Chicago's Historic Pilsen Neighborhood Enters a New Era

Chicago's Historic Pilsen Neighborhood Enters a New Era
[Photo by James Sweeney]

Since the 1840s, the Lower West Side has mostly been home to the immigrant working-class.  It was initially settled by Germans and Irish who came to work on the Burlington Railroad.  By the 1870s, the neighborhood had become predominately Bohemian, resulting in the adoption of the Pilsen moniker from what is now the Czech Republic’s fourth largest city, Plzen.  Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Croatian, and Austrian immigrants also flooded the area to work in nearby factories and the stockyards.  As a result of post war migration and displacement from the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Near West Side, by the early 70s Pilsen had become majority Latino, predominately of Mexican descent.  In the last two decades, the cultural offerings, architecture, and comparably low rents have attracted a new wave of artists, urban dwellers, and small business owners who are bringing several interesting additions to this proud, vibrant neighborhood.

A stroll down 18th Street may be the best vantage point from which to view Pilsen’s historic significance.  Skilled Bohemian builders constructed a variety of commercial, residential, and public structures between 1870 and 1910 that line the street.  Some of the visible architectural features include Baroque, Romanesque, and Queen Anne forms, Mansard roofs, detailed cornices, and protruding fenestrated bays.   One group that is working to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood is the Pilsen Alliance.  Attempting to build upon the 2005 National Register of Historic Places designation, the group would like to use local TIF to pay for the proposed Pilsen Museum and Cultural center and to provide incentives to help local business owners and long-term residents prosper and remain in the neighborhood.

One notable historic landmark that is seeing new life is Thalia Hall at 18th and Allport St.  The 1892 building, which consists of commercial and residential space as well as a theater meant to mirror Prague’s opera house, was the hub of the Bohemian community.  The team behind Longman & Eagle completed a full renovation of the theater and reopened it as a music and performance venue.  On the ground floor, Michelin-starred chef of Longman & Eagle Jared Wentworth has brought his culinary vision to Dusek’s Board & Beer.  Next door, Belli’s, a juice bar and food market featuring a variety of items from Chicago and Midwest farmers, has set up shop.  In the basement, the divey lounge Punch House serves up craft cocktails, specializing in variations on punch.

At 19th and Peoria, another 19th century structure has been repurposed.  Originally constructed as a German Lutheran church, “The Sanctuary” is now an intriguing, if slightly eerie garden space.  A fire destroyed the interior in 1979, followed by a 1998 windstorm that demolished the entire back wall.  In its current form, the structure is an example of architectural preservation with a contemporary, minimalist twist.

Pilsen boasts a great deal of handsome and distinct prewar residential architecture.  Single-family cottages, brick and stone two and three flats, three and four story tenements, and “back houses” (the front faces the alley) line the streets.  A visitor to the neighborhood will notice quite a few houses with the first floor below street level.  These residential relics were the result of the city raising the streets’ grade level in order to incorporate a new and, at the time in the late 19th century, revolutionary underground sewage system.

The non-profit The Resurrection Project (TRP) has been adding some unique, community-minded housing to Pilsen.  In 2012 the modern six story dorm La Casa opened at 1818 S. Paulina Ave.  Built to provide residences and educational resources to low-income college undergrads, La Casa has become a model for progressive, unconventional housing for commuter students.  TRP is also responsible for the four story, 45-unit affordable rental apartment building that will rise on a vacant lot at 17th and Damen.  Casa Querétaro, named after the central Mexican state and city, will provide below market rate rents for qualified individuals and working families.

For over four decades Pilsen has been considered the heart of the Mexican-American community in Chicago.  The most visible representation of Pilsen’s connection to Mexico’s rich artistic culture is the mural network that adorns walls throughout the neighborhood.  It’s worth noting that Chicago has more public murals than any other U.S. city, and Pilsen contains the best concentration.  At the neighborhood social service agency Casa Aztlan, located at 1831 S. Racine, a mural (1974) depicts famous Mexican icons, such as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo, Caesar Chavez, and Benito Juarez.  A mural of mosaic tiles (1991) at the Orozco Academy/Cooper Academy at 1645 W. 18th St.  also portrays famous Mexicans, including “Los Tres Grandes” (the great muralists): Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.  “Alto Al Desplazamiento Urbano De Pilsen” (1997) at 1805 S. Bishop St. honors the plight of Pilsen’s working class.  Additionally, a mural to commemorate the late Chicago street artist Brooks Golden will be created by several artists, including Pilsen muralist Jeff Zimmerman.  This mural in Golden’s honor will neighbor his impressive work known as “The Owl” at the 16th St. viaduct.

