Wiping her hands on an apron as she strides out of the kitchen, the single employee on duty at Josefina’s Bakery turns down “Vas a Llorar Por Mí,” the latest single from Banda El Recodo De Cruz Lizárraga. The same evening sees students from Benito Juárez Community Academy slouched over benches in nearby Dvorak Park, next to a hassled mom whose shouts of “¡Cuidado!” fall on the deaf ears of her boisterous son. Men stream out from citizenship classes in Casa Aztlan, a longtime home of social activism in the neighborhood.
A block away from all of this is Thalia Hall, a sprawling nineteenth-century building at the corner of 18th and Allport that has recently found new owners.
A partnership headed by Bruce Finkelman, owner of North Side establishments Longman & Eagle and the Empty Bottle, along with The Promontory, a soon-to-open venue in Hyde Park, bought the complex earlier this summer for $3.2 million. It’s September 28, a Saturday night when Dusek’s, the restaurant and the anchor tenant of the entire complex, finally throws its doors open to the public. The dinner crowd has yet to arrive, but there are about sixty well-dressed patrons choosing from a beer list dominated by Belgian imports.
Featured that night is a pan-roasted skirt steak with sautéed matsutake mushrooms paired with a Czech dark lager, a nod to the area’s Bohemian heritage. Acclaimed Longman & Eagle chef Jared Wentworth sends a tiny cup of compressed apple, cucumber, and pork belly around the restaurant. There’s an air of subdued class about the whole operation, and the clientele looks perfectly at home with all of it.
On the face of it, then, the entrance of Thalia Hall seems a straightforward portent of great change, where the arrival of well-to-do white interlopers and the businesses attending to their needs prices a neighborhood out of the reach of a predominantly low-income Mexican-American population that has called Pilsen home since the 1950s.
Bruce Finkelman is terse, even defensive when confronted with the idea that his newest project could find itself out of sync with the neighborhood that surrounds it. He’s had a long history in Chicago dining, with runaway successes in earlier ventures like Logan Square’s Longman & Eagle, meaning he’s eager to add to his burgeoning gourmet empire. Thalia Hall represents the latest feather in his cap, and his confidence shows in the way that he carries himself.
Previously, most of his business holdings have been discrete, individual projects dedicated either to entertainment or food. Thalia Hall, however, will house Dusek’s, a grand theater, a seventeenth-century-themed punch bar named Punch House in the basement, and two outside tenants—Modern Cooperative, a modern furniture store specializing in 1960s home décor, and Belli’s, a food store dedicated to local produce.
Given the variety of business interests contained under one roof, Thalia Hall proves difficult to classify. This contributes to Finkelman’s outright rejection of the idea that his vision of Thalia Hall could prove to be an outlier in the Pilsen neighborhood.
“This place has been here longer than the neighborhood’s been here, so if it doesn’t fit into the fabric, [Pilsen is] really in trouble,” Finkelman says.
The physical longevity of the building means that Finkelman’s assertion is difficult to quibble with. Opened in 1892, Thalia Hall is an unchanging fixture at what was once the center of Czech pride in Chicago. Still, in a neighborhood which as of the 2010 Census remains more than eighty percent Hispanic, and where the median income hovers around $25,000, there are fears that this incarnation of Thalia Hall will not be culturally or economically accessible to Pilsen residents.To that end, Finkelman describes an active process of trying to ensure that Thalia Hall is rooted in the neighborhood. He insists that he is no fly-by-night operator, either: “Empty Bottle, and Empty Bottle Presents, have been doing things in Pilsen for about fifteen years. We’ve done shows down here, gallery openings, all sorts of things. These are places that we’ve been going to for quite some time. It was a natural progression.”
The purchase of Thalia Hall represents at least a temporary end to a saga that has dogged the property for the past decade. In the past five years alone, Thalia Hall has battled through several lawsuits filed against Dominick Geraci, its colorful former owner. Geraci was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy, and in March of 2012 Thalia Hall faced foreclosure.
Finkelman acknowledges that the large task of integrating Thalia Hall into the neighborhood is going to demand more than a recount of his professional history.He’s keen to describe a hyper-local hiring process. “My bartenders live down the street from here, the girl who’s doing some of the designing in the basement meets me at an old bar across the street. This is where they live.” The emphasis on staff having pre-existing links to the neighborhood crops up again and again.
