Luke White


In my eighteen years, I’ve lived in three different states in five different cities. Growing up I faced a lot of change but Chicago has always been a constant. Chicago has always been home to me, and mostly because of Pilsen. I’ve never permanently lived in Pilsen, but it’s always felt like a place where I could be myself—the vibrant art, the gracious people, and the incomparable food have been essential to my development as a person. But my most direct connection to the neighborhood is through my own mother, who was born and raised in the neighborhood.

My mother is Crystal Marie Vargas-Dorado, a beautiful Mexican woman who has a penchant for the spiritual and a profuse love of cats. She moved out of Pilsen in her early twenties, but never lost the passion she felt for her neighborhood. In 2012, she returned to the neighborhood and opened up her own spa and massage studio, Verde Wellness & Massage. Since then she has devoted herself to being an avid member of the community, citing her father as the reason she came back: “I was taught to always give back to my community if I wanted to make a difference.”

Changes that have come to Pilsen of late have sparked a citywide debate about the impact of gentrification. Many community members feel that the influx of affluent residents is stripping Pilsen of its vibrant culture. My mother has expressed fear that gentrification will cause Pilsen’s tight-knit community to fall apart. “It’s sad because people who have been here for generations and generations suddenly can’t afford to live here,” she says. A lot of the families she’s known growing up are gone due to the rising property values: “You used to know the people who lived down the block but now they’re gone.” My mother is not alone in these feelings: the response to gentrification from longtime community members has been loud and clear in the form of protests and street art. It’s caused many to feel unwelcome into their community.

Although gentrification has posed many problems for Pilsen, my mother, an exceptionally empathetic person, realizes there are two sides of every coin. “Pilsen feels a lot safer than it did when I was a kid,” she says. She recalls encounters with gangs and violence growing up, but says she feels those forces are no longer as prominent. One of the reasons she decided to open her business in Pilsen was because of the potential she felt Pilsen has for fresh ideas. “Many Mexican entrepreneurs brought back newer concepts and new twists on old ones to reinvent Pilsen’s culture,” she says. She also feels that recently Pilsen has allowed a more lively nightlife (“you don’t feel scared to go out at night anymore”) and many new businesses have provided more options for entertainment. “I no longer have to drive all the way to the North Side for a craft beer or a concert, it’s right here at home,” she told me.

Throughout its long history, the Pilsen community has always had an optimism for the future of the neighborhood. My mother came back to the neighborhood because more than anything she wanted “to inspire the new generation of kids living in Pilsen,” and if Pilsen is going to change for the better, it’s going to be because of the younger generation: whether it’s through music, art, film or food, the residents of Pilsen have always chosen to provide programs and opportunities for new generations that the older ones didn’t have. In times of transition like this one, there is no doubt that Pilsen will pull through for the better—that’s part of what makes it one of Chicago’s greatest communities. (Efrain Dorado)

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Best Art-Coffee Combo

La Catrina Café

Since opening La Catrina Café in 2013, husband-and-wife team Diana and Salvadore Galicia have been providing Pilsen residents with more than just coffee and donuts. Named after the famous La Calavera Catrina illustration, La Catrina Café celebrates culture with Mexican art covering every inch of the walls, both inside and out. In addition to delicious coffee, La Catrina offers wholesome breakfast and lunch items as well as traditional Mexican meals and drinks. When opening La Catrina, Diane Galicia said the idea of opening up the cafe was “to bring the community more together.” In the three years since opening its doors, La Catrina has already become a staple in Pilsen, and is now many residents’ go-to for a cup of coffee.

Just this summer Diana and Salvadore started The Gabriel Project, named after their son Gabriel Cisneros, who passed this May. The fund is aimed at providing opportunities for young artists in Pilsen. With The Gabriel Project, Diane and Salvadore are working to drive Pilsen’s young people away from violence and drugs, and encourage them to express their passions and frustrations through art. The project launched in July with a gallery showcase of Gabriel’s art and an auction of other art donated by neighborhood artists. (Efrain Dorado)

La Catrina Cafe. 1011 W. 18th Street. Monday–Thursday, 7am–9pm; Friday, 7am–6pm; Saturday–Sunday, 8am–6pm. (312) 473-0038.

The Gabriel Project.

