Thursday, April 14, 2016

Long-time ethnic enclave turning white and wealthier, but is that a plus?

Gentrification is a label with negative connotations to some people, usually those whose long-time home neighborhoods get improved to the point where they can’t afford to live there any more.

Proximity to downtown makes Pilsen attractive to all
Some want to say there’s nothing wrong with upgrading a neighborhood. It ought to be desired.

BUT WHAT OF the situation where upgrade means creating improvements meant to attract newcomers, without any interest in improving life quality for the existing residents.

That seems to be the situation taking place in Pilsen, the long-time immigrant neighborhood whose character has evolved so much throughout the years and is undergoing yet another round of change.

Pilsen carries the name of a village now in the Czech Republic. Sure enough, it was once a Czech enclave in Chicago. It has been home to many ethnic groups as they first enter the United States. Since the 1960s, the neighborhood language has been Spanish – it has been a Mexican enclave.

But the DNA Info website reported on a University of Illinois at Chicago study of the neighborhood demographics – the Mexicans are moving out; being displaced not by other immigrants but by many white people.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD, ACCORDING to the study, is still majority Mexican-American in its composition; nearly 29,000, compared to about 4,300 white people. But that white figure is about 22 percent higher than it was in the year 2000.

While the number of families with children living in the neighborhood is down by 41 percent. Which brings about a drastic change in the neighborhood’s character.

Pilsen has the potential to become the kind of place where a young professional type of person lives for a few years (to gain some sort of Chicago street-cred, so to speak) before moving off to a suburb once they have their own kids.

And for those people whose lives depend upon being within a Spanish-speaking enclave (because their comfort level in English is lacking), they are the ones who could find themselves with minimal options for moving forward.

THAT’S ACTUALLY THE sad part. As a third-generation Mexican-American (albeit one with no ties to Pilsen nor its bordering community of Little Village), I’d like to think the reason Mexicans are moving out is because we’ve progressed beyond the ethnic enclave.

But as one who sees my own home neighborhood of South Chicago turn into a place for people with few other options, I know it’s not true.

I also know that the talk in recent years of turning the one-time U.S. Steel South Works plant into an upscale community of its own scared many South Chicago residents for the same reasons being expressed in Pilsen – the idea that this project was meant to chase out the existing residents.

I actually get why outsiders would be interested in Pilsen. It is fairly close in to downtown Chicago and has direct contact with the Loop through the ‘el.’ Someone living in Pilsen would have easy access to a downtown job, or to other places throughout Chicago through mass transit.

IT MAKES ME wonder if Pilsen is destined someday to become like Lincoln Park – which once upon a time ago was a Puerto Rican enclave, until developers saw that lakefront site and figured other people would benefit from it more.

Just as I’m sure some people probably think a place like Pilsen with good mass transit is being wasted on people who never want to leave the neighborhood.

The key to this situation is to comprehend that there are people already in the places where other people would like to live – if only they can get rid of what’s already there. The most drastic case of this may be the modern-day Cabrini-Green – whose near North location was always seen as wasted on the public housing that was built there back in the 1940s.

Now, many of those former public housing residents are scattered throughout the Chicago South Side and suburbs – where they are disrupting the decades-old routines of those communities. Which could easily happen with the Mexican ethnics whom the whites would love to move out of Pilsen – if things are not handled properly!


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