Cafe Jumping Bean, on the 18th Street main drag in Pilsen, is a microcosm of the eclectic neighborhood. On any day of the week, you can find large Mexican families, UIC students, and disheveled artists caffeinating and chatting over hearty paninis and freshly baked pastries. Although the Jumping Bean has served as a nucleus of the neighborhood for two decades—“in the nineties, it was the only place of its kind,” one artist said—recent history has seen the opening of many new coffee shops and cafés, not to mention monthly art events like 2nd Fridays Gallery Nights, hip eateries like Dusek’s and Nightwood, a burgeoning Sunday farmer’s market, and the newly renovated Thalia Hall.
This summer, a prominent real estate firm selected Pilsen as one of twenty-three neighborhoods nationwide to keep an eye on, citing “a lot of commercial revitalization.” But this is no new story: Pilsen residents have decried gentrification since the early 2000s, and (with varying degrees of success) have pushed to preserve Pilsen’s legacy as a stronghold of the Mexican working class.
Since the first factory workers settled in the area in the 1840s, Pilsen—bound by the trappings of an industrial past, canals and railroad tracks—has been a gateway neighborhood for immigrants: German, Irish, Bohemian, and since the fifties, Mexican. Throughout its waves of immigrants, Pilsen has maintained a tradition of strong community organizing and an appetite for art. The neighborhood is full of artist cooperatives, colorful murals, and one of the country’s largest museums of Mexican art.
In 2014, gentrification is no longer a question but a reality. On Pilsen’s main streets, Mexican bakeries, taquerias, and groceries sit adjacent to trendy galleries, sleek bars, and curated vintage clothing shops. But the traditions of art and community organization that have defined Pilsen for generations have remained resilient.
Walking along the streets of Pilsen at night, the colossal Willis Tower radiates from the heart of the Loop. The tidy streetscape, with its weathered cantinas and dimly lit storefronts, reminds you that Pilsen, too, remains in its own way a heart of Chicago.
BEST VINTAGE SELECTION
Knee Deep Vintage
Like panning for gold, vintage shopping requires a rare combination of persistence and a well-trained eye. At Knee Deep Vintage, you could argue that neither of these qualities is necessary. Although the inventory stretches seven decades (twenties through nineties), the offerings are so meticulously selected by the friendly, trendy staff that striking gold isn’t an impossible feat for most shoppers. Located across the street from Cafe Jumping Bean, Knee Deep has a rare collection of corseted dresses from the twenties, alongside seventies polyester shifts, nineties flannels, band shirts, and assorted vintage swimwear. Racks are organized by item and color. Aside from clothing, the tightly packed store has an extensive selection of shoes, handbags, jewelry, housewares, and furniture with fair prices and occasional steals on the sale rack outside. Save the date for the midnight sale (6pm-midnight) on the second Friday of every month for twenty-five to fifty percent off all merchandise, the only caveat being that you may leave with a hole in your pocket. Knee Deep Vintage, 1425 West 18th Street. Monday-Thursday, 12pm-7pm; Friday-Saturday, 12pm-8pm; Sunday 12pm-6pm. (312)850-2510. kneedeepvintage.com (Lauren Gurley)
BEST BOTTOMLESS MARGARITA
La Vaca Margarita Bar
La Vaca Margarita Bar is always a good choice for a healthy dose of margaritas and tacos, with its outdoor patio seating, large discoteca dance floor, and round-the-clock catchy Mexican pop music. Pitchers of frozen or on-the-rocks margaritas in a variety of fruity flavors flow freely around tables, and the crispy fish tacos garnished with lime, cilantro, and liberal servings of ceviche are all affordable and satisfying. The former site of the restaurant Cuervanaca, La Vaca is now run by the former owners’ granddaughter, Carmen Gutierrez. Definitely not fast food, it’s sort of place where families and large groups of friends sit for hours, enjoying each other’s company while keeping a tab. The 18th Street entrance, with a billboard featuring a bewildered-looking bovine and neon lights, is impossible to miss. La Vaca Margarita Bar, 1160 W. 18th St. Sunday-Wednesday, 9am-10pm; Thursday, 9am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-12am. (312)829-1147 (Lauren Gurley)
BEST LOCAVORE MEAL
Come for dinner, come for brunch. Tucked into an unassuming corner of Halsted Street just feet from the Dan Ryan, Nightwood—with its simple, modern décor and locally-sourced offerings—is nothing if not a surprise. With handwritten menus featuring a smattering of Midwestern meats, fruit, vegetables, and grains and an open kitchen—a stage for young, pony-tailed chefs to flaunt their skills—the five-year-old restaurant epitomizes the farm-to-table style of dining that has taken Chicago by storm. A recent sampling of their ever-changing dinner menu included city farm head lettuce with crunchy vegetables and crumbled bacon, wood-grilled Illinois duck with sishito peppers and marinated romanesco, and an apple pie with locally-grown Seedling Fruit, marcona almonds and buttermilk cream. Queues are known to wrap around the block for the famous Sunday brunch, featuring donuts in unusually appealing flavors like dark chocolate custard and bacon butterscotch. Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St. Monday-Thursday, 5:30pm-10:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30pm-11pm; Sunday, 9am-2:30pm. (312)526-3385. nightwoodrestaurant.com (Lauren Gurley)
BEST ARTS REACH
The National Museum of Mexican Art
On September 19, the NMMA held an opening for “Rito y Recuerdo,” its annual Day of the Dead exhibit. The event drew so many people that the museum staff was forced to turn away visitors, and even as they did more people continued to make their way to one of Pilsen’s most vital cultural centers. The NMMA boasts a great history coupled with an impressive permanent collection of 7,500 pieces. Founded in 1987 by Carlos Tortolero and a team of educators, the museum has since grown, not just in the scope of its collection and programming, but also in its impact on the community. See feature-length story. (Christian Sanchez)
BEST NONPROFIT PHILOSOPHY
The Resurrection Project
It is difficult to identify precisely what has made The Resurrection Project (TRP) such a successful organization. After nearly twenty-five years in Pilsen, they’ve developed almost 600 units of affordable housing, along with education programs ranging from leadership development to entrepreneurship to financial wellness. TRP is an organizing powerhouse, playing large roles in various Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) campaigns. TRP also created La Casa, a dormitory and resource center in Pilsen open to college students from any institution. Working with TRP this summer, I had the opportunity to witness their projects firsthand, and to see why community development nonprofits like TRP are thriving. TRP takes a particularly broad approach to community growth. A strong community, they believe, does not come from affordable housing, educated and engaged citizens, or vibrant business alone, but rather from all these aspects working in tandem. By focusing on many elements, TRP acknowledges the complexities in any neighborhood.
Equally integral to the organization’s success is TRP’s respect for the community members in the areas it serves. TRP treats a community resident as a “stakeholder” in the neighborhood, knowledgeable and capable of changing it. An example of this philosophy in action is La Casa; TRP leadership began to develop the idea for the project after talking to commuting college students, who expressed a need for a quiet place to live and study. Another striking example of this philosophy is TRP’s “ELLAS,” a breast cancer support group. ELLAS centralizes medical resources and connects those diagnosed to one another, both of which are services in themselves. However, TRP does not stop there: they see each woman as a powerful advocate for health within the community. Every ELLAS member completes leadership development training, and as a group ELLAS educates thousands of women each year about health issues. The Resurrection Project, 1818 S. Paulina St. (312)666-1323. resurrectionproject.org (Isabelle Barany)