Sunday 13 March 2011

A Nutshell of Urban Change - Pilsen, Chicago

As some of you know, I am currently undertaking a six-month research trip in Chicago as part of my PhD in Urban History. I hope that it won’t be considered too indulgent if I share some of the things I do and places I see along the way – all with a strong historical edge, of course.

I’m currently staying in Pilsen, a neighbourhood on the lower-west-side of the city. Like many of the neighbourhoods in Chicago, it tells the story of nineteenth- and twentieth century American urbanisation in a nutshell – from settlement, immigration and safe havens for minorities, to gentrification, economic exclusion and battles over ‘community’.
Originally the area consisted of German and Irish immigrants, attracted in the 1840s by the construction of the Southwestern Plank Road, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and the Burlington Railroad – all major routes of trade as the size of Chicago increased exponentially. With the creation of thousands of unskilled jobs in lumber mills, garment finishing sweatshops, and railroad yards after the great fire in 1871, new Bohemian immigrants especially began to arrive and carve out a safe(r) space in a city experiencing ethnic tensions. Like most immigrants in the new American cities, they brought their own traditions and customs. With the opening of a restaurant, “At the City of Plzen”, taking its name from the second largest city in West Bohemia, the title stuck.

The Pilsen of the present day however takes most of its character from the Mexican migrants that predominated following more liberal immigration laws, and ironically illiberal forced removal due to the expansion of the University of Illinois, in the 1950s and 1960s. From the 1970s, Latinos surpassed the Slavic population of the area, a trend that has continued to the present day; in 2000, Latinos accounted for 86.9 % of the area.

The vibrancy of Pilsen is apparent as soon as you step off the elevated-railway. The 18th Station is decorated intensely with colourful murals by local children and artists, such as Guillermo Delgado, as part of the Chicago Transit Authority’s ‘Adopt-A-Station’ Project created in 1990 to ‘ensure a strong connection between stations, community organizations and surrounding neighborhoods.’
While the ‘Adopt-A-Station’ could be cynically viewed as an non-organic municipal project, though a very attractive one, the rest of Pilsen reflects an honest and charming aura of its own. Though, as my host informed me, the area surrounding 18th street is increasingly a middle-class one, it maintains part of its importance as a gateway point for Mexican migrants. Unsurprisingly then, as well as road and shop signs in English, many are also in Spanish.
Countless walls of shops and houses are embellished in pictures – some simply celebratory of Hispanic history and culture, but many deeply and boldly political.
This mural, with its slogan of ‘Pilsen is NOT for sale’, interested me the most.
A bit of digging on the internet found - ‘a social justice organization committed to developing grassroots leadership in Pilsen and neighboring working class, immigrant communities in Chicago's Lower West Side. We work for quality public education, affordable housing, government accountability and healthy communities.’ The ‘Not For Sale’ mural originated out of a campaign organised in response to a large condominium development, and fears that the area was increasingly becoming unaffordable due to gentrification – defined by the Pilsen Alliance as ‘a profit driven change in the class and race composition of a neighborhood over time.’ While the website details some impressive victories, it also shows a continual struggle against market-forces to preserve and improve the residents way of life.

What also struck me after my eyes had accustomed to the bombardment of colour was a truth that could be applied to any neighbourhood in the city: the infrastructure and materiality of the area was still distinctly municipal, and, though less distinct, Chicago – regardless of who is currently living there. If the people here disappeared tomorrow, the pavements, fire-hydrants, and traffic-system would remain.
It made me think about the many ways you can define cities – by the people, its material presence, or simply its location. What makes Pilsen part of an American city, and not just ‘a city’? The elevated railway that trundles above the street? The distinctive capitalist grid system layout? The diverse ethnic make-up? Simply the fact it is in America? Or a combination of all the above?

Whatever the answer, this neighbourhood encapsulates the exciting nature and character of urbanisation - organic/manipulated, human/material, accepted/contested. One thing is certain; Pilsen is constantly changing - whether it's for the better, I imagine, depends entirely on your point of view.

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