Craig Golden, Finkelman’s business partner, recalls how they roped in a local artist. “A guy was out hanging posters on the street, and we brought him into the space because he’s a printmaker,” Golden says. “That’s part of what we want to do—to collaborate with artists in the neighborhood.”
Nelson Soza has concerns about what the space is going to mean for the future, for the wider neighborhood of Pilsen, and for the lower-income residents that live in the blocks surrounding 18th Street.
He’s the head of the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization started in 1998 that describes its main mission on its website as “community preservation.” The precise nature of that preservation is in little doubt. A conversation with Soza consistently returns to economics. He emphasizes maintaining support for working-class and low-income groups in the neighborhood.
“Thalia Hall coming into the neighborhood is a big marker,” says Soza. “It’s a big development. It signals to me a consolidation of the gentrification project.”
It’s clearly an emotive and complicated subject for Soza, and he treads lightly in elaborating on the statement.
Gentrification, he says, “means that people with better incomes are going to be living in a place.”He hews religiously to an economic definition of gentrification: not once does he attempt to raise the specters of race or culture. In fact, he explicitly debunks the idea that his work with the Pilsen Alliance is meant to maintain the Mexican makeup of the neighborhood.
Picking his words carefully, he explains what exactly the Pilsen Alliance is trying to preserve. “Gentrification to us is not just Mexican people getting kicked out of an area,” he says. “It’s about people with more resources, influence, and education moving the old residents out, and those residents can come in many colors.”
He strongly believes that there are things Finkelman can do to mitigate some of the ill effects associated with the arrival of a higher-end clientele.Specifically, he made two concrete demands to Finkelman after the purchase, both of which, he believes, would have ensured that poorer residents maintained an active stake in the success of the property.First, noting the eight apartments above the main theater space in Thalia Hall, he wanted a commitment to ensuring that a portion of those residences would be affordable. “We wanted twenty percent of the apartments rented for people who had fifty percent of the state’s median income, low-income people making $22,000 a year.”
Secondly, he raises the issue of employment in the local community. “We asked them to help us create a program that would create a pipeline of local people to fill the jobs that he has,” he says. “For instance, he needs waiters, cooks, drivers. Is there a certain level of skills that is necessary so that we could help steer people from the community to those jobs?”There’s a palpable dissatisfaction with the way that those concerns were addressed by the Finkelman team. “On the units, people are already living there, so [Finkelman] said, ‘I don’t know if I can do anything about that,’ ” Soza says. “Of course he can, but okay. On the jobs, ‘We’re definitely going to do something.’ ”
There’s a wry smile, as he continues by describing how Finkelman said he was going to handle local employment: “ ‘We’re going to put a listing on Craigslist.’ ”
His exasperation with the project shines through when he wonders aloud why Finkelman picked Pilsen to begin with. “It’s surprising that they selected this place,” he says. “That tells me a lot. It tells me that to them, this is the Wild West. It’s open space, it’s free for them to be the anchor for change.”
When I ask Finkelman why he selected Pilsen specifically, he replies, “You’d be surprised how much it is that a project picks you. A business acquaintance of Craig [Golden] showed him this property, he took a walk through, called me and told me to get my ass down here. When we started working on it, it just became a no-brainer to do.”
Despite his misgivings, Soza is seeking a way to make it work for Pilsen. The project is already well underway, and so he frequently revisits themes of community, cooperation, and acceptance.“I have a great hope, personally, that Thalia Hall will succeed as a business,” Soza says. “We wish him all the success in the world, we want him to succeed. Because if he succeeds and we are real partners, then we will all succeed.”
Thinking about the changes ahead, Soza is restrained, gravely nodding as he accepts that it is better for the Pilsen Alliance to be proactive in shaping the discussion, rather than rejecting every proposed change in the neighborhood.“We don’t just want to be the anti-people. You want to be the for-people,” Soza says. “Folks like Mr. Finkelman and other leaders in the business community can play a huge role, so we’re excited that we’ll have a chance to continue working with him. Hopefully.”
Alexandra Curatolo and Tiffany Paige are the two tenants occupying the eastern commercial end of Thalia Hall, young women who glow when talking about the neighborhood that they both call home. Both have a significant history of grassroots involvement in the neighborhood, with interests in local food and art, respectively.
The similarities run deep. Both have lived here for eight years, but beyond the mere fact of residency, they have both also nurtured community organizations dedicated to making Pilsen a more livable neighborhood.
