue Island, where band members met before playing a job. Pablo bought a used double bed and dresser with the earnings from his first two gigs, and a couple weeks later the family moved down the street into its own apartment.
Two blocks north of where the Mendozas landed, the long heart of Pilsen stretches out: La Dieciocho, 18th Street. Souped-up car stereos and music store megaphones blast ranchera music, and the whole street moves along in an oompah-pah of melodramatic lyrics about love and lost girlfriends, living mojado (that’s “wet,” as in “wetback”), and borracheras, drinking binges. ÁGuanajuato, como te extra–o!–Guanajuato, how I miss you!–moans a popular bumper sticker. Travel agencies offer specials to Guadalajara and Morelia. Bakeries sell Mexican pastries for a quarter. Pushcarts set up shop, picnic table umbrellas overhead and jury-rigged barbecues for elotes off to the side. Recent arrivals dressed vaquero style tentatively share the sidewalk with kids in baggy pants and colors who’ve grown up here. Neighbors set up chairs and benches in front of their buildings and talk until late at night, the simple lights from 18th Street’s taco joints and liquor stores beating out their colors.
This place has sabor. Flavor. Character. The sign above the entryway to the supermercado El GŸero #6 on 19th and Blue Island says it all: Somos Mexicanos, Igual Que Usted. We’re Mexicans, Just Like You. Pilsen and the nearby Little Village make up the largest, most concentrated Mexican community in the midwest. According to the 1990 census, Pilsen is 88 percent Latino–and Latinos are traditionally undercounted by the census. There’s no question about whose neighborhood this is.
Or is there? Lately, and not for the first time in the barrio’s history, residents interested in defending Pilsen as a strong working-class, port-of-entry neighborhood have a feeling they’re under siege. The University of Illinois, which leveled a neighborhood in the 1960s to build its Circle campus and three years ago displaced the historic Maxwell Street market, is planning to expand southward–stopping just one block short of Pilsen. The alderman and City Hall are pushing a tax increment financing (TIF) district that the city plans to hold a public hearing about on April 28. Developers on Pilsen’s east end continue to rehab housing that rents for twice as much as the rest of the neighborhood. And longtime residents worry that sharply rising property taxes will push them out in favor of downtown and university professionals. Also taking into account a new get-tough immigration law, welfare reform, and CTA cuts, many residents feel that all cannons are loaded–and pointing directly at them.
“Pilsen is one of the best neighborhoods in the city,” says Carmen Velasquez, the executive director of Alivio Medical Center, a free clinic on the western end of the barrio. “It has character. It has all the ingredients that developers want, that yuppies want, that downtown folks want. But you know what?” Velasquez smiles wide. “They’re not gonna get it.”
It’s the second Tuesday in November, and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council office smells like Magic Markers. Some 15 community members are getting a fast lesson in the Community Development Commission, the low-profile Daley-appointed body that reviews redevelopment proposals before they go to the City Council for a vote.
“OK. We’re going to go to City Hall,” says Juan Soto, Pilsen Neighbors’ executive director and only paid organizer. Their strategy will be to pass out flyers on LaSalle Street, then go upstairs to the City Council chambers for the monthly CDC meeting, where a tax increment financing district for Pilsen will be introduced.
The TIF will run through Pilsen’s suffering industrial corridor, which in TIF language is “blighted.” And 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis has extended the TIF into the neighborhood’s commercial areas as well. Supposedly they’re headed for blight, though storefronts on Blue Island, 18th Street, and Ashland have hardly any vacancies and new businesses open all the time. The TIF will freeze for up to 23 years the amount of property tax dollars going from the area to public schools, parks, city colleges, and other taxing bodies. As local property values go up–something the city can encourage by making improvements–all additional tax revenue above the base level goes back into the TIF district itself, to finance further infrastructure improvements, to subsidize private developers, and to pay off bonds issued in conjunction with the redevelopment.
“Usually these meetings only last a half hour,” says Soto. “Why? Because the politicians pass things like this.” He snaps his fingers. “R‡pido.” Community members nod. Magic Markers squeak as several prepare placards. “Daley, Hands Off Pilsen!” says one. “Stop Developer Welfare!”
The protesters cram into a rented van for the ten-minute trip downtown. In the backseat a se–ora makes the sign of the cross and mutters a prayer. En nombre de Dios, para la comunidad. This is the second straight month Pilsen Neighbors has sent a delegation to the CDC meeting. When Department of Planning officials came into the barrio at the end of September to explain the TIF, they said it would be formally introduced to the CDC at the October meeting. Residents went to protest, but Pilsen was not on the agenda.
Outside City Hall residents pass out flyers and chant choruses of Pilsen si, TIF no. But when they file into the City Council chambers, the agendas they’re handed make no mention of the Pilsen TIF. Taking front-row seats, they sit through the other business. Commission members look up occasionally at the Pilsen group. At one point and without any visible cue Pilsen residents hold up their placards–which have nothing to do with the issue at hand–and a security officer quickly collects them.
Most TIFs in Chicago have been proposed, reviewed, and passed without much public awareness of what was happening. “I don’t recall that folks have shown up to protest like this,” says Dion Miller Perez, who does community outreach for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a city budget watchdog organization that’s been researching TIFs. “What’s kind of odd is that this really fits in with the way Mexicans protest. I don’t think it was intended that way, but we have a long tradition of showing up places and not saying anything but being a strong presence nonetheless. When Cesar Chavez was thrown into prison, when they had the court case for him, it was the same thing. Nobody said anything, nobody did anything. They just showed up.
