Activists and business leaders come together to combat gentrification in Pilsen

By Jessica Villagomez

On a cold autumn evening on November 30, La Catrina Café, located in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, transformed into a space meant for discussion.

The café, which has a spacious lounge for customers to eat and drink traditional Mexican treats, reinvented itself in the span of half an hour. Small tables that filled the open lounge were pushed to the side. Folded chairs lined the center of the space, facing toward the small stage in the corner of the room.

The temporary reorganization was due to an event hosted by Pilsen Alliance meant to foster open discussion among business owners and residents of the community.

Residents, volunteers and Pilsen Alliance organizers all expected a big crowd, and with good reason. New businesses in the neighborhood have been tagged by graffiti labelling them as gentrifiers and instructing them to “get out.” Tensions have been brewing for years between business owners, confused and angered at the taggings; and residents, who argue their neighborhood is changing drastically partially because of the businesses.

The relationship between businesses in Pilsen and long-time residents of the neighborhood has emerged as a microcosm of a larger discussion about increased gentrification in Pilsen within the last decade.

According to a 2016 study conducted by the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), more than 10,000 residents left Pilsen between 2000 and 2010, and during that time Pilsen lost more than 25 percent of its Latino population.

Rising rents and property values have been changing the fabric of the traditionally Latino, specifically Mexican neighborhood, with families who have lived here for generations now feeling at risk of displacement.

Michael McLean, a partner at Condor Partners, LLC, a national real estate development and investment firm, came to the meeting at La Catrina Café to listen to the community concerns. According to its website, the firm has been developing properties in Chicago since 1994 in the Lincoln Park, North Avenue and South Loop neighborhoods. McLean said he hoped he would learn what he could do to avoid exacerbating the process of gentrification. He listened.

At Catrina, residents described how their community no longer feels like home. Some described how their memories of mom-and-pop businesses in years past are fading away. Moderator and community organizer Xochyl Pérez opened up the table for discussion with a question seldom asked before: What has been taken from you?

“What is happening is violence,” a resident at the meeting said. “This is about people’s lives!”

The conversation quickly shifted to how residents felt about businesses. Many echoed previous statements and expressed sadness over changes in the local landscape.

Community organizer Ilene Palacios said that though she did not live in Pilsen, she associates much of her childhood with the neighborhood. After moving to the Chicago suburbs, Pilsen was one of the places she and her family felt a sense of community.

“My family always came to this neighborhood because where we lived wasn’t always very accepting of Mexicans, so this neighborhood has always been important to me,” she said.

Pilsen Alliance youth organizer Anderson Chaves said that businesses in the community are ignorant about the issues community members face, and many times are profiting off the displacement of residents.

“I think what happens is that they see the displacement of people and they take advantage of it sometimes and they open a new business knowing that they’re going to profit from it but as a result of them profiting from that, thousands of people are going to keep getting displaced,” he said.

Evictions in Pilsen have risen in recent years, with nearly 280 evictions in the Pilsen area code of 60608 last year alone, according to The Chicago Reader.

“I think they picked Pilsen for a reason, they understand,” Chaves said of developers. “It’s not because Pilsen to them is not this great, beautiful place, they understand that there’s a change happening and they understand that they’ll buy something here for cheap now and everything is going to go up and then next thing they know they’re going to be making a killing and might even sell it for three times what they bought it for.”

In addition to increasing property values, Chaves said new businesses often aren’t catering to the demographic in Pilsen. Rather than creating a business that offers low-cost options, the business is meant to drive others into the neighborhood.

“[Gentrification is] when a community is changing, when the people of color and poor people get pushed out and a newer, wealthier and oftentimes white community moves in and takes over the community,” he said.

However, some residents disagree with the backlash that new businesses have faced and expressed a need for Pilsen to be open to accepting change. Pilsen resident Miguel Chacón feels as though business owners who attended the event had come to gain context and learn but ended up as the targets.

“It’s all about having a dialogue with both businesses and the residents and while the Pilsen Alliance group seems to be asking for that, they’re not actually doing what they’re asking for,” Chacón said, adding that communication between businesses and residents had not happened at the meeting. “We keep asking what is the role of businesses. Well what is the role of the neighborhood in terms of welcoming these businesses? Everything is an us versus them.”

Chacón, who said he has lived in Pilsen for more than 10 years with his wife and children, said he is noticing changes within the neighborhood, but fears that residents may be viewing change as inherently negative.

“I’m not oblivious to gentrification happening in the neighborhood, it obviously is, but it can’t be asking for the businesses to have an open mind when they themselves don’t seem to be having one,” he said.

For business owners hoping to invest in Pilsen, communication with residents can be a double-edged sword. Oftentimes, business owners fear community backlash and hence avoid the open events and discussions that could minimize tensions.
To be a good business, according to community members, is to be one open to criticism and one that does not take advantage of the neighborhood. But that is not easy to do, and community engagement is not an easy task.

Palacios sympathized with businesses that may not know what to do and recommended reaching out to the community and offering a space for neighborhood events and gatherings as a good method of building community relationships.

Ultimately, most residents argued that businesses that are coming into the neighborhood have a responsibility to engage. In other words, they have to prove themselves to the community, not the other way around.

“I know it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of work that goes unnoticed, it’s unpaid, it doesn’t reflect on your profits, but for some businesses that’s important because this community does lack a centralized community space,” she added.

Photo at top: Community organizers gathered at La Catrina Cafe to discuss gentrification in Pilsen. (Jessica Villagomez/MEDILL)