City officials and developers have been promoting Pilsen as Chicago’s hot new arts neighborhood. But some local artists fear all this attention will mean gentrification for their community.
Gentrification is the change in urban communities that happens when the wealthy buy housing property in impoverished areas, often displacing long-time residents and altering the neighborhood’s cultural identity. So Pilsen artists are using their talents to try to maintain the neighborhood’s character and prevent displacement, as shown at a recent event at Casa Aztlan.
Casa Aztlan has been a center of community resistance since the 1960s, when the Latino community sprouted in Pilsen. Since then the neighborhood has been primarily Latino, but that is changing. In 2008, the Latino population increased in Pilsen by 3.3 percent, while the white population increased by 28.2 percent, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council.
Though many view gentrification as a problem, violence and crime are also problems. The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority’s Annual Report named Pilsen one of the “hot spots” in the city for street gang violence. “The level of gang-related violence in Pilsen is widely considered to be second only to East Los Angeles,” says the website of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Neighborhoods Initiative.
Some residents view Pilsen as a neighborhood that is changing for the worse, due to gentrification and dislocation; but the local artists of Pilsen are trying to bring about a positive change in their community.
One of these people is 33-year-old Jaime Garza. He organized last month’s event, sponsored by 10 independent organizations at Casa Aztlan, which supports the community and offers free art classes for locals. “I wanted people to interact with each other and share their ideas and talents. The event had diversity, from bands to organizational activists,” said Garza.
Another local resident who feels it is her responsibility to bring about positive change is Revolutionary Communist Party volunteer Lisa Rivers. Rivers has been a part of the Revolutionary Communist Party since the 1960s during the Vietnam War. The party focuses on high school students and their expressions of the world they live in. The group publishes a weekly newspaper that tries to motivate people to transform the world.
Pilsen spray paint muralists, artists and cousins, Erick Aguilla, 21, and Allan Rangel, 19, also see their murals as a way to make a change in the world. They are working on a mural that features three characters, “B,” “4,” and “C.” Each of the characters represents the streets that they grew up on in Mexico City. The two cousins came to Chicago for better opportunities, and they frequently express the struggles of their native country.
“I believe in a change in the world, and I want to be a part of that change,” said Aguilla. Aguilla and Rangel paint murals around the city to help illustrate the difficulties of growing up in poverty. All of their paintings are donated to different non-profit organizations.
Meanwhile, 38-year-old Pinchon Salinas is a volunteer at Colectivo Arte Y Realidad, a non-profit urban organization made up of people in Pilsen and in Little Village that teaches both adults and youths different styles of music and dance. “I like that kids have an option to do new things,” Salinas said. “It’s our way to protect ourselves against what they force us to do, which is to watch TV and use the internet.”