Pilsen: A cultural experience

The Pilsen neighborhood was named for the city of Pilzen in what is now the Czech republic. Czechs and other Eastern Europeans settled the area in the late 19th Century as Irish and Germans moved out.


The steeples of St. Adalbert's Catholic Church are being renovated. The church was the third Polish Parish founded in Chicago. Construction started in 1874.

Like many Chicago neighborhoods in the late 1800's and early 1900's, all classes of people lived together. It was not unusual to see a hovel next to the home of wealthy people. Most of the inhabitants worked in the many nearby factories or the stockyards.

As the Eastern Europeans moved west and into the suburbs, Mexicans took their place. During the 1960's Pilsen, along with the Southeast Side, was the entry point for most Mexican immigrants.

Over the years Pilsen developed into a close knit Mexican enclave. This closeness allowed them to keep their culture and values alive. This is seen today in the vibrant arts, music, and original Mexican food.

18th Street, between Damen and Halsted, is the main commercial corridor. Bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bars, specialty stores, and every other conceivable small business line the both sides of the street. Some coffee shops, cafes, and specialty bakeries are making inroads.

Walking through the neighborhood one gets a sense of the history of Chicago. Hard working immigrants building a community, then moving out leaving it to the next group of hard working immigrants.

Pilsen is old. It is tired looking, even though there are some modern buildings. During the day it is quiet. The side streets are almost silent.

Even though gentrification is edging in, Pilsen is still Mexican. There is a cultural as well as activist resistance to gentrification. Pilsen is the heart of the Mexican American community in Chicago.

Pilsen is a neighborhood of murals. Vibrant colorful murals, mosaic murals, and some older faded ones. A group of young people from After School Matters were working on a mosaic mural just off 18th Street on Paulina.

There are many specialty and regional Mexican restaurants in Pilsen. Many are just plain diner types with little ornamentation or ambiance. But, it is the quality and taste of the food that counts. You can eat well and cheap in Pilsen.

One of my favorites is Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan. Their specialty is goat soup.

Pilsen is worth a tour. The CTA Damen or 18th Street Pink Line stops are your gateway.

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