In a city that houses over 3 million people and counting, it’s fascinating to see how neighborhoods are changing in Chicago. Areas once deemed “bad” now have mansions and trendy restaurants running through them. So, where did the original inhabitants go? And why did they move out?
The simple fact is that the neighborhood you live in says a lot about who you are. Around Chicago you hear things like, “Wicker Park is becoming the next Wrigleyville” all the time. Without a doubt the next changing neighborhood is Pilsen. My friends who once lived in the traditionally Mexican neighborhood have been vocal about the changes that are happening and they are not happy. There are some interesting reads on Pilsen’s gentrification, but I want to share a first hand account from someone who lived there and had to move out.
Though gentrification generally pertains to the displacement of poor communities by wealthier people, some feel that the increase in rents and property value that come along with it are a good sign for the neighborhood. They think gentrification means that the community is getting better. But to imply that a neighborhood was bad before a wealthier group moved is problematic. Not to mention that many times gentrification results in the loss of the pulse of the neighborhood that made it attractive for others to begin with. One thing's for sure, change happens, whether we like it or not.
Angel, like so many others, no longer lives in Pilsen. “I don’t live here anymore, unfortunately, because I can’t afford to,” she said. “I grew up in this neighborhood, went to daycare, kindergarten, middle school and high school here. I spent a lot of my childhood here.” There it was, within the first couple of minutes of talking to her she had said something that is at the center of the gentrification issue in Pilsen — a once affordable neighborhood is no longer accessible to its longtime residents.
The passion in Angel’s voice is evident as she points outside the window and talks about how different the block used to be. She recently attended a town hall meeting organized by The Pilsen Alliance to oppose condos being built in the area. It was her first time going — she doesn’t even live here anymore and still feels the need to stand up for the community. She tells me that she realized that most of the people there were 40 plus years old and have been fighting this same issue for 20 years. She can’t help but feel that she’s too late to these pointed conversations. “I was very disappointed that I was one of very few young people there, because if I grew up when it was still relatively affordable and I’m freaking out about it now, there has to be other young people stressed out the same way.”
Like many people, Angel grew up feeling that she would eventually be able to afford her own apartment in the community she grew up in. “Realistically, I should be able to but I can’t,” she said. “I don’t even really like hanging out here anymore because it’s so stressful to walk through a place that I can’t even afford to be a part of — that has changed and become so removed from its roots.”
Angel’s grandparents own two buildings on 18th and May Street, just a couple blocks away from Halsted street, where lots of fancy galleries and lofts have been built. Her grandparents charge really cheap rent since they own the buildings, which is becoming less and less common as developers move in. Of course Angel’s grandparents are aware that they can raise the rent, but multiple circumstances have kept them from doing it. First, they only speak Spanish so they can only rent to Spanish speakers. Second, they rent to immigrants who are probably making an all-cash income and can’t afford that many places to live in the city. They may not be able to house the whole community, but they are making a difference for those who wouldn't be able to afford to live there under normal circumstances.
Of course her grandparents have been visited by developers trying to buy both of their buildings grossly under market value. “Developers are trying to push out the current building owners. The city fined people for code violations, it happened to my grandpa,” Angel told me.
“When I started college in 2009, nobody knew where I was from or where Pilsen was. I had to tell them how to get there on the train," Angel recalled. "When I graduated this year, everyone had moved to Pilsen. Isn’t that so crazy?”