Can Pilsen pull off responsible development?
Omar Valencia doesn’t remember the more dangerous days. He arrived five years ago from Colombia, following the trajectory of countless other immigrants for whom Pilsen was a northern port of entry. As an artist, Valencia also fits another demographic common to the area. But because he runs his own gallery—Oxalá (1653 W 18th St, 312-850-1655)—he sees many sides to the rising cost of living.
When he moved here, Valencia says, his building, owned by a Mexican landlord, was filled with Mexican tenants; today, white people live in the other apartments. Meanwhile, his customer base has shifted from Latinos to whites, and “now you can see the police all the time,” Valencia says. Overall, he says the shift is “very positive. For business, it’s good. For the owners of the buildings, it’s good, too.”
The changes represent a sometimes contentious issue—right down to the use of the word gentrification, which for many people is a loaded term, suggesting class- and race-based discrimination. So what’s the most inclusive way to redevelop an area for the greater good? Ask five residents in Pilsen and you’ll likely get eight different answers. Still, everyone seems to agree the neighborhood experienced rapid redevelopment in the last decade, which recently cooled (as it has everywhere) because of the economic downturn.
“It’s difficult for me to define [gentrification],” says Ald. Solis. “I think there was improvement; I think there was development; I think we had a lot of construction going on.” He’s taken strategic steps, he says, to lessen gentrification’s negative components (see “A kinder, gentler gentrification,” page 14, for examples of ways other Chicago ’hoods have adapted). For example, his office successfully lobbied the state to create a special historical-landmark district to help area homeowners; it offers a property-tax freeze to anyone investing 25 percent of their assessed value in home improvements. The alderman has also worked to secure affordable-housing guarantees from developers, a move applauded by community organizations such as housing-advocacy group Resurrection Project.