“It’s kind of a stoicism that Mexicans have about getting their way. And I’m sure that Daley realizes that and a lot of other folks realize that, but they still don’t seem to be able to process it very well. Knowing full well that they would not be able to say anything or testify, they showed up anyway, and I haven’t seen that before. And I don’t think it’s going to abate.”
Rumors of a Pilsen TIF started to circulate last summer. About that time, Mexicans in Addison won a lawsuit against that suburb for creating a TIF and then using its power of eminent domain selectively to raze their neighborhood. “Remember Addison” became an early watchword of TIF opponents, to whom the TIF was downtown folks using terms like “blight,” “inappropriate land use,” and “lack of community planning” to describe a neighborhood they didn’t live in now but might want to think about tomorrow. In 1973 downtown business interests had issued Chicago 21: A Plan for the Central Area Communities, which proposed massive redevelopment of the area around the Loop–from North Avenue to the Stevenson and from Ashland to the lake. “Most [central communities] are deficient in one or more of the elements essential to a good community,” the plan’s summary announced. “However, significant opportunities exist to reinforce or reconstitute these areas. The Central Communities must be revitalized to again become desirable both for living and for working.”
Pilsen residents who already considered their neighborhood “desirable” reasoned that revitalization meant driving them out. They fought Chicago 21 and nothing formal came of it. But they felt then, and continue to feel, that the city had put them on notice.
A TIF brings with it a tool that Pilsen residents will trust under no circumstances–eminent domain. Some of them settled in Pilsen after their Taylor Street neighborhood was razed in the 1960s to make way for Circle campus. That development displaced 7,000 people–about 16 percent of them Mexicans–and 630 businesses. “Remember Taylor Street” is oft heard in Pilsen.
Before the Mexicans arrived in the 1960s, Pilsen was divided into a half dozen eastern European enclaves: East of Halsted was Lithuanian. West to Morgan was German. Around Racine was Bohemian. West of Throop was Croatian. Further west was Polish. The churches in the neighborhood still reflect that history. Scattered every few blocks, they have names like Saint Adalbert and Saint Procopius, and a few still offer mass in Polish or Croatian in addition to Spanish and English.
A handful of people from the old days have stayed; most are in their 70s now. They wax nostalgic about the way the neighborhood used to be: The Sabinas tortilla factory was a bowling alley. A piano store and a violin store stood on Halsted. Thalia Hall–now apartments, commercial space, and a warehouse for Spanish-language books–was a Bohemian theater and cultural center. “It was a nickel or a dime for the show, and then you got a plate or a cup,” says Irv Rout, who grew up near 17th and Racine and still owns Irv’s Bike Shop on 18th Street. “Some of the people got their whole set of dishes by going to the show.
“This was a great neighborhood to be a kid in,” he says, adding that if not for the gangs it still would be. But within three blocks of the bike shop some six gangs operate, and according to police there are two dozen in the neighborhood. When kids are shot flowers are tied to a light post, tall votive candles and photos appear on the sidewalk, and “RIP” is spray-painted on a wall.
When Rout started the bike shop in 1972, about a third of his customers were Mexican. Within a few years the number went up to about 80 percent, he estimates, and most of his non-Mexican business started coming from outside the neighborhood. Whether it was the push of race or the pull of the suburbs, white residents had begun leaving Pilsen en masse. If now it’s the Mexicans’ turn to leave, “That’s progress, I guess,” says Rout. “I mean, if the Hispanic people are moving out of here it means they found a better place or a nicer place. The Hispanic people who bought buildings here, if they have a chance to make a profit on their building, why shouldn’t they have a chance to do that? That’s what this country is all about. Nobody’s gonna stop progress. You can do whatever you want, you can demonstrate, and in the long run you’re gonna lose out. You’re not gonna win.”
Rout’s first home, a three-flat at 1159 W. 17th St., is gone, replaced by a small brand-new single-family home. It has vinyl siding, big picture windows, and a backyard–a rare item in Pilsen. Most of the two-flats and three-flats that line Pilsen’s streets hide two-flats squeezed behind them. Grass and trees are uncommon. Pilsen’s thousands of children–nearly a third of the community is under 18–play soccer on the narrow, crumbling sidewalks, jump rope between parked cars, and shoot hoops through milk crate rims nailed to light posts in alleyways or to the sides of buildings. The neighborhood is starved for park space; on sunny days, kids in Harrison and Dvorak parks wait in line to use the swings.
Built by the Resurrection Project, a neighborhood community development corporation, the house at 1159 is part of a strategy to get people to stay in the neighborhood. A lack of houses typically forced families to look west, in Little Village or Cicero, when they were finally able to buy. Now the boxy structures pepper the neighborhood; the Resurrection Project (TRP) has built 91 in the last five years. Part of the city’s New Homes for Chicago program, they’re sold to low- and moderate-income families–some making as little as $14,000 a year–for around $80,000. A two-flat goes for about $120,000, and neither model can be resold for at least five years without the owner paying a penalty.
“We have begun to combat the notion of home ownership head-on,” says Raul Raymundo, TRP’s executive director. “So that [people] recognize when you buy a home in the community you’re not just buying a piece of property–you’re buying a piece of the community.” Raymundo grew up in Pilsen and still lives in the neighborhood.
Pilsen is a long way from the blatant upscale development that’s hit the near north and near west sides in the last five years. But quiet as it may be for now, speculation has arrived. One commercial property in the heart of Pilsen was on the market for $299,000 a year ago; now it’s going for $369,000 with no improvements. Real estate agencies are cold-calling property owners to see if they’re interested in selling. For Sale signs dot every block. Six real estate agencies are located on 18th Street between Morgan and Wood–roughly one every block and a half–five of them new in the last six years, two in the last two years.
