Pilsen’s Changing Landscape has Mixed Effects on Longtime Artist Community


Clusters of people descend down colorfully painted stairs at the 18th Street Pink Line stop in Pilsen. Walking west wrapped in scarves and light fall jackets, they are greeted by humming sounds of street music and warm October sun.

It’s mid-afternoon and store doors are open, displaying shelves of fresh conchas, antique trinkets and vintage clothing. Weaving down the street, vendors sell small prints and handmade jewelry, chatting idly with customers. Bright yellow, pink and blue papel picado wave lightly overhead in the autumn air. Some stores and residential homes are marked with large, bullseye numbers. Pedestrians cannot help but take a peek inside and are met with an array of color, paintings, sculptures: art.

Continuing down 18th Street visitors are tempted to window shop for art. Prospectus Gallery with its large, glass windows brings art to the people, asserting its presence in the community. People continue to flow in and out of the space as an #18 Bus boards.

Across from the gallery stands Thalia Hall with a tall, black tour bus parked in front for a night show. Next to the venue, an ominous flyer is plastered to a streetlight: “We’ll buy your property!” with a number listed below.

On Saturday, October 22—23, Pilsen held its 14th annual Pilsen Open Studios, a community art walk organized by local artists and volunteers. Started in 2003, the event opens up studio spaces to allow the public to see how and where art is made in Pilsen. The art walk extends beyond artist studios to include community spaces and cafes displaying artwork and tours of the neighborhood’s infamous murals.

The event was originally organized by a group of Pilsen artists who wanted to independently feature the neighborhood’s artwork, outside of commercialized spaces.

“Little by little [neighbors] warmed up to come into the studios to look at art and see what we were doing,” said Mark Nelson, an artist and Pilsen resident who has been involved with Open Studios since 2003. “They were surprised there were so many of us creating art and culture in the community.”

The annual event features a variety of artists, some with their own studios while others showcase artwork in local community spaces and cafes.  

“I think Pilsen is a great place where you can see established artists, rising artists, outsider artists, all of these different labels that are there,” said Victor Montañez, an artist who has been affiliated with Pilsen since moving to the community in the 1980s. “Once they’re in Pilsen you see, well, they are artists.”

The Pilsen area has been receiving increased attention recently, even outside of the realm of art. For the community, it’s a give and take: with increased exposure comes increased interest. Art and artists in Pilsen are being recognized, but rent is rising. Where attention goes, money, and the opportunity to make money, follows.

“It's always good and bad,” said Monserrat Alsina, Colibri Gallery owner and local artist who helped originally organize Open Studios. “The bad would be the artists having to move away because of the raises in prices of rent. The other thing is that people are coming in, and they’re looking at art, and maybe they're buying more than before. It's not like we sell tons of stuff, but its exposure. It's exposure for us, it's exposure for the neighborhood, for the businesses, it's like the whole economy is better for.”

With its proximity to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) campus and short “L” commute to the Loop, Pilsen has become a hotspot for students and young professionals.  

“There are a lot of young students moving into the area. The new residents aren’t interested in fine art, they’re more interested in the hip places.” said Israel Hernandez, owner of Prospectus Gallery. Hernandez opened the gallery in 1991 as a “social hub” for the community.

Pilsen’s homely appearance is getting an urban makeover, though. The area has had three record stores open in the past year. Housing developers like Property Marketing Group (PMG) are pushing to build new housing units in the area (a project to build 500 new housing units was recently stopped this past June). Bow Truss Coffee Roasters opened in 2014 with some backlash; the storefront was repeatedly vandalized with anti-gentrification messages such as “white people out of Pilsen” and “wake up and smell the gentrification.”

“The neighborhood has changed, that's obvious,” said Alsina. “There's a lot of gentrification going on.”

With talk of gentrification, longtime residents like Hernandez and Alsina worry for the future of the community.

“It’s becoming like Wicker Park or Bucktown,” said Hernandez. “It will lose its charm, if you want to call it that.”

Pilsen has a history of being a hub for immigrants. In 1940s, Pilsen was home to a large community of Polish immigrants, until younger Czechs began moving to western suburbs in the mid 50s. Mexicans and Latinos were moving west, too, pushed by the construction of the UIC campus in the 1960s. By the 1970 census the area recorded its first Latino majority, acting as a gateway for first generation immigrants and families.

“The thing that I've always liked about Pilsen is that it's a family neighborhood and the one thing that it seems to have over a lot neighborhoods is that families seem to stick together here,” said Mark Nelson, an artist and Pilsen resident since the mid 80s. “I mean, it’s not Mayberry R.F.D. but who would want that, right?”

Yet, Pilsen’s family-centered community is shifting. Based on census and annual American Community Survey data, a study by UIC professor John Becantur and graduate student Youngjun Kim found that while Pilsen remains largely Hispanic, the number of Hispanic residents is decreasing as wealthier, single whites move in. The largest decline was in the number of Mexican families in the area, a 41 percent decrease from 2013 census, continuing the downward trend from the 2000 census.

As of 2000, more than 10,300 Hispanics have left the area, a 26 percent decline. The latest number from 2013 report an estimated 28,835 Hispanic residents living in Pilsen.  

“It’s a beautiful place to be, but, unfortunately, that attraction tends to draw investors,” said Nelson. “If it drew more families in that would be one thing.”

Both Alsina and Nelson admit they frequently receive mail from realtors offering to buy their property. According to Alsina, her current tax payment was double her previous bill, and she predicts the trend will continue.

“They raise taxes, raise insurance, homeowner's insurance, to make it difficult for people like us who are middle class and trying to make it,” said Alsina. “It's tough. So many people opt to sell because they can't afford taxes when its double.”

In August of this year Cultura in Pilsen, a non-profit arts organizations located at 1900 S. Carpenter, was forced to move when their landlord doubled their rent. The building manager gave them the ultimatum of moving out by August, or paying month-to-month rent of $2,500, double their current payment. The organization now temporarily resides in La Catrina Café.

Owner Salvador Corona claims the café expanded from a business to a “community center,” hosting community meetings and displaying artwork from featured artist each month. La Catrina hosted the Pilsen Open Studios kick-off event on Friday October 21.

“I think we tend to flock where there's artists because you relate to them, and they become your friends,” said Corona. “Pilsen has been like that for a long time. There has really been like a little nest of artists, always, and everyone else just becomes stronger because there are more people.”

In Pilsen, art and community coincide, from street murals to local galleries and open studios.

“There is no art world,” said Montañez. “There is one world, and we all live in the same world. It's an artist community, and I think that that's very important about the open studios, that at least for one weekend out of the year in this community everybody sets aside their differences and says 'OK, we are all part of this together.'”

Yet culture and community are always fluctuating, as urban landscapes begin to change. People are moving in as others are moving out, and with new community members comes a variety of cultures. For Pilsen, culture now includes a much steeper price tag.

“People tend to think that culture is something that gets handed down from generation to generation and that the community's culture does that too,” said Montañez. “But culture is constantly in conflict, constantly in a struggle for becoming something else.”

East on 18th Street, vendors sell fresh produce and bagged chicharones from pop-up shops and pick-up trucks. Groups congregate in Harrison Park, playing in the open field and greeting neighbors as they pass down the street. A family huddles around a steaming pot of tamales at a picnic table. Plastered to a vacant storefront window another flyer responds, “Pilsen is not for sale.” In the background a Pink Line train rumbles from the tracks above as more visitors walk onto the street.


Top Image: Mural located outside of La Catrina Café on 18th Street.