Chicago’s Fixation With Gentrification

Amanda Landwehr
Staff Reporter

Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood

When exiting the CTA pink line train heading west, people are met with vibrant and colorful pieces of art that decorate the walls of the 18th station transit stop. Mayan religious figures, scared animals and bright paints coat these otherwise bland cement walls.

This colorful artwork is representative of Southwest Chicago’s massive Mexican-American population, and plays an important role in contributing to this neighborhood’s cultural identity. Recently, however, the culture of this unique urban neighborhood has been compromised due to an influx of new residents.

This is Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and like most inner-city communities throughout the United States, Pilsen has a long and brutal history of cultural erasure due to the process of gentrification.

Gentrification is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.”

In urban Chicago, gentrification has been changing the culture and appearance of predominantly lower-income, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods as a means of attracting newer, wealthier residents. For these neighborhoods, the effects of gentrification are nothing short of devastating.

In an article published by the Chicago Tribune, an analysis of the 2016 U.S Census Bureau performed by professors John J. Betancur and Youngjun Kim revealed that since the year 2000, nearly 10,000 Latino residents have left the neighborhood of Pilsen. This alarming statistic is due to the fact that predominantly white, wealthier residents are choosing to move to inner-city neighborhoods for the community’s culture and proximity to public transportation.

Xochitl Perez is a student at Loyola University and a lifelong resident of Pilsen. According to Perez, gentrification has been impacting her neighborhood for as long as she can remember.

“Growing up in Pilsen, I was pretty much living your typical Chicago Mexican kid life,” said Perez. “I never really left Pilsen, since most of my family and friends lived on the block or somewhere in the immediate neighborhood.”

Gentrification began to play a significant role in Perez’s life as she grew older and began to see families moving out of their homes and local businesses deciding to close down their doors.

“There was a business that closed on 18th street, close to the train station,” said Perez. “I personally never went to that shop, but I know that a lot of the kids who I grew up with were greatly impacted by that store closing. This kind of thing happens pretty often.”

As a lifelong resident of Pilsen, Perez has seen her neighborhood change and develop throughout the recent years with the construction of new housing, craft breweries and chain restaurants. City planners often choose to “revive” inner-city neighborhoods such as Pilsen as a means of decreasing crime by boosting the area’s economy through the addition of new businesses and luxury housing, or so they say.

“I know that Pilsen was a bad neighborhood in terms of gang violence in the 1980s, and I still hear gunshots sometimes,” said Perez. “But gentrification has generally helped to decrease the level of crime.”

Perez makes an argument for neighborhood revival that is agreed upon by many scholars and economists. Despite the obvious negative effects of gentrification, many people remain in defense of upper and middle-class resettlement in urban neighborhoods. According to an article published in The Atlantic, “A study from NYU’s Furman Center suggests that residents of public housing in wealthier and gentrifying neighborhoods make more money, live with less violence, and have better educational options for their children.”

As wealthier residents move into Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods, the rise in economic status arguably increases the quality of life for every member of the community through lower crime rates, higher pay and and better schools. There is an undeniable economic advantage to gentrification—but at what cost?

“We come from immigrant parents who weren’t fortunate enough to have gone to college or even high school. It’s very difficult to have a job that pays higher than minimum wage,” said Perez. “With the new developments appearing in the neighborhood, most of these Pilsen residents don’t really have any option except to move out.”

Dyanna Tello is a student at Roosevelt University and current resident of Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. Throughout her life, Tello has seen gentrification greatly impact the inner city and even her immediate area.

“Gentrification is the process through which neighborhoods can be improved usually at the expense of current inhabitants,” explained Tello. “Gentrification forces out current residents as the improvement in the standard of living makes that area more expensive to live in.”

Tello’s economic approach to gentrification is frighteningly accurate. With the development of quirky coffee shops and yoga studios, wealthier residents are attracted to these gentrified neighborhoods, which subsequently increases an area’s need to develop luxurious and more expensive housing. As a result, the less wealthy former residents of that neighborhood are forced to move out.

“The implementation of new restaurants, new apartments, or new parks which sometimes creates higher property taxes for current residents, and can oftentimes make living conditions too expensive,” said Tello. “Local businesses and bodegas are at a disadvantage when big corporations like Starbucks or Walgreens come in and offer products at a cheaper price or with more variety. In this case local businesses lose money and owners are forced to move elsewhere.”

Moy Moreno is the co-director of the Pilsen Alliance, an organization that seeks to develop grassroots leadership within the community of Pilsen and other working class, immigrant heavy neighborhoods throughout Chicago’s Lower West Side. The Pilsen Alliance advocates for quality public education, affordable housing and government accountability to promote healthy communities throughout Chicago.

Moreno considers the gentrification of Pilsen to be a “slap in the face” to the artists, long term residents and business owners of Pilsen. In severe cases, residents of Pilsen are kicked out of their homes with a thirty day notice when developers purchase a piece of property in order to create a new high-rise condo or coffee shop.

So what can Chicago residents do to prevent gentrification from erasing the cultural integrity of neighborhoods like Pilsen? According to Tello, political advocacy is the key to limiting some of the devastating effects.

“Be aware, especially in a political sense. I enjoy a good matcha bubble tea as much as the next person, but cheaper alternatives always come at a cost,” said Tello. “So while I’ll agree that there are many financial improvements that come from gentrification, the cultural losses do not justify the benefits. Therefore it is the responsibility of younger generations to vote, support local businesses, attend public forums and just acknowledge what is truly going on.”

Perez and Tello have a similar perspective on how to combat gentrification, and it begins with Chicago residents deciding to take political action.

“With the way things are looking now, gentrification seem to be increasing at a faster rate,” said Perez. “But now we actually have advocacy groups to tackle that, who work to inform people about the negative effects of gentrification.”

Gentrification continues to factor into the United States’ long and brutal history of racially-charged housing inequality, redlining certain neighborhood districts and electing officials who fail to represent people of color and working-class Americans.

“Gentrification is much more than just an issue about new businesses,” said Tello. “It is deeply rooted in racism, politics and social class.”

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