“[Real estate firms] call here,” says a 15-year home owner who lives on the east end in a census tract where property value increased by an average of 289 percent between 1989 and 1994. “They say, ‘Are you a home owner?’ And sometimes I just lie and say that I rent, because if I tell them yes, they start in. ‘Oh, don’t you want to sell your property?’ and ‘We’ll offer you such-and-such an amount’ and ‘This is a good opportunity to sell’ and ‘Look, you’re going to have to leave anyway down the line and if you wait you won’t get anything.’ So now when they call and they ask if I’m a home owner? ‘No.’ ‘Oh, so you rent?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You don’t know who the owner is?’ ‘No, I don’t know.’ ‘Who do you pay the rent to?’ ‘My husband is in charge of all that,’ I tell them.”
Resistance here is not hard to find. A few windows still display the fading green signs put up last summer: “This house is NOT for sale!!” they announce in English and Spanish. At 18th and Laflin, around the corner from two real estate agencies, someone has painted DEFIENDE PILSEN in large turquoise letters over the brown paint the city uses to cover graffiti. Several of Pilsen’s few vacant lots have TRP signs on them that say–in Spanish only–Compre la casa de sus sue–os! Buy the house of your dreams.
“The challenge is to get people to stay,” says Raymundo. “And if they decide to stay, then you could argue that it’s much more difficult for people to move in because there’s nowhere to move in to. There seems to be a trend going on here, of Mexican Latino families who were here for years, who decided to move elsewhere for a better environment, and who are realizing that this was already a good environment. They’re wanting to come back.”
At first Pilsen was a shock. “When I came to the city and I saw the skyline I thought, ‘Wow, it’s really nice here,’ Elvia Mendoza remembers. “But then when I got to this area, I thought the buildings were old and in bad shape. See, everything downtown looks so nice. I thought everything was going to be like that.”
Pilsen was built before the Chicago Fire and before Chicago’s streets were raised. The neighborhood’s vaulted front walks pass several feet above what were once ground-floor apartments, and occasionally whole sections of walk collapse. Then the city lays wide planks over the abyss, which is often filled with years of trash–old shoes and broken bicycles and decaying corncobs–so residents can get from the street to their front door during the months it takes to repair the walks. The sidewalks are riddled with menacing holes and cracks, many large enough for children to fall through. Residents throw whatever they can find over the holes–slabs of wood and metal, milk crates, broken barricades from Streets and Sanitation.
“The houses here are old. The windows leak. There’s peeling paint,” says Elvia. Within a year of moving to Pilsen, the Mendozas’ middle child, who’s five, tested positive for lead poisoning. “They came over to investigate where we lived. They said maybe there was peeling paint and the children were eating it.” Ninety-two percent of the rental property in Pilsen was built in the 1800s. Apartments sag under layers of linoleum and paint. Ancient space heaters fight cold the leaking windows cannot keep out.
But however run-down, Pilsen was a place that felt like home. “When I got here I didn’t know anything,” says Elvia. “I thought at first, ‘How am I going to manage? How am I going to buy things we need? I’m not going to know this or that.’ I thought they were going to say everything to me in English. Where my relatives live in the suburbs everyone speaks English–I went into a store there and I didn’t understand a thing. But here I went into La Casa del Pueblo and everyone spoke Spanish. I said to a young kid, ‘How much is in a pound?’ because I didn’t even know how many kilos make a pound.”
Pilsen felt like Mexico. In the summertime neighbors sit for hours on their front stoops, grill tacos on the sidewalk, and talk into the night while their children play on the walks or in the spray of fire hydrants. City blocks become like little towns. Nearly every block has at least one small grocery store, often the center for chisme, gossip. Neighbors know each other, or at least about each other, where they live, who their kids are, whether they’re struggling or doing OK, whether they’re recent arrivals or old-timers. Loomis feels different from Throop feels different from Laflin, though each is only a block from the next. On summer days pickup trucks loaded with corn or watermelons pass up and down the streets honking for business. The Virgin of Guadalupe is taped carefully to apartment windows, and grandmothers sweep the crumbling sidewalks every morning, the first bells of the paleteros ringing.
Little Village is nearly all Mexican too; sections of Cicero are nearly all Mexican. But Pilsen is different. “There’s a sense that there’s a common thread here, a collective community sense,” says Raul Ross Pineda, director of Mexican affairs for the American Friends Service Committee, a contributor to Exito! newspaper, and a Pilsen resident since 1986. “It’s an old neighborhood in terms of being Mexican. And there are a lot of memories here–it’s very symbolic for us. It’s almost as if the barrio were another member of our family.” He laughs. “We’re in love with Pilsen.”
Elvia found a part-time, minimum-wage job two blocks from home preparing tamales for a boss who didn’t care that her papers were fake, purchased on 26th Street. Pablo’s income varied with the number of gigs, but he averaged somewhere around $275 a week. Every week the family set aside money to pay off an $8,000 debt in Mexico–the reason they’d come to the U.S. in the first place.
After a couple of months, Pablo’s brother, also a mariachi, showed up. His help with the rent made their small two-bedroom apartment more affordable: the brothers split the $350. The two oldest children, five and seven, slept in one bedroom, which was exactly the width of a twin mattress. The youngest child slept with Elvia and Pablo. Pablo’s brother slept on the sofa in the living room. Things got tighter when a second brother came from Mexico with his wife. At least the rent was split three ways.
The 1990 census documented an average of 3.7 persons per room in Pilsen. Federal guidelines deem more than one person a room excessive.
