Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King moved to Chicago to seek fair housing and respect for communities in which working-class Chicagoans lived and worked. Today, gentrification threatens these very same neighborhoods.
The most recent manifestation of this in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood is “The Gentry.” A converted paint factory at 917 W. 18th Street, developers VCP Villa Capital Partners and realtors Nelson Hill are offering artisans the opportunity to be part of a “thriving artistic and Hispanic community” for a mere $18-20 per square foot. That is double the typical commercial rents along 18th Street in Pilsen and residents fear The Gentry will usher in a new wave of gentrification that once again will lead to families being displaced and long-time local businesses closing as costs increase. In short, developments like The Gentry have the ability to fundamentally change the social and cultural character of a neighborhood, and yet this social and cultural character is precisely what the developers are selling to entice artisans to move to the community.
We at the Pilsen Alliance do not oppose new development and investment in Pilsen, but we want to be part of the conversation. Last Tuesday, 85 local residents attended a community meeting hosted at Rudy Lozano Library by the Pilsen Alliance to learn more about The Gentry. Alderman Daniel Soils, representatives of VCP and Nelson Hill were invited to attend. None did. And so the development of The Gentry and the transformation of Pilsen continues apace, with local residents left in the dark, desiring a dialogue with local officials, but met with silence and dismissive press statements.
The principal of VCP, John Pagone, has said that they want to be “good partners” to the neighborhood but failed to attend the meeting to explain to residents exactly how this partnership works. On the other hand, Alderman Solis has said that the name is “kind of silly” and dismissed any further conversation; it seems like the approximately $8,000 in campaign contributions that Alderman Solis received from Pagone and some Nelson Hill executives has sealed the deal without any discussion or details.
Frank Diaz and Maynor Paredes, two well known Pilsen artists, expressed their outrage on how the developer was advertising Pilsen’s rich art and culture as they are pricing out artists like them who have been actively creating these spaces and now are excluded by high prices with no alternative.
However, as it was discussed during the community meeting last week, there are alternatives and ways to maintain and preserve the diversity, identity and culture in Pilsen. Alternatives like “Community Benefits Agreements” where residents are included in discussions on important points — such as local hiring, affordable space, participation of local artists — were among the great ideas gathered during the meeting. We will continue to advocate for these types of agreements that will allow us to challenge Chicago’s corrosive legacy of segregation, a pernicious system that, as Dr. King described, “not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually … It scars the soul … It is a system which forever stares the segregated in the face, saying ‘You are less than … You are not equal to…’ ”
Featured image: Pilsen Alliance