Monday, November 18, 2013

Is limited gentrification possible? And maybe even a good thing?

Several things have me thinking about gentrification lately. I don't know about you, but when I hear that word I immediately go to the negative connotations, the profit driven force that fills historic neighborhoods with haves and displaces the have-nots, obliterating their character in the process. That's odd, because I am, in some ways, a gentrifier. That is to say, I'm a white dude that likes to live in diverse and funky neighborhoods where, more often than not, the median income is below average.

I've written of my love for my neighborhood, Rogers Park, but in the same piece that extols its historic character and scrappy nature, I express my gratitude for relatively recent additions like farmers markets, lively nightspots and hip cafes. If fact, as I write this, I'm sitting in a new cafe on Howard Street near Ashland, which anyone not living in Rogers Park (and, I suspect, some who do) will tell you is a sketchy block that is best avoided. The area across the street is home to some of Rogers Park's poorest citizens. Nonetheless, Sol Cafe does its best to engage the immediate community, hosting discussion groups, local artist exhibits and other ways to combat this fear. It has a airy, welcoming feeling enhanced by a huge floor to ceiling window that lets in plenty of light. Howard Street itself recently upgraded its streetscape, and a vacant lot on the other side of Ashland will soon be a sizable community garden. There are less empty storefronts, and the Caribbean-American Bakery up the block, rebuilt after a fire, is still going strong.

And yet, Rogers Park remains an extremely affordable place to live. Neighborhood grocery stores sell their produce for less than you'd pay at a supermarket, and you can still get a stunningly delicious taco al pastor at any number of taquerias for two bucks. Rogers Park may be on the lake shore and blessed with lovely beaches and parks, but it's still pretty far from downtown. Heck, the nearest Divvy bikeshare station is still three miles south of here.

By contrast, Wicker Park is in another part of Chicago, one much closer to downtown, that went from a historically Polish neighborhood to one that was on the skids, but then became an edgy artist enclave in the 80s. Within 15 years, the transformation to the upscale was total, and the signs and t-shirts that pleaded "Keep Wicker Park Weird" were all gone.

Anyway, I'm thinking of this because I recently spent most of an entire weekend in Pilsen during their annual Open Studios art walk. The neighborhood is historically Czech, but transitioned to primarily Mexican in the 70s and 80s. It, too, became an artist enclave, but this time the artists were grounded in Latino traditions, their work a cultural expression of Latinidad. Even a casual walk around the neighborhood makes this apparent. Murals that range from historic Chicano depictions to graffiti-inspired abstractions are everywhere, and more often than not galleries are gloriously chaotic spaces, often doubling as studios and workshops, the very opposite of sleek showrooms.

Pilsen lies even closer to downtown than Wicker Park, and it also lies just south of the University of Illinois campus and Medical District. You can bet that real estate developers have been coveting it for years. And, indeed, the area is dotted with new condos and, yes, several Divvy stations.

Without question, Pilsen is changing. Funky designer boutiques are popping up, and there's a whole lot more to choose from than tacos and carnitas when dining out. Hipster entrepreneurs from north side neighborhoods are taking notice and opening restaurants and bars. But there are signs that, even with these trendy new accoutrements, an effort is under way to respect and retain the character of the neighborhood.

New businesses like Simone's Bar and Pl-zen (named after the Czech city that gave the neighborhood its name) have taken care to honor the street art muralist tradition. The charming and very busy La Catrina Cafe is named after one of the most beloved figures in Mexican folk art, and a substantial amount of its square footage is devoted to a gallery and event space for local artists. Needless to say, they serve a delicious Mexican hot chocolate alongside their lattes. Día de los Tamales takes that most humble of Mexican foods and puts a modernist twist on ingredients.

Perhaps most hopeful of all, though, was a simple grocery store that I stumbled into almost accidentally when I noticed the facade was newly painted in vibrant colors. A neighborhood grocer has occupied this corner for as long as I can remember, but something was different. Curious, I noticed that it was now called MeztiSoy. "Soy" is, of course, a vegetarian staple, but it's also Spanish for a declaration of self, meaning "I am." Soy Mexicano. Mestizo, on the other hand, describes the complex identity of someone who is of both European and Amerindian descent. Something thoughtful was clearly going on here.

So I went in. And there, all in one place, side by side, was an organic produce market that also carried a large selection of the packaged goods that you will find in any Mexican supermercado throughout the city. These are beloved items from back home, comforting in their ordinariness. To top it all off, there was a taqueria in the back, albeit one that serves vegan soy chorizo fajitas alongside caldos, tacos and other traditional favorites. Locally owned, the whole place defiantly asserted that organic farm-to-table ingredients and mindful eating are most definitely NOT for hipsters only.

Finally, you can't discount the resiliency of long time residents who rightly view all of these changes with some concern, but also considerable strength. An artist that I spoke with, when asked about the threat of gentrification, remarked, "Latinos don't rent. We buy. We're hard to get rid of."

I think Pilsen is going to be just fine.

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