After a year in their first apartment the Mendozas moved four blocks away, to a remodeled two-bedroom “coach house” squeezed between a garage and a three-flat. As with most Pilsen apartments, no utilities were included in the rent, and the Mendozas had to lug along the refrigerator and stove they had bought for their first place. The family uses a narrow pantry as a third bedroom, which is where the children sleep, along with the 15-year-old son of a family friend who sent the boy to study music with Pablo and make a life for himself as a mariachi. The apartment is nice, but at $500 a month it’s very expensive by Pilsen standards. A 1995 rent study conducted by UIC’s Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement found that the average Pilsen rent was $324 a month; average monthly rent plus utilities came to $448 per month. Market-rate housing in Pilsen is so affordable that subsidized apartments rehabbed by the Resurrection Project actually go for slightly more, though they’re in much better condition.
Even though they still split the rent with one of Pablo’s brothers and a cousin, the Mendozas say an increase would put their home out of their reach. “We’d look for a smaller place, or in another neighborhood where they didn’t charge as much. Because more than $500 is a lot for two couples to pay,” says Elvia. But soaring property taxes make higher rents look inevitable. Several community groups, as well as state senator Jesus Garcia, held tax appeal workshops in February to contest community-wide increases that ranged between 33 and 60 percent. The Mendozas’ landlord is a 23-year Pilsen resident who owns two other properties on the same street. The building where he lives hasn’t been remodeled at all, but its taxes have climbed from $700 to $1,200 in four years.
Along 16th Street between Union and Western, Mexico borders Chicago. A wall marks the divide–something akin to what Texas or California would talk about actually constructing. It’s a 15-foot cement railroad viaduct, on either side of which is a kind of no-man’s-land common to international borders. To the north are the dilapidated homes of the “Valley,” the dirty fringes of the South Water Market, and UIC’s immaculate new gated parking lots and athletic fields–the former site of the Maxwell Street market. To the south, Pilsen begins quietly with unassuming homes and small factories. The southern side of the wall is covered by crumbling murals of Aztec warriors and rainbows, and by occasional gang tags and huge, hand-painted bilingual warnings: No Tiren Basura. Dumping Is Illegal.
The no-man’s-land to the north of the viaduct will begin to disappear next year. UIC’s $400-to-$500 million, 30-acre expansion south will run from Morgan to Union and from Roosevelt Road to the viaduct. Plans include new academic buildings, a performing arts center, dormitories, parking lots, a commercial strip, and, most significantly for Pilsen, 752 high-end homes that the university will sell to finance the other aspects of the expansion.
“The mayor and supporters of the university expansion have insisted that the expansion won’t reach Pilsen,” says Ross Pineda. “That’s partially true–the expansion is going up to 16th Street. So supposedly nothing will happen to 18th Street–which not even the worst student of urban planning would ever believe. When there are massive injections of capital investment in an area, there is an impact. Whether it’s wanted or not that’s another issue, but there is going to be an impact. And [it] will be to elevate the cost of living–if not from one day to another then in not too long a time–to points far beyond the reach of current residents. And that’s where the threat is.”
The university’s new homes are expected to attract at least 1,600 people to the area. And while nothing will protect Pilsen from speculators or students looking for cheap housing, university officials have made decisions that almost completely preclude the possibility of Pilsen residents moving to the UIC side of the tracks. Sixty-seven percent of Pilsen residents rent, and there will be no rental housing built by the university. The homes will cost on average $198,000, more than double what the average house in Pilsen costs.
UIC says its housing–which will consist mostly of town homes and condominiums–will start at $125,000 and go up to $350,000. Twenty percent of the housing–presumably the $125,000 units–will be “affordable,” say university officials. “I can’t afford it,” said a candid UIC spokesman. “But yeah, we’re saying that’s affordable. I guess it’s affordable if you’re a faculty member.” To buy a home at that price a family of four would need to make 80 percent of the median income for the metropolitan area, or about $47,000. Pilsen’s median income is $22,000.
An impact analysis by the Voorhees Center recommended locating UIC’s housing along Roosevelt Road, at the northeast end of the redevelopment area, to minimize its impact on Pilsen. “We believe that while the UIC south campus expansion will not be the sole cause of gentrification, it has the possibility of drastically speeding up the process and unleashing speculators and other market forces that will lead to the displacement of low-income residents,” wrote the authors. When a map of the proposed project came out last summer, residential housing was placed at the southern end, bordering Pilsen.
“In the future, only one railroad viaduct will separate high cost housing and affordable housing,” writes James Isaacs, executive director of the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, in a study analyzing the impact UIC has had on what’s left of the near-west-side neighborhood that surrounds the university. The study found that when adjusted for inflation, average rents in each of the three census tracts immediately to the west of UIC increased by 54 to 67 percent between 1980 and 1990. Many of the homes that weren’t demolished to build the university now house students. In the Chicago Flame, a UIC student newspaper, roughly a third of the apartments advertised for rent in the classifieds are in Pilsen. And under “Services,” a Coldwell Banker agent wrote, “LOOKING TO BUY? Let my ten years of experience living and working in the UIC and Pilsen neighborhoods help you make the most informed decision when buying your next property.”
University officials have said they want to create more of a college town environment–“a 24-hour intellectual, social, and cultural environment” said Chancellor David Broski recently–at what’s now mostly a commuter campus. “When Broski tells us that as chancellor his vision for Pilsen is a University of Chicago and Starbucks–and that happened at a meeting not last summer but the summer before, and we had several witnesses,” says Carmen Velasquez of the Alivio Medical Center, “I mean, how arrogant! This is the epitome of arrogance.”