Tiffany Paige runs Modern Cooperative, the first store to open in Thalia Hall, relocated from its former location a few blocks east. It’s a tastefully put-together space dominated by fall colors—orange, amber, brown—and it looks right off the set of “Mad Men.” In a tour of the space, she shows off her fierce desire to support and cultivate local artists.There’s a mural by local artist Ruben Aguirre she’s particularly excited about, a tangle of red, green, and gray that commands attention just inside the entrance of the store. Aguirre’s mural was commissioned by Paige, who picked the artist because of his strong ties to the neighborhood.
“He did the sides of Simone’s Bar, and he also has a mural or two on 16th Street, on the viaduct. Because street art is such a big part of the culture of Pilsen, we had this idea to take outside street art and bring it in.”
Aguirre is not alone in the store. He’s only one of twelve artists from Pilsen whom Paige has chosen to display in her space. It’s a deliberate decision made in the hope of having Modern Cooperative be a showcase for the vibrancy of the Pilsen art world, in addition to its regular business.
The names of residents keep rolling off the tongue. Tammy States Love is responsible for the paintings hanging on the wall; the light fixtures in the window were made by Raymond Barberousse. The store sells tote bags made by Jeff Munie out of recycled material, some of which came from a monastery in Niles, Illinois. The monastery was originally built by St. Procopius Holy Trinity, across the street from Thalia Hall.Additionally, Paige is an integral portion of Vintage on 18th, a nine-month-old collaboration between five different thrift and vintage stores that lie clustered on a four-block stretch of 18th Street. “We’re all friends, we all support each other, so why not market each other’s stores?” she asks. “We wanted to show all of Chicago that we’re a strong and vibrant business community.”
Her voice wavers a bit as she remembers that it was the strength of the art community in Pilsen that drew her to the neighborhood almost nine years ago. “We all highlight local artists,” she says. “Sometimes if someone comes in and thinks I carry clothes, I can say ‘No, but here’s a map showing where all the other stores are.’ ”Curatolo, Paige’s soon-to-be neighbor, is the president of the Pilsen Community Market, a weekly farmers’ market that takes place every Sunday in the Chicago Community Bank parking lot adjacent to Halsted Avenue.
Her dog Belli is the inspiration for the name of her first business—Belli’s, Thalia Hall’s local food store—and he strains at the leash whenever a potential new friend walks by. On this particular Sunday at the farmers’ market, friends are not in short shrift—2pm sees at least five families sitting on a quiet patch of grass, kids ringing the bells on their bikes, the bravest among them squatting, crowding around the pooch.
Once it opens on October 18, Belli’s will stock local food products available from the farmers’ market, as well as organic produce from around the region. Curatolo takes an obvious pride in how this store grew out of the Pilsen Community Market and its participants and patrons, who value locally-sourced food.
When it comes up in discussion, both Curatolo and Paige readily acknowledge the existence of gentrification. However, they say, Pilsen’s change is distinct because this change came from within, from residents of the neighborhood.
“The thing I like about the way Pilsen is going is that it’s not Starbucks,” Curatolo says. “It’s locally supported.”
Paige also brings up the lack of impersonal coffee chains as evidence for the healthy way in which change occurs in the neighborhood. “I live in Pilsen because I like that it isn’t over-gentrified, that there aren’t chain coffee shops. If you look at all of the businesses that have opened recently, they all live in the neighborhood.”
That may be so, and walking down 18th Street still means being treated to a long string of locally-owned establishments. On the basis of new businesses like Dia de los Tamales and Market Supply, Pilsen localism looks to be a wellspring that is unlikely to dry up any time soon.
That being said, Pilsen’s unique combination of affordability and history of bottom-up change might be threatened by the arrival of a complex headed by a person who readily admits that his interest in setting up shop in the neighborhood was a fairly recent development. There’s a long way to go before Finkelman can prove a strong and consistent record of commitment to the community. As it stands, Thalia Hall could be perceived as just another portion of his influential business holdings.
Any discussion of Pilsen’s future is incomplete without a mention of Danny Solis, 25th Ward alderman and a long-time power broker within the community. Even as one of the most powerful men serving on the City Council—he’s served as the president pro tempore and is the chair of the Zoning Committee—there is a burgeoning sense in Pilsen that Solis cares very little about helping the majority poor, immigrant Mexican population of the neighborhood.
