CHICAGO — Victoria Romero, 34, is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s Pilsen community, a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood. Her parents migrated to Chicago in the 1950s from Mexico. The Pilsen community was once known as the center of Chicago’s Mexican community and a point of entry for many immigrant families.
“I feel strongly that Pilsen is part of my identity as a Mexican American woman,” Romero told the World. In her youth, she said, “you could hear Mexican music playing right next to the hot dog joint, the cultural smells of tamales, hot Mexican chocolate. I don’t want to lose that feeling of community.”
Today Victoria is a community activist trying to save Pilsen from being gentrified. “Gentrification is the political and economic process to displace lower-income families from their houses and communities,” she explained.
Residents of Pilsen, including Romero, held a candlelight vigil on Nov. 30 in front of a construction site for a 400-unit luxury condominium to mourn the potential loss of their neighborhood to a large-scale development plan. Many fear the project will displace working-class families.
Affordable housing is very much needed here, as elsewhere in Chicago, yet the plan to build luxury condos will only soak up valuable resources and put neighorhood housing out of financial reach for Pilsen families, critics say.
Over 80 Pilsen residents, young, old, Black, Latino and white, gathered in the cold evening air to form a picket line with signs that read, “Progress without displacement!” and “Accesible para quién?” (Accessible for whom?). They shouted, “Pilsen is not for sale: Develop, don’t displace!” Passing motorists honked their horns in support.
Expressing her frustration about being kept in the dark on the development plans, Alejandra Ibanez, 34, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, said, “We hope to bring to light the need to preserve Pilsen as a neighborhood that can be home to both working-class families and urban professionals, but only through an open, transparent and inclusive process.”
Pilsen Alliance organized the vigil. A local, multi-issue grassroots community group, the Alliance is leading the “Pilsen is Not for Sale Campaign.” Referring to widespread dissatisfaction with the community’s elected leadership, Ibanez said, “If you’re going to develop, develop with the community involved. Pass policies and legislation that will develop affordable housing for low-income families with long-term stability.”
The luxury condo units would fall within Pilsen’s industrial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which was promoted by the local alderman as a government-backed vehicle for creating jobs.
“The stated aim of the 1998 TIF redevelopment proposal was to provide employment and job training for Pilsen residents, to maintain locally owned businesses and to generate a strong local community,” said Dr. Euan Hague, a supporter of the Alliance and a professor at DePaul University. “This proposed condo development contradicts these TIF objectives, objectives that were intended to last for 23 years.”
Carlos Arango, 58, executive director of Casa Aztlan, a Pilsen social service organization and community center, told the World, “The real issue here is the property level of the community — to change the community to a bourgeois community from a working-class one.”
Pilsen, like many African American, Latino and poor white urban communities throughout the country, is in a constant struggle with the harsh realities of gentrification, otherwise known as “ethnic cleansing.” Many argue that the real message behind gentrification is to purposely displace poor and working-class families so that upper-class and wealthy people can move in, ultimately raising the cost of living.
The disaster and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, will affect thousands of families whose futures are in question as a result of mass displacement and corporate plans for gentrification. Land continues to be a profitable and private commodity that the rich exploit at the expense of the majority. Racism, economic inequality and gentrification are all combined in the web of capitalist exploitation of the working poor.
Victoria Romero is a rising star to many who are fighting for the rights of working families, immigrants and low-income communities. Pilsen is rich with Mexican culture, Latino traditions and a history of working-class values worth defending.
“I oppose this new condo unit,” Romero said. “How are working-class families going to afford them? What we need is more green space for our children, another high school and community centers for our youth, as well as a viable option of affordable housing based on the median income of average working families.”