Velasquez sits on the university’s South Expansion Community Committee–21 community leaders from the mostly African-American and Latino neighborhoods affected by UIC’s expansion. In November Velasquez read in the Sun-Times that the university intended to build double the number of homes it had originally planned. That was on a Monday. Velasquez had been to a community committee meeting the previous Friday where nothing was said. “To date we have been betrayed and continue to be told lies by the University of Illinois,” she says.
That same week committee members were cut out of another major decision. Twenty-fifth Ward alderman Danny Solis and three Latino community organizations that support him–including the United Neighborhood Organization, which Solis ran until he was named alderman–brokered a backdoor deal with Broski to secure jobs for Latinos. The university’s own board of trustees was upset about being left out too, and the initial deal was annulled and is being reworked. Pilsen activists question the commitment of the three community organizations to protecting Pilsen from gentrification–none has offices in the barrio. Juan Ochoa, executive director of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, one of the groups in on the deal, was talking about Pilsen at a Little Village restaurant several months after the deal went down. “I don’t see anyone in Pilsen holding on to the streets saying they don’t want to leave,” he said. “I mean, offer them $100,000 and they’ll all leave. Ninety percent of them will leave.”
Solis was appointed by Daley in 1996. He didn’t live in the ward at the time but picked out a home in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, six houses away from the ward’s northernmost border, in the closest thing to an upper-crust neighborhood. He was elected in 1997 in a special election in which he outspent his nearest challenger roughly four to one, and he’s been an ardent backer of UIC’s expansion south, arguing that the project will create jobs and educational opportunities for Pilsen residents and boost the area economy.
“That’s the bait they always throw out–the number of jobs and the fact that it will benefit the neighborhood,” says Ross Pineda. “They said [when UIC was constructed] that the neighborhood would benefit from having the university. To date I don’t know of a single university program that’s benefited the neighborhood. And the number of jobs they offered us–I think it was 15 percent when the university was first built–that was in the 60s, and the percentage of jobs Latinos hold there is not even 10 percent yet. And that’s not Latinos from Pilsen, that’s from the entire city. Now I think they’re offering 20 percent again. I think they offered the alderman 400 jobs within nine years. But in nine years we’re going to be 30 percent of the population–so they’re not even offering the proportion that would correspond to us statistically. But the other thing is that those jobs don’t exist. I don’t think they’re going to fire African-Americans or Anglos to put Latinos in there.”
Solis is behind a streetscaping project that would revamp 18th Street–which he says “needs a more Mexican touch”–and create a plaza at Blue Island, 18th, and Loomis complete with a bronze statue of an eagle on a 30-foot pedestal. The architectural firm contracted to do the plans, A.G. Guajardo Associates, has been a regular contributor to Solis, and Alphonse Guajardo, its owner, was recently appointed by Daley to the Community Development Commission.
According to Solis, the 25th Ward is “kind of like a Bizarro world.” He says residents in other neighborhoods he represents–Chinatown, Tri-Taylor, Armour Square, Heart of Italy–are clamoring for development projects, from streetscaping to river walks. “But every development project in Pilsen has been questioned, and not only questioned, but there’s been allegations that it’s part of a conspiracy to ethnically cleanse the area or to gentrify the area. That includes a streetscaping project along 18th Street, the UIC expansion, and an industrial TIF that I’m proposing for the neighborhood. If you took just about any community and you talked about the expansion of a university into a vacated area nearby, that community would be fighting to bring that development in.”
But as the Voorhees impact analysis points out, more often than not universities have a tense relationship with low-income neighbors, precisely because of land acquisition and development issues. “It’s not that we don’t want development,” says Ross Pineda. “But the problem with Daley and with the university is that they think the only development possible for our neighborhood and for the city in general are the models that they propose. And they’re models that are very authoritarian and very anti-poor. They’re models to attract the middle class and to get rid of the poor.”
Actually, Pilsen has been one of the more vocal communities when it comes to clamoring for development dollars. In 1995, after a strong organizing campaign, residents won a ten-year, $26 million commitment from the city to repair their vaulted sidewalks. “We’ve made Pilsen,” says Ross Pineda. “Every new school that’s built has cost us work. These have never been offers that come from anybody–we’ve fought for every little thing. The schools, the home ownership tax credits, the credits for facade rehab in the commercial areas. And we’ve fought to bring resources to the area, to construct housing, to promote economic development, for instance with the empowerment zone.”
Pineda says Pilsen residents probably would be content if the city would just give them their city services and leave them alone. “If you ask me what I need from the city, I don’t need anything,” he says. “Maybe they could do a better job of chasing away the rats in the alley. They could be better at public sanitation. Better at public safety. But to kill rats, to clean up the garbage, and to offer vigilance, you don’t need any TIF. You don’t need to expand the university. Which is what they’ve been selling us–‘If you let us do this all of Pilsen’s problems will be resolved.’ We have few problems. And the ones we have City Hall could fix like that. Now it’s like blackmail. ‘Let us put in the TIF and let us expand the university and we’ll take your crime away.’ As if to say, if you don’t let us, you’re gonna keep seeing the same problems.”
On the second Tuesday in March, with the City Hall elevators chiming in the background, Carlos Arango, executive director of Casa Aztlan, stood in front of a hundred Pilsen residents waving yellow-and-black sheets of paper that displayed the acronym “TIF” crossed out. This was the seventh time in as many months that Pilsen residents had gone downtown to protest the Pilsen TIF, which still hadn’t even been formally proposed.
“No one has ever spelled out what this TIF will mean for the community,” Arango told the Spanish-language press. “The residents, the community organizations here, the business owners have questions. For example, How is this going to impact our property taxes? What impact is this going to have in terms of whether residents are going to be able to keep living in Pilsen? When they talk about jobs, jobs for whom? When they talk about commercial development, whose commercial development?
