Track 4: Diversity, Population Change, and Gentrification in the Preservation Dialogue
The City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development is participating in a community-based effort to preserve the culture, character and affordability of the Midwest’s largest Mexican community. More than 80 percent of the 115,000 residents in the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village identify as Latino, compared to 29 percent citywide. One aspect of the multi-faceted strategy includes a designated landmark district to preserve the area’s unique architecture.
The Pilsen neighborhood is known for the cultural footprints left behind by waves of immigrants. Beginning with Irish and German immigrants in the mid-19th century, then Bohemian immigrants after the Chicago Fire, and more recently by Mexican immigrants. By the late 1890s, Pilsen had evolved into a thriving self-sufficient community. Within the boundaries of the local landmark district are approximately 850 buildings representing industry, entertainment, residential, schools, churches, banks, and commercial uses.
Pilsen’s original builders followed Chicago’s architectural stylistic norms of their day: Italianate, Romanesque, Queen Anne; but the neighborhood developed its own special character of “Bohemian Baroque” flair which is expressed through unusually shaped parapets, carved stone lintels, sculptural treatments of stone, and decorative patterns in the brickwork.
The neighborhood’s Bohemian inspired buildings have persisted or been adapted for new uses as the community has changed. The neighborhood retains the feel of an ethnic enclave even as the visual landscape has evolved to reflect the culture of the newest residents. The character of the neighborhood began to change in the 1960s as murals, signage, and decoration representing themes from Mexican culture appeared on the facades of Pilsen’s buildings.
Scores of artists have contributed to the visual landscape of Pilsen and collectively these works communicate the multilayered history of the community as they continue to attract and inspire artists to express their voice on buildings in this neighborhood. The influence of Mexican culture and the Mexican-American experience on many of these works and artists solidifies a strong connection to the Mexican Muralists of the 1920s. Although Pilsen’s murals are, by nature, ephemeral, they are also dynamic, with many having been revived over time, modified to suit a new social-political context, or even re-created to maintain an important community connection.
Today, Pilsen is increasingly subject to gentrification pressures from upwardly mobile, non-Latino residents attracted to the area’s culture and urban authenticity, as well as from commercial developers who see value in Pilsen’s dense population and proximity to resources. Through the various preservation strategies, including the recognition, incentives, and protections that landmark designation provides, the Pilsen community hopes to preserve Pilsen’s unique architectural and artistic character in a manner that recognizes the dynamic evolution of the past.