“Chicago Arts District” is an ambiguous designation, as much a brand as a region. The label was crafted in 2002 by John Podmajersky III to promote his family’s properties and the artists who lived and had gallery space within them. Podmajersky Inc. owns at least one hundred lots in East Pilsen; many of them form blocks of contiguous artist lofts and studio spaces along Halsted, concentrated between 16th Street and Cermak Road. There the company also hosts monthly 2nd Fridays Gallery Nights and an annual Pilsen East Artists’ Open House that pre-dates the district but is now run by Podmajersky staff.
The Podmajerskys have a history in Pilsen that stretches three generations, one marked by an active cultivation of East Pilsen that stretches beyond the typical bounds of property management. It’s a story they promote on their own website and on that of the Arts District, and which has been recounted in multiple local news pieces over the years. Beginning in the 1950s, John Podmajersky, Jr., the son of dairy farmers, bought up a slew of Pilsen properties with his wife. A period of blight and flight meant dilapidated structures ripe for purchase, and the Podmajerskys rehabilitated the holdings and encouraged artists to move into their spaces. They raised their son in the neighborhood and he stayed in the city, attending the University of Chicago and taking up the family business.
Around the time of the Arts District’s founding, as Podmajersky III assumed leadership of Podmajersky Inc., the narrative begins to change. The Arts District emphasizes artistic entrepreneurship, a commitment its company literature presents as a natural extension of its goals in the neighborhood. Others have charged that its new emphasis on the profitable artist has brought rent hikes and promotional policies like open studio hours, which have made it harder for working artists to stay in their spaces. In 2004, artists affiliated with Bridgeport’s Lumpen collective put out flyers online and on the streets of Pilsen trumpeting the “Principality of Podmajersky,” a feudal parody of the family’s history in the area that dubbed the period of current management the “Age of Blunder.” The annual Open House and monthly 2nd Fridays, both events designed to promote the work of Podmajersky tenants, have vacillated in degrees of inclusivity over the past decade, creating additional divides in a neighborhood that is already often split between gentrified East Pilsen and the rest of the largely Latino community.
Today, the Podmajersky and Chicago Arts District brands run strong along Halsted. Many of the changes are a surface polishing: exhibitions in street-level windows, stylized signage imagining future uses for empty spaces, ubiquitous, easily recognizable orange and blue address markers. The consistency lends the space both glamor and a sense of artificiality; whatever develops here is by design. As for artistic entrepreneurship, a chocolatier and a florist, both of which Podmajerksy holds up as model Arts District tenants, have recently been joined on Halsted by a vintage boutique.
In talking with Podmajersky, one gets the sense that there isn’t much room for the starving artist in his onward and upward vision of East Pilsen. But then, Podmajersky would likely argue that artists shouldn’t starve.
Can you tell me about how the Chicago Arts District came to be and the relationship between Podmajersky Inc. and the Arts District?
The Chicago Arts District came to be because we felt that the artists and entrepreneurs that were our customers needed a platform to help promote their work, and since we have always been very supportive and we’re working in a very concentrated community, we thought that was something we should provide some assistance in. I think our basic feeling was if you’re gonna be an artist or an entrepreneur or an entrepreneurial artist, that’s a profession, and the more successful you can be, the better for everybody. So that was the basis for the Chicago Arts District.
So are the bounds of the Arts District geographically specific, or does it just depend on which properties are managed by Podmajersky?
It’s hard to answer that question because we’re obviously focused on the east end of Pilsen, where we have the concentration of our properties. So it’s geographic, and the Chicago Arts District is really offered to people who are customers of ours. The Chicago Arts District is focused primarily around us attracting people who are interested in art and culture to come to that specific spot.
The Chicago Arts District’s site talks about community stewardship—what does that mean for you?
It means a lot of different things, but I grew up in the neighborhood, and I’ve lived there my entire life and I’ve worked there my entire life, and I have a lot of passion and identity with the neighborhood. That’s where my history is, and that’s where my future is and where my present is.
We have a lot of respect for the historic urban environment. We’re not restorationists, so to speak, but we feel that there is a very important fabric of the old city and the old buildings, and we’re interested in making sure that that doesn’t disappear, because we think that neighborhoods that have that kind of patina and that kind of history are also more attractive and more interesting places to be.
The description of the Chicago Arts District talks about assuming responsibilities that are typically those of local government. I’m curious about what that means.
We do a lot of things that you might not do if you just owned one building on a street. Our staff is out on the street at seven o’clock in the morning six days a week, and they are taking graffiti off of buildings when it occurs right away, they’re picking up paper and cleaning the streets. We’re advocating for other things there.
For example, there was a project say fifteen years ago, a state-funded project to streetscape Halsted. And we had lobbied for that, to get new sidewalks and new lights and make the sidewalks wider. We helped bring the neighborhood together so that the result was a little bit better. That’s something that a neighborhood group might typically do; it’s not something that a property owner typically does.
And then of course, we sponsor all of these events that you’re probably familiar with: the Artists’ Open Houses, and the 2nd Fridays, and other events.
I’ve been going to 2nd Fridays for the past few years, and I was wondering whether there’s been a shift in the makeup of the District. Has there been a shift toward more businesses?
I think that’s always been an interest of ours, to attract a certain amount of artisanal entrepreneurs. There’s the chocolatier, Chocolat Uzma Sharif. She’s a really great example of a nice blend between business and art that is a really good fit for us. She’s very passionate about chocolate and subtle flavorings, and how it’s crafted.
There’s a floral shop that you’ve probably noticed, Blumgarten. They do such outstanding floral arrangements, better than I’ve ever seen anywhere, and they’re really artists who have figured out a way to make a real business there for themselves. So I wouldn’t call it a shift, I’d call it an addition. We want to see more of those kinds of things in the area.
In thinking about having an enduring arts district, some people would say that artists typically follow low rents, and so it’s hard to create a space that endures as a hotbed of artistic activity. What do you think about that?
First of all, I think that you’ve enunciated stereotypes about artists that aren’t necessarily true or useful. We’re always offering very affordable space, but part of the idea behind the Chicago Arts District is to help the artists and entrepreneurs there have more success so that those kinds of costs are in line and more manageable, because they’re doing better.
What, for you, does the area look like in five years?
I think it looks a lot like it does now, with retailers and self-representing artists, and a few more artisanal entrepreneurs who bring services to the artists in the neighborhood that help them have a nicer experience there too. Another coffee shop would be nice.