“It’s not that residents are against progress in the community, but if there’s progress in this community, it has to be a progress that’s going to benefit everyone. It has to be a progress in which residents are included and in which they can express their interests and their necessities. We don’t want to see Wicker Park in Pilsen, we don’t want to see the University of Chicago in Pilsen. The only thing that type of development has done is displace people. We want Pilsen for the Mexicans!”
“No TIF, no TIF,” chanted the crowd.
An hour later the Community Development Commission finally started on new business. Pilsen residents filled about half the gallery seats in the council chamber. The CDC chair began, “The first item on the agenda is a proposed Pil–”
“Please take note, members of the CDC,” shouted Teresa Fraga, president of the board of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and a perennial aldermanic candidate, “that there are 100 Pilsen residents here and businesspersons who oppose the proposed Pilsen industrial TIF. Just take note.”
The Pilsen delegation began to holler over the voice of the Department of Planning representative detailing the proposal. “You are not gonna propose this! Over our dead bodies you will!”
“The industrial district qualifies as a blighted area–”
“It’s not blighted! It’s not blighted!”
“The Department of Planning and Development believes that the designation of the total area for tax increment finance will greatly enhance the opportunity to stimulate private development investment in the area–”
“We ask for the resignation of Alderman Daniel Solis!” someone shouted. Solis had left the chamber when the Pilsen residents arrived.
“We reside in the community. We decide our future! No TIF, no TIF, no TIF, no TIF!”
“Do we have a motion to accept for review and study the Pilsen–”
“No, no, no, no!”
“Do we have a second to the motion?”
“No, no, no, no!”
“The motion is passed.”
“Sellouts! Sellouts!” shouted the crowd.
“The next item is the proposed 79th Street corridor TIF redevelopment project area–”
“Daley no more in ’99!”
Pilsen’s TIF opponents can claim one major victory. As 400 Pilsen residents descended on the mayor’s office in February, Solis was announcing to the press that the commercial areas of the TIF–which he had personally requested and which had caused the most controversy–would be removed from the proposal. Pilsen’s various constituencies, from the area’s priests to its business owners along 18th Street–had refused to support them. The Pilsen TIF would now be industrial.
The proposed TIF covers almost 1,000 acres, nearly all of it in the Pilsen industrial corridor, which is the southern half of the community. The TIF would extend roughly from Stewart to Western, Cermak south to the Chicago River. Since 1986 the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation has been looking for ways to turn around the declining area and create more jobs for local people close to home. “One thing that we recognized real quickly is that Pilsen’s industrial area is at a huge disadvantage,” says James Isaacs, ESDC’s executive director. “It has been long neglected, to the point that many businesses in the industrial area were seriously questioning their ability to do business here.”
Isaacs says that ESDC saw shoring up industry as “a very good pro-low-income community strategy. Why? If you maintain the viability of an industrial area, then you discourage housing development in that area.” One riverfront building on Cermak had already started to be converted to lofts.
In 1994 the city included Pilsen in its model industrial corridor initiative and promised $1.5 million in funding for infrastructure improvements. ESDC was contracted to do a needs assessment, and the group produced a strategic plan to rejuvenate the area for $50 million. But by that time the city had reneged on its promise of the original $1.5 million. “We asked for industrial investment,” says Isaacs. They got the TIF. Neither ESDC nor the Resurrection Project has declared its position on the TIF, though both say they’re advising Solis.
Residents opposed to the TIF have a slate of questions and criticisms. The Department of Planning and Development says the Pilsen TIF will create from 3,500 to 4,100 new jobs. But no one has detailed what kind of jobs they’ll be, or whether they’ll go to Pilsen residents.
Opponents point out that community members, and even owners of industries, have no formal influence over how TIF dollars are spent. They worry about the borders of the TIF being expanded to include the commercial districts Solis originally wanted, and say passage of the TIF would mean they’d have to remain vigilant for decades–but with no real power to do anything about it if they discovered something they didn’t like.
They’re also concerned that today’s industrial land may not be tomorrow’s. While private developers in an industrial TIF must apply TIF dollars toward industrial uses, nothing precludes a zoning change. The city could pay for infrastructure improvements in an industrial area that ended up attracting residential loft developers–should the alderman support a zoning change.
And though one of the supposed virtues of a TIF is that tax revenue generated in an area must be spent in that area, the law says funds generated in adjacent TIFs can be spent in either one. A string of contiguous TIFs runs from the North Loop all the way to Chinatown. The proposed Pilsen TIF is adjacent to three others, including Chinatown.
In November, Department of Planning spokesperson Greg Longhini said he knew nothing about a potential tax increment financing district to help UIC finance its south expansion project. “Our goal has always been to get the University of Illinois to spend their own money for their project,” Longhini said. “We see that as a state-driven development project. They had originally wanted us ten years ago to transfer all of our city-owned land over in the Halsted-Taylor area to the university for their expansion plans, and we basically said, ‘Wake up. You can buy the land from us, but you’re a state body, you have money, you have to purchase that from us. And so I don’t see what has ever changed in our thinking. They should be able to pay for their own projects.”
Now Planning and UIC confirm that they’re working out details for a residential TIF–likely to be officially proposed this summer–in the south expansion area to help the university construct its high-end housing. If the proposed Pilsen TIF–which runs as far north as the viaduct at 16th Street–were to touch a UIC TIF, money generated from tax revenues in Pilsen could be spent to expand the university. And tax revenue generated in the university TIF could be spent in Pilsen–just as tax revenue from the present Western Ogden, River South, and Chinatown Basin TIFs could be, since they’re also adjacent–speeding development in Pilsen that its residents would have no control over.
