For residents of Pilsen and other South and West side neighborhoods in the city, the issue of gentrification has been contentious and difficult to solve. Grassroots organizations like the Pilsen Alliance have been pushing back against the gentrification that has luxury condos being built and a upper-class demographic moving into the neighborhood, but it has been a game of give and take.
Something that is particularly intriguing about Pilsen as a site of gentrification is the role that artists might play in the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Pilsen has had a thriving arts district for the past thirty years and even longer, according to Carolina Sternberg, associate professor and chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies program at DePaul University.
“In the 1950s, Mexican immigrants came into the area and started making murals,” Sternberg said. “They brought their culture and told their stories with these murals.”
Paul Hopkin, the gallerist at Slow, which has been an active gallery in Pilsen for a decade now, says the arts influences in the neighborhood goes even further back than the influx of Mexican immigrants to the area.
“Before it was a Mexican neighborhood, Pilsen was an Eastern European community,” Hopkin said. “They were also creating art in the same place.”
So, the question remains: do artists really cause gentrification? Is there truth to the statement, ‘first come the artists, then the yuppies’? And, finally, what can be done to find the balance in Pilsen?
Pilsen has been a site of art for a long time now, with a vibrant art district boasted in storefronts all along Halsted. Many of these art spaces have the goal of fostering a sense of community among artists in Chicago and building up the vibrant arts district on the Southwest side. One such gallery is Slow.
Hopkin emphasized the connection that Slow has to Chicago and how important that is to him as a gallerist.
“Chicago is full of great artists you’ve never heard of,” Hopkin said.
One of the reasons why Hopkin likes the community in Chicago over another city is because Chicago’s art scene is largely focused on the artists and creating art for the sake of art rather than chasing after some form of success or fame.
“I’ve been to New York, I have friends in New York, and honestly, I hated it,” Hopkin said. “I hated the rat race of it all. You see one of your friends in New York, and, you know, it turns into just regurgitating lines of your resume.”
Caleb Beck, the gallerist at Baby Blue, had a similar affinity for Chicago for different reasons. After attending graduate school in Boston, he lamented the lack of space for young artists.
“There weren’t that many shows,” Beck said. “There weren’t that many shows that you would care to be in as, like a young artist.”
It was for this reason that he had started organizing shows in the first place, first in Boston and then later in Chicago at Baby Blue.
Both Hopkin and Beck emphasized the need for artist-run spaces in Chicago to give young Chicago artists a chance to display their work where they might not be able to get a slot with larger, commercial galleries. On top of that, Hopkin and Beck also talked about wanting to break down barriers in art.
“People have this idea of art being for the elites,” Hopkin said. “But the whole point of postmodernism is that art is not for the elites anymore, that there’s no real line.”
This sense of community-building and wanting to break down the barriers between the so-called “elites” and “normal people” reflects what the anti-gentrification activists in Pilsen and other suffering areas have said—so why would there be a narrative that pushes animosity between the groups?
Artists do not cause gentrification, but could instead be a part of a general demographic shift in a neighborhood, according to Sternberg.
“I wouldn’t say that artists are gentrifying Pilsen,” Sternberg said. “Art has been a part of Pilsen for a long time.”
A recent study in the journal Urban Studies actually pushed back against the narrative that arts establishments are a gentrifying force in working-class in neighborhoods.
In trying to unravel the messy relationship between arts establishments and gentrification, the paper actually found that working-class neighborhoods—areas that were labeled as “potential to gentrify”—had the lowest concentration and slowest growth in arts establishments.
The areas that are labeled as affluent or “gentrified,” however, showed a high concentration of arts establishment. What this means is unclear—did the artists come in after the area had gentrified? Did they follow an exponential curve of slow growth at first before picking up as the demographics of the neighborhood changed?
This study doesn’t give a complete picture, however, especially because the connections between race and gentrification haven’t been completely studied.
“There is not a lot of research out about the connection between race and gentrification,” Sternberg said. “My colleague and I are working on a study to explore that connection, but it’s difficult to say if a certain group of people cause gentrification without that information.”
On the topic of race and gentrification in Pilsen, Hopkin sounded hopeful about the future of the neighborhood and the community.
“There are a lot of artist kids moving into the neighborhood, especially in the last ten years,” Hopkin said. “I’ve noticed that recently, not all of these artist kids are white. And that’s a good thing.”
Sternberg says the best way to combat gentrification in Pilsen is to include the community in decisions about what happens in the neighborhood.
“This community center shut down, which was difficult for the neighborhood itself,” Sternberg said. “On the side of the building, there was this big mural, which the developer painted over in gray. After members of the community used their voice to say how much this affected them, the developer allowed an artist to paint a mural on the side of the condominium.”
Victories like this one mean that changing demographics in a neighborhood don’t necessarily mean gentrification. It’s possible for a community change and become more affluent so long as the community is included in the conversation.