Luke White
Luke White

Best Place to Watch Things on a Screen


Through filmfront, founders Alyx Christenson, Rudy Medina, Alan Medina, Malia Haines-Stewart, and Oscar Solis have brought thoughtful discussions about the art of film to Chicago’s cultural apex. A humble cine-club located on 18th Street in the heart of Pilsen, filmfront provides free screenings of everything from arthouse to classics.

Their minimal storefront location (hence the name) consists of a small lounge-like space where the curators host lectures, exhibitions, and panels in conjunction with free screenings. Filmfront strives to provide a cross-cultural dialogue through film in one of Chicago’s most diverse communities by examining individual films within their broader cultural contexts. Through these explorations, the project hopes to stir up new ideas about how different people and different groups can understand art differently. Little more than a year old, filmfront has already proven itself a vital component of Chicago’s ever-growing film club community. (Efrain Dorado)

filmfront. 1740 W. 18th Street.

Best Bookstore Already Profiled in the Reader

Open Books

Named “Best Hidden Bookstore” by the Chicago Reader last year in their (admittedly broader and slightly more prestigious) Best of Chicago issue, Open Books’s Pilsen location is a jaw-droppingly-big warehouse on 19th Street filled with an endless array of books of all genres, all for just a dollar each. In conjunction with their flagship store in the West Loop, Open Books Warehouse is a non-profit aimed at providing “literacy experiences” for readers all across Chicago. Most of the warehouse’s books are donated, and most of the money made from selling them goes toward literacy programs at local schools. Perhaps in order to keep their massive stock at a manageable size, or perhaps just because they’re very nice people, Open Books is also devoted to filling up classroom libraries: teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade can come take an entire box of books for their classroom from the free book grab table. In addition to spreading books far and wide, Open Books holds creative writing and reading workshops and even writing contests. Open Books also holds special sales events during Pilsen’s monthly 2nd Fridays and the Pilsen Flea Market. (Efrain Dorado)

Open Books Warehouse. 905 W. 19th Street. (312) 243-9776. Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-4pm.

Best Record Store With a Thing for Huey Lewis

Pinwheel Records

This record store, a welcome refuge from the funny mustaches and alt-rock box sets of Reckless and the other usual North Side suspects, offers new and used records, used CDs, turntables, and its own merchandise. With a wide (and judiciously distributed) range of music spanning many genres, artists, and eras, there’s something to satisfy any music fan, but Pinwheel Records is distinguished by more than its ample selection. The shop also offers a more idiosyncratic music-buying experience, with a section entirely dedicated to local music, a “Sports” section with dozens of copies of Huey Lewis and the News’ album Sports, and even a Pac-Man game machine complete with a running scoreboard.

Owner Scott Schaaf and Kim Foreit, along with their cat Marco, provide a space where musicians and listeners alike can bond together over their love of music. Although Pinwheel Records just opened a year ago, it’s already put down roots in the neighborhood: in addition to selling music, Pinwheel also hosts in-store music performances. Anyone looking for recommendations on music or turntables can turn to Schaaf for modest and friendly discussion. As Schaaf puts it: “We want to be a neighborhood shop, we want to be here for everybody. We’re just trying to do something good for ourselves and for the community.” Sounds good. (Lily Li)

Pinwheel Records. 1722 W. 18th St. Tuesday-Friday, noon-8pm; Saturday, 11am-8pm; Sunday, 11am-7pm. (312) 888-9629.

Best Post-Macaroni Arts Nexus

Lacuna Artist Lofts

Lacuna is a multipurpose arts center situated in what was once the largest macaroni factory in the world, providing a space for performance and cultural exchange through a fully loaded roster of events. Founded by Joey Cacciatore, Lacuna Artist Lofts prides itself in being a center for artists and vendors of all variations, housing more than 150 businesses. Foremost among Lacuna’s many highlights are multiple gallery spaces, a wedding venue, a restaurant, and the Remix Project, which puts on numerous arts programs for budding creatives. Though its name means “hole,” what Lacuna offers is more like a 250,000 square feet canvas for dynamic creativity in the middle of Chicago’s art district. Due to its prowess, Lacuna has come to be nationally recognized as the premier loft space in the Midwest, housing big name creatives such as Chicago artist Hebru Brantley and Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive. (Efrain Dorado)

Lacuna Artist Lofts. (773) 609-5638. 

The Remix Project. 2150 S. Canalport Ave, 2nd floor.

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