“Tired of high Bucker Park Village rents? Move to sunny Pilsen,” read the neon green flyer. “Close to loop, expressway & public transportation. Pets welcome.” The landlords–white artists who’d recently bought a three-flat in the neighborhood–posted the flyer at IIT and Columbia College, along Michigan Avenue, in CTA subways and Pilsen coffee shops, and in Wicker Park during the Around the Coyote festival. The flyer went on to announce a “11/2 bedroom” (known as a two-bedroom in the neighborhood) for $350 and a “31/2 bedroom” (known as a four-bedroom in Pilsen) for a whopping $750.
“Basically we’re here because we were fleeing the gentrification of the greater ‘Bucker Park Village’ area and we wanted to kind of get something of our own,” said one of the owners, who asked to remain anonymous. “We couldn’t afford anything there and we didn’t like living there anymore. We’re both artists looking for a space where we can afford and do our own art and have our pets and that sort of thing.
“We’re not really interested in gentrifying. We actually would prefer that this area never does gentrify, although, given the trend of things, being artists moving into a new area, we’re probably inadvertently aiding the process even though we’d rather not. You know, once you get enough artists in an area all of a sudden the yuppies come in next, but we’d prefer they don’t. As far as our building, we’re trying to improve it a little and keep it up, but by no means do we have the means or the interest in doing Eurokitchens and central air-conditioning and all that sort of thing.”
The artists ended up renting the cheaper apartment to a UIC student and the four-bedroom apartment–coveted in a neighborhood of large families but tremendously overpriced in this case–to a single woman. Neither was Latino. “I’d rather we did have Latino [tenants] because then we’d fit in better with the neighborhood,” says one of the owners. She says a Latino couple with one child was interested in the two-bedroom, “but they got to the realty office too late.” Instead of putting a For Rent sign in the window–the typical way apartments are advertised and rented in Pilsen–they listed the vacancies with two real estate firms, one of them Gallucci, which is working hard to push Pilsen. Gallucci is located on Taylor Street, a short walk from UIC–and a mile from Pilsen.
The couple’s building is located west of Racine, in Pilsen’s lowest-income and most affordable census tract. People like them are a wild card in the gentrification deck, Chris Hall, former executive director of ESDC, observed in a 1996 interview. “Most of these residents are pretty funky, liberal people,” he said. “I’m sure they don’t consider that they’re displacing anyone.”
A half mile to the east, along Halsted Street, most of the buildings between 17th and Canalport are painted a brownish gray, the signature color of Pilsen’s biggest landowners. Between them, John Podmajersky and his son John III own most of Halsted and dozens of properties on either side of it. This is about the only place in Pilsen where–at least for now–gringos can be seen on a regular basis, usually waiting for the northbound bus.
The senior Podmajersky, a grandfatherly type in his 70s, views his work as a sort of crusade. He preaches a gospel of individual empowerment and inspiration through creative architecture. “No matter where I go things get better. People know. They say, ‘If John’s here, it’s gonna go up.’ When people move in my projects their lives are two notches higher.”
The son of Slovak immigrants, Podmajersky grew up in Pilsen. By the time he began buying buildings, he says, things were “in a total disarray.” The neighborhood had been gutted by construction of the Dan Ryan, many businesses had left, and “Halsted Street was mostly taverns.”
Podmajersky’s apartments look nothing like those in the barrio. There are no small bedrooms, no linoleum tile, no windows that shake in their frames. He offers high ceilings and spiral staircases; even the laundry room in one building has bay windows, bookshelves, and an exercise machine. Apartments look out onto former alleys–“See, I could buy the alleys because I control all the property around them”–that have been converted into courtyards with trees, fountains, and winding brick paths.
The Podmajerskys say 95 percent of their tenants are artists. “I started renting to artists, and when I discovered what they’re about I said these are the people I’m gonna bring around. So I started realizing what they liked and didn’t like in space, and I started creating.” He says he took advantage of his years as a structural engineer with the city’s old Department of Conservation–“I was able to buy buildings because I knew everybody”–to begin developing the area.
“After I get all these buildings and struggle, and having enough to keep from getting buried, everybody says, ‘Well why do you have so many buildings?’ Well why weren’t you here when it was chaos and everything was being ready to be torn down?” he says. “It took a lot of buildings to protect my flank. Because anybody that is a professional rehabber of neighborhoods knows that if you ever experienced fixing a building and you fix it in a dysfunctional neighborhood, you’ll never make it. So I had a strategy. I had to get enough buildings.”
Podmajersky says the betterment of the neighborhood “didn’t just happen–someone had to be orchestrating it. It wasn’t the government, it wasn’t the church, the community groups. They had very little grasp of what the hell was the problem or how to create communities that work, you know, taking a very sick, dysfunctional neighborhood and turning it around. It was like literally transplanting a different type of user basically. In the world that won’t sound good today because everybody’s so hung up on ‘save everybody.'”
But compared to the rest of the neighborhood, “Pilsen East,” as the Podmajerskys like to call it, feels dead. The windows along Halsted–once storefronts–are now blocked by miniblinds that never open. Pilsen’s friendly chaos–kids playing on the streets, double-parked cars blasting ranchera or hip-hop, neighbors sitting on their stoops–has all been cleaned up here. The Podmajerskys recently ran off a Salvation Army store that had rented from them for decades; in its place they hope to put a “healing center,” something along the lines of Transitions bookstore. The most recent commercial development on the strip is symbolic: a storefront that for several years was a Latino-owned hardware store is now Bic’s Hardware Cafe.
