When Preservation Meets Gentrification

The Pilsen Landmark Ordinance, and the threat of culture as capital by Olivia Canny

It's hard to find a window in the heart of Pilsen that doesn’t demand attention. If it’s not a poster declaring “Here To Stay,” or “Chinga Tu MAGA,” it’s a set of mannequins in pricey vintage outfits or a cat sleeping beside a 1940s-era sewing machine. 1439 W 18th St. is a special case, though. The north-facing wall of its second story is a slanted skylight, which, in the early to mid 1900s, offered Bohemian immigrant photographer Francis Nemecek ample lighting for his studio portraits. Contrary to its neighbors, this window hosts no signs. But on the ground level, local staple Café Jumping Bean greets passersby with posters that read “Black Love, Brown Pride,” and a definitive “No Pilsen Landmark.”

1439 W 18th St. is one of 850 properties along Pilsen’s central corridor and neighboring blocks that would fall under landmark designation if Chicago’s City Council Zoning Committee accepts the Pilsen Landmark Ordinance, a proposal that arose in February 2019 during the final months of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s incumbency. When Pilsen’s Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25) took office in May of the same year, he immediately pushed for the Zoning Committee to extend its deadline to vote on the ordinance, which has since been pushed again to February 2021. But even if the committee can’t come to a consensus before then, the proposed landmark designation will go into effect anyway.

On its surface, the ordinance appears to be a prodigious move in resistance to gentrification and cultural erasure; if historic buildings and their murals are barred from being demolished, then condominium developers can’t replace an Italianate three-flat and the Aztec calendar on its exterior with matte-gray cube forms and glossy windows.

But the complexities of a landmark designation fall first on the people who own a historic building — people who maintain its plumbing, mend its front gate, and pay its mortgage. In terms of rental rates and general cost of living, a landmark designation can actually exacerbate gentrification by boosting the novelty of a neighborhood along with its property values.

Sigcho-Lopez and Pilsen community groups working to prevent the ordinance from passing are by no means in favor of demolition and luxury condo development. Sigcho-Lopez actually introduced an alternative to the landmark ordinance that would require a public hearing for the community to comment prior to any demolition or development in certain areas of the neighborhood. This “demolition free district” ordinance has been pending in the Zoning Committee since May.

The latest critique from community groups is that the Zoning Committee’s process is undemocratic; in early October, at a critical point in determining the ordinance’s fate, the committee’s chairman did not include the proposal on the meeting agenda, despite pressure from the public to voice their opposition and a rapidly approaching deadline to vote on the matter.

But the complexities of a landmark designation fall first on the people who own a historic building — people who maintain its plumbing, mend its front gate, and pay its mortgage.

In 1986, under the markedly progressive mayoral incumbency of Harold Washington, the city established a plan to develop Chicago’s cultural landscape. Michael C. Dorf, an attorney and professor in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) Arts Administration and Policy Department, served as Director of the 1986 Chicago Cultural Plan. Up until Washington’s leadership, “resources for the arts were totally focused on the major institutions downtown, with little thought given to the neighborhoods,” Dorf told F News in an email exchange.

He added: “Even in the city agencies that did provide neighborhood arts programs, such as the Chicago Park District, resources were skewed to fieldhouses on the North Side, and the poorer African-American neighborhoods on the West and South Sides, as well as the Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Pilsen and Humboldt Park, respectively, were frequently afterthoughts.”

When Washington recruited Dorf to direct the plan, Dorf insisted that it be a grassroots effort; he helped organize over 300 community meetings to develop an understanding of what artists and their communities needed, and to encourage deeper appreciation for art and culture throughout the city.
Chicago’s first cultural plan included intentions of turning vacant city-owned property into community cultural centers that respective communities would have control or ownership of, creating a supply center for cultural organizations to acquire donated items like art materials and furniture, subsidizing rent for artists whose work engages with their community, and a host of other ideas.

It also stated: “The Chicago Cultural Plan is based on the firm conviction that any blueprint for action is worthless unless the people affected are involved in the planning process."

A residence just a block south of 18th Street uses three of it’s street-facing windows to declare opposition to ongoing patterns of displacement in Pilsen. While Latinx residents still comprise a majority of the neighborhood demographics, the number of white residents — and the property tax rates — keep growing. Photo by Olivia Canny.

Fast forward to 2012 — Rahm Emanuel has been mayor for about a year, and gives the plan its first revision since 1995. Emanuel’s version is extensive. It builds on the language of the original plan, but also relies on a lot of terminology that seems like it could have evolved from his background in finance; some of the plan’s broad initiatives are to “attract and retain artists and creative professionals,” “elevate and expand neighborhood cultural assets,” and “strengthen capacity of the cultural sector.”  

Even though Emanuel’s plan outlines a wide range of initiatives to improve access to arts education and fund cultural programming, there’s still a question of motive and an implication that culture is a public-facing means to a profit-yielding end.

Also in 2012, a group of artists, educators, and activists began a year-long effort to remove a beloved component of Pilsen’s culture for just one day; on Oct. 26, 2013, “A Day Without Public Art in Pilsen” obscured over 30 murals with sheets of black paper, with an aim of exposing the contradictory nature of gentrification.

“Public art makes a place better, there’s no doubt about that,” said one of the project organizers, Nicole Marroquín, in a subsequent presentation of the event. “But there was this feeling that art was being used in marketing campaigns aimed at attracting new residents; not additional residents, but replacement residents.”

There’s still a question of motive, and an implication that culture is a public-facing means to a profit-yielding end.

Marroquín, an artist, educator, and professor in SAIC’s Art Education Department, has since worked on other projects that articulate the complexities of gentrification and even initiate conversations about how to move beyond its patterns of displacement. In a 2017 collaboration called “Future Homes,” Marroquín and Paulina Camacho, a teacher at Benito Juarez High School, gave students clay and asked them to build a portrait of their home. 

“Some of the students, by the time these little two-inch terracotta low-fire homes came out of the kiln, they were already displaced from their homes,” said Marroquín in an interview with F. “And so they were getting back a portion of a home that they couldn't live in anymore."

But then Marroquín and Camacho asked the students to design their ideal home. They asked them which aspects of their neighborhood they wanted to keep, which ones they wanted to get rid of, and what other amenities they would add. 

“Every single student proposed a public good. Every one of them,” said Marroquín. “This was not a requirement.” She recalled one student’s idea to make a space for elderly people to pet cats, one of dozens of “radical proposals,” as the project description calls them. And even though they’ll likely never come to fruition, they push the dialogue surrounding gentrification closer to a place where the people who live in a neighborhood have more influence in not only its appearance but its ability to meet their needs.

“These are all tools and exercises for getting us to think about what we need to be doing. And to actually make it visible that people are thinking about this,” Marroquín added. “People have ideas and good ideas about what they want in terms of a neighborhood.” f

Olivia Canny (MANAJ 2021) is the News and Podcast Editor at F. She likes taking long walks on Google Street View.

Illustration by Lela Johnson