Pilsen’s most well-known institution is the National Museum of Mexican Art.  It opened in 1987 as the Mexican Fine Arts Center, but adopted its current title in 2006 due to its recognition as the only Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.  While it is always worth a visit to view the museum’s collection of more than 7,000 works, it’s especially impressive each fall when the Day of the Dead exhibit, the largest of its kind in the U.S., is displayed.

It goes without saying that Pilsen contains a wealth of outstanding Mexican cuisine.  Several excellent taquerias dot Pilsen’s streets, including Taqueria El Milagro, Taqueria Los Comales, Taqueria Sabor Y Sazon, and Carnitas Uruapan Restaurant.  For a great dessert, visitors can visit the small churro factory Don Churro El Moro de Letran at 1626 S. Blue Island Ave. These staples were joined by the relatively flashier Del Toro in 2012.  The tacos, sopes, ceviche, and the Mexican style Del Toro burger have an upscale flair, yet no item on the menu is more than $9. With a decent supply of craft beers and a reputation for superb Latin cocktails, Del Toro attracts a wide array of neighborhood patrons.

Since the 90s, an increasing amount of non-Latinos have been moving into Pilsen.  The Chicago Arts District on the eastern edge of Pilsen has played a major role in attracting artists and urban explorers to the neighborhood.  The restored historic buildings, studios, galleries, and urban gardens that make up the district came about through the work of the first and second generation of the Podmajersky family.  The family has had a presence in East Pilsen since the Slovak immigrants John and Elizabeth Podmajersky arrived in 1914.  Just south of the arts district on Halsted, the divey bar Skylark and the farm to table Nightwood from the owners of Lula Café are well-established destinations that cater to a mostly hipster crowd.  Coming soon, the Wicker Park Bocce Club, who created a public court at Damen and Crystal, will deliver their second publicly accessible court on a currently vacant lot at Halsted and 21st.

Another burgeoning section of the neighborhood with an arts focus is the Creative Industry District.  At and around the intersection of Cermak, Jefferson, and Lumber, and just across the Cermak Bridge and Chicago River, several handsome, former industrial buildings have found new creative uses.  Just some of the small businesses that have recently utilized space in these buildings include a commercial printing press, furniture and design companies, woodworking training and apprenticeship programs, and a creative arts center.  Perhaps most notably, the critically-acclaimed Redmoon Theater, known for its unconventional visual and theatrical spectacles moved from its West Loop location to a 57,000 sq. foot space at 2120 S. Jefferson in 2013.  Redmoon’s presence is expected to be a catalyst for increased investment and development in the district.

In recent years, Pilsen has gained a number of restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops that reflect the changing demographic.  The now more slightly established institutions Honky Tonk BBQ, Café Jumping Bean, and Knee Deep Vintage, have been joined by the Modern Cooperative (specializing in vintage furniture), Nitecap Coffee Bar (serving the popular Halfwit Coffee), Moody Tongue Brewery (founded by a former Goose Island brewer), and Revival a Go-Go (vintage)  Later this month, the third location of Bow Truss Coffee will be opening at 1841 W. 18th, and Magik St Tavern, a bar that will include an indoor taco cart, plans to be up and running in the Lacuna Artist Lofts building (2150 S. Canalport) by the fall.

While somewhat short on public park space, there is movement to make Pilsen a greener neighborhood.  Pilsen Alianza Verde has been working to support community gardens, including Growing Station at West 21st and Sangamon, the Great Wall of Pilsen (mural and garden project) at 18th from Western to Leavitt, and the Orozco Garden at 1940 W. 18th St.  El Jardin de las Mariposas at 1835 S. Carpenter Ave. features a gazebo designed to reflect the butterfly palace at Teotihuacan, the pre-Colombian city north of Mexico City.  The garden’s milkweed attracts monarch butterflies, which make their annual migration between the state of Michoacán in Western Mexico and northern locales such as Chicago.

Another recent green development was the creation of the Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape in 2012, which CDOT claimed was “the greenest street in America” when it was fully unveiled.  The mile and a half stretch of Cermak Road and Blue Island Avenue between Halsted and Wolcott utilizes environmentally friendly design features, including reflective surfaces to conserve energy and reduce urban heat island and stormwater diversion via bioswales, gardens, and permeable pavement.  With the addition of the Sustainable Streetscape and the community’s and PERRO’s (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization) campaign that lead to the closing of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants, Pilsen has been making strides in creating a greener and healthier environment for its residents.

It’s apparent that Pilsen’s charms will continue to attract and intrigue non-residents.  As developers increasingly swoop in to capitalize on the growing interest in the neighborhood, we can only hope that residents and groups such as the Pilsen Alliance will be able to protect Pilsen’s architectural, historic, and cultural heritage.  Supporting and fostering new independent businesses, programs to help working-class residents, and environmental improvements should all coincide with preserving what makes this neighborhood so special.

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