The Podmajerskys have lived in Lincoln Park for the past 20 years but say they’re thinking of coming back to the old neighborhood. The old man laments the loss of family restaurants, like-minded neighbors, and sense of community that upscale development has massacred in Lincoln Park. “There’s nothing but young people and rowdiness. It’s hard to relate with the people,” he says. While the Podmajerskys moved north long ago, they’ve continued to vote in the 25th Ward, listing one of their properties as their voting address.
Tensions between Mexican families long in the area and the Podmajerskys rekindled lately over a small community garden the younger Podmajersky–who tends to leave avowals of altruism to his father–wants to buy. “I need to purchase this property to provide 60 to 70 secured, landscaped and paved off street parking spaces for my upcoming development of 3 large loft buildings,” Podmajersky wrote the city a year ago.
Residents intend to defend the humble triangle of green space along Canalport, which anywhere but Pilsen might seem an insignificant piece of land to fight over. But in a census tract where assessments and taxes are skyrocketing, the garden has come to represent more than desperately needed green space; it’s a barrier to further upscale development (Podmajersky senior blames the 33 percent assessment hike on his properties on new homes that the Resurrection Project is constructing). Solis has said he hasn’t decided yet which side to support. But according to one east-side resident, Solis showed up at the home of a woman actively defending the garden accompanied by someone who identified himself as a police officer, and asked her to sign a petition in support of the parking lot. He told her that all her neighbors had already signed and that either way the space was going to become parking. Before he came, parking tickets had been put in the neighbor’s mailbox, citing violations for days she hadn’t left the house.
The Podmajerskys have donated several thousand dollars to Solis, and John III speaks highly of the alderman. “I think Danny is taking a lot of initiatives. As a matter of fact he’s the only alderman I can remember who’s actually ever done anything for the community….He opens things up to the community, he takes input from people. I mean, he’s the best alderman that I’ve ever seen around here.”
Last year Solis moved his office from the heart of Pilsen to a Podmajersky building. He says he originally located near Cermak and Leavitt to try to deter gang activity there, and moved to do the same on the east end. Solis has said he thinks crime is the community’s biggest problem and that he’ll probably move again in the future.
Solis says he’d like to make Pilsen a mixed-income community, which in neighborhoods from Cabrini-Green to West Town is heard as code for pushing out the poor to make way for the middle class. Pilsen already is surprisingly mixed economically; some of the poorest Latinos in the city live here, but so do families that have been in the neighborhood for decades, own property, and earn middle-class wages. And there is a smattering of professional people. It’s been hard for Solis to hide his preference for a wealthier class; he rubs elbows with developers and defends development that even UIC’s Voorhees Center predicts will displace the poor. When Exito! asked him whether he thought aldermen should be allowed to work second jobs, he said, “I don’t think you can prohibit an alderman from having another job unless they consider raising our salaries.” At $75,000, Solis makes more than three times what his average Pilsen constituent makes.
Solis says residents don’t move out of the neighborhood because of gentrification, but because of crime, bad schools, lack of park space, and other quality-of-life issues. “People make a decision whether to stay or leave once it improves,” says Solis, “but it’s not a conspiracy to ethnically cleanse a neighborhood. I believe that a lot of these people decide, ‘Hey, I’m being offered ten times what I paid for my house–I’m gonna sell.'” People in Pilsen able to make such a decision about their future are in the minority; the majority rent, and another percentage are on fixed or limited incomes that don’t allow them the option to stay despite rising real-estate taxes. Rising property values benefit only owners who want to sell.
For three weeks now signs have been taped to doors along 18th Street and windows all over the barrio: Defiende Pilsen, 28 de Abril en City Hall. The public hearing before the Community Development Commission is scheduled for 2 PM.
Last month, at the meeting when the Pilsen TIF was first proposed for review, the CDC wrapped up a public hearing on a TIF in Little Village. Those who spoke in favor of the TIF, two representatives from the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, said they supported it because of its provisions for new housing, commercial space, and a movie theater. The chair that day, commissioner Laura Hassan, thanked them. Those who spoke in opposition to the TIF, two working-class mothers who feared the side effects of the housing, commercial space, and movie theater, were told by Hassan that the committee was only voting on the boundaries and designation of the TIF, not on any development provisions within it. At times Hassan seemed close to debating the TIF opponents.
The Little Village TIF passed–no surprise. In the last two and a half years, the CDC has rejected one TIF and passed 24, almost as many as were passed in the ten previous years. They’re currently considering a dozen others, including Pilsen’s.
Gentrification is something few neighborhoods in any major city have been able to resist. “You find yourself up against incredibly powerful economic interests,” says Ross Pineda. But he predicts a “fight to the end. There is a struggle of resistance.”
Pablo Mendoza says he’s heard talk of the TIF and of the university, but “I don’t really know what it is or what’s going to happen.” He does know how he feels about his neighborhood after living in it two and a half years. “I wouldn’t want to leave here,” he says. “I’m used to it here–this is where I like to live. There are other places that are nicer. For example, our relatives or other Mexicans invite us to the suburbs, and everything is very nice. But I don’t like it there. I like it where we are right now–the people. I’m confident here. When I walk along 18th Street or Blue Island I feel like I’m at home. Here we feel as if we were in our pueblo. We’re all Mexicans. We’re all used to a little bit of noise, to people talking to each other outside.
“If the gŸeros come and kick us out, we’ll feel bad–those of us who have already gotten used to living here, that is–because we already feel like this is our land. Even if it’s not. But that’s how we feel.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Nathan Mandell.