Finding the Heart of Pilsen

 

Murals adorn many buildings in Pilsen. Photo by Nina Molina

Murals adorn many buildings in Pilsen.
Photo by Nina Molina

By Nina Molina

 

Visitors taking the first step out of the Pink Line L into Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood observe that each crevice and stair of the station is not wasted, overflowing with splashes of culture, displaying religion, family and colorful dancing skeletons.

Jose “Primo” Sandoval, 39, manager of Sabina’s Tortillas, has grown with the evolving Hispanic neighborhood for 14 years.

“The people here are family-oriented, church going, and focus on children and programs for them,” Sandoval said. “Your friends can be your family here.”

Snuggled in the Lower West Side of the city within the boundaries of 16th Street, Cermak Road, Halsted Street and Western Avenue, Pilsen delivers a burst of Latino flavor into Chicago’s urban vibe.

Inhabited by a population of 43,000, this once primarily Eastern European neighborhood turned Hispanic, continues to grow, now with younger faces, or “hipsters,” according to Daniel Gutierrez Jr.

“There is a diverse crowd. Now, we have hipsters coming in,” said Gutierrez, 43, a third generation owner of Nuevo Leon restaurant, “Young, artsy, carefree people increasing our business.”

Attracting younger crowds starts from the various attractions found in the neighborhood, centering on the bustling buzz of life on 18th Street.

“Fiesta del Sol is once a year. It’s at the end of July…there’s Spanish music and activities for children too,” said Mary Jane Gutierrez, 69, a 50-year Pilsen resident and ex-Chicago Board of Education member.

The life of the fiesta is the authentic Mexican food made by locals. A potluck style party can be topped off with restaurants like Milagro, Don Churro, and Nuevo Leon, local favorites.

These parties are not limited to the streets though. Since the Czechoslovakian influence in the late 19th century, the churches of Pilsen have been used for more than solely prayer.

“We have a party two times a year at the church [St. Adalbert],” Gutierrez said. “There is music, clothes for sale and food.”

Auctions, including cars, have been used to raise money at these church fiestas for art for the children of Pilsen.

Though mostly Hispanic, the Pilsen neighborhood is being changing with its fresh melting pot of people. These changes are not met without consequence though.

The increasing gentrification spurs higher rents in Pilsen, forcing some to leave the area in search of cheaper rent. Some believe this gentrification is at the fault of expansion from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

“UIC construction forced us out of Taylor Street also,” Gutierrez said.

The Pilsen neighborhood continues to grow with its people, morphing to conform to its new groups. Life in this culturally diverse area never fails to disappoint the hungry or adventure-hungry.

Perla Delgado, 33-year-old general manger of L’amour Beauty Bar, describes the new Pilsen as, “Americanized, with a touch of Latino.”

 

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