The storefronts of 18th Street in Pilsen range from vibrant to totally vacant — some record store windows are adorned with the latest hit albums, Chicago political slogans, calls for power to the people, and URLs where you can shop their stock online whenever they aren’t open in person. Right next door, there’s an empty unit that once housed a coffee shop whose signage is still visible in a few places, a scratched decal on the front door and a fading marquee. People have posted all sorts of flyers to the windows, which are dark and allow you just a glimpse of a trash-addled floor.
Across the street, there’s a place where advertisements for a hot breakfast with coffee and fresh tortillas, only $4.50, are still clearly visible. The literature is so enticing and honestly, the paint isn’t looking so bad on this place that the first time you see it, you wonder to yourself if it’s just closed for a few days. Only after month after month of walking past it do you realize no, it’s never coming back.
But no opportunistic investor swoops in and takes over these places, and the property rarely seems to change hands at all. Those are things that might happen on the North Side, where no great location would sit vacant for even a minute before there were competing bids to develop it all over again. In this corner of Chicago, the neighborhood begins to reclaim these buildings, just as the forest floor might embrace a fallen tree trunk and makes it a safe harbor for new life. Artists appear from nowhere to paint murals on the flaking and fading concrete walls — poems about life in Pilsen, poignant and in pristine print, arrive one morning to lament gentrification and police violence, then disappear by the time the sun rises again.
This is the neighborhood’s way of healing, and its people with it: to make the smallest advances possible, to create new life in the cracks that others would see as irreparable fissures. Pilsen, in some ways, is the vision of people who believed in the possibility of new life — and in the inalienable rights of every life. One of the first sanctuary churches in America, Lincoln United Methodist, is two blocks from my front door.
The Reverend Emma Lozano, a longtime grassroots activist, has provided sanctuary to mothers like Elvira Arellano and has long been a leading advocate for the “right to family” of immigrants. Her brother Rudy Lozano provided instrumental support for Howard Washington’s election in the 1980s as the first Black mayor of Chicago. The Pilsen branch of the Chicago Public Library was named in Lozano’s honor, after his assassination in 1983. Signs adorning Emma Lozano’s church implore the Democrats to “fulfill the Obama promise” by keeping DACA alive and ensuring citizenship for all dreamers. A stretch of wall insided Lincoln United Methodist is also adorned with a mural of Fred Hampton, who spoke here.
I want to be honest about my ignorance. I had never heard of Fred Hampton, Black Panther Party Chairman assassinated at 21, until I moved to Chicago. I had never thought that places like Pilsen existed, neighborhoods of such charisma, conviction, and intensity of character that they feel set apart from even a city like Chicago, whose reputation and fame sell a picture of baseball, pizza, and a baller named Michael Jordan to the world. This place couldn’t feel any more different than the suburbia of the South where I grew up and learned about America, which then felt like a blindingly white society. But both colorful Pilsen and lily-white suburbia represent two sides of the same coin of “set-apart-ness,” on which the former feels natural and the latter, engineered. The former was built on the basis of community as a necessity, while the latter was built to preclude community on the basis that too many people in one place is chaotic, distracting, and inefficient. The former champions a community of people as a collective actor, capable of affecting change for themselves and others. The latter champions the individual as a solitary and heroic actor, the protagonist of their “uniquely” American story.
In other ways, Pilsen is the battleground between conflicting visions of what a 21st-century American neighborhood should look like. Next door or across the street from timeless and all-Spanish storefronts that advertise birria, the increasingly popular Mexican stew, there are places slinging overpriced smoothies and turmeric-ginger “wellness shots” that are mostly water. For every thrift store where the cheap prices are meant to accommodate the community that the shopping supports, there’s now a “vintage clothing” store where you’ll pay ten times as much for a product that’s been sitting in an attic for 30 or more years. When developers come in to fill a vacant building, they want to put in chains like HQ Beercade that has locations in places like Nashville and Austin. Pilsen routinely makes lists of “the world’s coolest neighborhoods,” but “cool” can easily be understood as “marketable.” It’s typical to see graffiti, signs, or banners that read “defendo su barrio — fuck gentrification.”
I don’t have the intention or the hubris to think I can solve the problem of gentrification in an article, but it would be remiss to discuss Pilsen as a white, non-Spanish-speaking resident of a place predominantly Latino without mentioning it. All I know is that a neighborhood over from here, in Little Village, the local businesses along 26th Street produce an amount of revenue and economic activity that is second only to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Yet the Discount Mall there is the target of a takeover by Target, a business that would provide nothing additional to the community but take all of the revenue produced there upwards to a national corporation, instead of keeping it in the same community. Gentrification is a force preoccupied with space and where to find it, with no regards to place as a cultural consideration. Living somewhere with such a strong sense of place as Pilsen has changed my life.
Author Jenny Odell of the 2019 bestseller How to Do Nothing speaks of a “movement downward into place” that must occur in order for people to resist the attention economy and inhabit their bodies in real time. Obviously I think Pilsen really might be one of the coolest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen, because I’m writing this much about it. It’s beautiful, but taking pictures for the ‘aesthetic’ once made a store owner uncomfortable enough to ask me if I could delete them, and I gladly obliged. ICE had a strong presence in the neighborhood last year, and one agent even knocked on my door. Many, many families here have lost people to COVID, to the point that I no longer see faces that were just becoming familiar. Living here has taught me everything about an individual’s responsibility to their community, whether it means wearing a mask or spending your money somewhere that it will go a lot further.
If I divert my attention from social media platforms that make me fearful and anxious, or from the latest sales on Amazon, I have that much more attention to pay to the murals in Pilsen, or to the beauty of well-cared for plants and pagodas in people’s sunken yards. I have more presence to notice that front doors to houses have plaques that read “Familia Garcia, Familia Navarrete,” because a family is what makes a place a home, not the things you put in it. In a world where everything is shared and very little is experienced, I’m lucky enough to live in a place that invites experience, where people line up for selfies with artwork of Selena collecting her Grammy and the park is host to picnics and puppy play groups. There is pain here, too, but pain that when experienced fully, leads to new principles. Pilsen isn’t unique in any of these things, though — I think many of us are lucky enough to live in places like this. We just have to pay attention to them.