Solis first ascended to the City Council in 1996, a community organizer who had unimpeachable credentials when it came to fighting for working-class and immigrant Mexican Americans. His personal history reads like a laundry list in insurgent crusades on behalf of the disenfranchised: a first-generation American, he was a frequent participant in the anti-war protests of the Vietnam War, and co-founded the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), a community development organization that emphasizes education. The group now operates thirteen charter schools in Chicago. As its co-founder and executive director, he was instrumental in passing the 1986 federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), an important first step for many undocumented immigrants seeking amnesty on American soil.
However, in recent years, the safe shoals of grassroots support for Solis within Pilsen have gradually eroded. For all the talk of how change will happen on the neighborhood’s own terms, the perception is that the exigencies of Solis’s political position might mean that change happens faster than anyone anticipates.
Nelson Soza explains that the Mexican base of the alderman’s support is now shakier than ever before. To Soza, there is little sense that Solis, and the rest of the City Council, are responsive to the needs of the poorest members of his community, people who rely most on the government for basic services. “A lot of people would like to see him do certain things differently,” Soza says, pointing out the recent CPS closures as an example of a city government that chooses to ignore its poorest. “When you close fifty schools, when you have to move 30,000 kids in areas of high crime and violence, that’s serious business. And to think that’s not going to have negative consequences is just out of your mind.”
Most tellingly, Solis’s purported lack of support amongst Pilsen residents is borne out in his election results. In 2011’s April run-off election, facing challenger Cuahutémoc Morfin—especially vocal in his desire to see Pilsen represented by someone from “El Barrio”—Solis lost every single one of the eight precincts that make up Pilsen east of the Pink Line CTA tracks. He won only 36.9 percent of the neighborhood’s votes, the closest race Solis has ever had to run.
Even without majority support from the Pilsen residents who once formed the cornerstone of his appeal, Solis still managed to win re-election by nearly ten percent. That is in large part thanks to the convincing margins he racked up in the non-majority Hispanic portions of the 25th Ward; without the 76.5 percent of the vote from Chinatown’s three precincts, or the 80.1 percent he won from University Village, Solis could quite easily have lost his re-election bid.Both Alderman Solis and his office were unable to be reached for comment.
Instead of trying to repair the relationship between himself and Pilsen voters, Solis seems to be seeking a whole new constituency.
The prospect of losing another election will loom less menacingly after the recent round of redistricting takes effect in 2015. Then, the center of gravity of the 25th Ward moves northward toward downtown, taking in the lofts at Roosevelt Collection in the South Loop, Solis’s borders stretching as far north as Washington Boulevard.
In fact, Thalia Hall’s much-hyped entrance into the neighborhood could not have happened without Solis’s active intervention, Soza says. “[Solis is] the Zoning chair, in charge of developments, in charge of whatever happens in the city,” Soza says. “He’s powerful. Thalia Hall had to go through him to get the right zoning permissions.”
If Soza’s hunch is correct, then the arrival of Thalia Hall does lend some credence to the idea that there is going to be very little political resistance to the prospect of a gentrified Pilsen. Although Solis has set his sights elsewhere, the fact that he could benefit from a demographic turnover in Pilsen appears to be a given.
Perhaps it is still too soon to tell what effect Thalia Hall is going to have on the neighborhood. After all, newly engaged couples have only dreamed about furnishing their homes with Modern Cooperative’s lime-green couches for two weeks; a waitress working on Dusek’s opening night explained that it’s going to be a while before the restaurant gets into its groove; and Belli’s and the music hall, the jewel in the crown, have not even opened.Yet given the sheer size of Finkelman’s investment in Thalia Hall—its purchase and subsequent renovation—it’s probably a safe bet that Finkelman intends for the historic building to stick around. What exactly this will mean for Pilsen is a matter of interpretation. Where Soza sees Thalia Hall as “free to be an anchor, to have gentrification circle around [it],” Curatolo insists that a single business simply doesn’t have that kind of power, gentrification instead being “a citywide problem that is policy-driven.”
It is entirely possible they that are both right. The dynamics of a neighborhood do not fall neatly into a diametric opposition between poor immigrant and well-to-do white outsider. Both private and political interests play a role in determining neighborhood character.
But if, a decade from now, Pilsen’s cheap taquerías and weekend carnitas prove to be a remnant of a distant past, a sepia-toned refuge for old men like those who currently recall the neighborhood’s Bohemian past with a smile and some faraway fondness, maybe Thalia Hall’s rebirth will be remembered as a sign of Pilsen’s latest transformation.