Tuesday, June 20th, was yet another somber day for the Pilsen community, the community where rampant unrelenting gentrification has forced over 10,000 working class Latinx families away from community organizations, neighbors, family, friends, congregations, schools, jobs, public transportation, proximity to healthcare centers, and cultural institutions with no signs of relenting.
On Tuesday a vigil was held in front of Casa Aztlan, the community center which had brought relief and support to countless working class immigrant families since 1831 when it was previously known as Howell House. A large gathering of community members formed a circle around the entrance which only days before was painted with the portraits of activists and revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata, Subcomandante Marcos, and Frida Kahlo. Now it was bricked over and painted in black and gray. The murals which were a hallmark of the Chicano movement in the 1970’s and portrayed the struggles and dreams of a people who have been systematically and systemically oppressed and exploited in a nation based on profit and racism; some of the murals were repainted over the years to reflect the changing struggles and politics of the Latinx community in Pilsen.
Due to mismanagement of funds by former director Carlos Aranga, Casa Aztlan was sold to developers, specifically to Andrew Ahitow of City Pads LLC, who, like the capitalist he is, could care less about cultural significance – after all, he’s turning a community center into 10 luxury rental apartments which will be sold at market rate. This momentous event in the Pilsen community underscores the rampant gentrification that is plaguing the Pilsen community.
As new trendy businesses like Hai Sous, Furious Spoon, and soon to be Starbucks (yes Starbucks), among others, are establishing themselves, affordable housing takes a nosedive. Money-hungry developers, house-flipping entrepreneurs, real-estate companies, and wealthy landowners have been buying up every sliver of property in the community with the hopes of selling or renting them at a profit, and the city government is helping them with zoning permits and the coming construction of “El Paseo,” the Pilsen equivalent of the 606 Trail, was pushed through by Rahm Emanuel himself. The local 18th Street Development Corporation is helping them.
Local business owners support them, at least the ones whose businesses are not tied to Latinx culture and patronage. Business owners and politicians are the ones drawing up plans for the community with absolutely no attention paid to the working class residents of the community. Streets that had been neglected for decades are now getting repaired; code violations, evictions and fines are now rampant while the city increases property taxes. All of this is part of a plan by city officials to move the poor and disenfranchised out from the spotlight of the Illinois political arena that is Chicago. The goal is to move them elsewhere out of the sight and mind of news crews and the institutions that oppress them.
Where would they go? Anywhere but the city. After all, Rahm’s “Building a New Chicago” plan is doing just exactly that: building a new Chicago. One that is free from the political embarrassment that comes with the name “Chi-raq”, one where throngs of people will not overtake Lake Shore Drive or be a potential threat to the city, one where you replace the most politically active people with those who are content so long as you give them a dog park and a food truck festival. The easy Democrat solution to poverty, corruption, and human suffering is the same as it has always been: build up a nice façade of progress chock-full of affluence and prosperity and push those who suffer to the wayside, out of sight and mind of politicians looking to get re-elected on the grounds of lowering crime and increasing prosperity, all the while saying they are fighting on our behalf.
Pilsen is just one neighborhood that is feeling the destruction of its community; there are so many others currently facing gentrification or are waiting in line for the sights of “progress” and “diversity” to set upon them. As the reversing of white-flight occurs from suburbia to the inner cities, the forced exodus of working class people (primarily black and brown) begins against their will. As the affluent leave the suburbs, the working class replaces them and it’s becoming evidently clear that this new area is not ideal for the poor. After all, Suburbia is a horrible place that is not very conducive to community-building and activism. Rather than being a boon, it will be harder to organize people in the suburbs than it is in the inner cities, and capitalists know this. The layout of Chicagoland’s suburbia is an activist’s nightmare and also a nightmare for minorities. Miles and miles of land house the same number of people you could find within a couple of city blocks. Cop shoots a black or brown man in the city? The news is all over it. Cop does the same thing in the burbs? Far easier chance of the media ignoring or dismissing it. For people willing to protest, where will you go? Do you want to pay a charter a bus to go city hall in Chicago for every mass rally? Suburbia is not the place to build a community and is not an improvement for the working class as it was deemed over 50 years ago, all it will spell for them is poverty in complete obscurity while political attention is paid to cities, and we must fight this at all costs. The working class must stay in the city!
We must not allow businessmen and politicians to displace us. To our fellow community members of Pilsen, we must fight for our right to stay in the city, to be close to our schools, community centers, congregations, friends, family, and medical care. If we do not stand up and fight them back now, everything we and our families have struggled for will be cast aside to the realm of anonymity yet again and we will have to start from the beginning, all over again.