On January 10, as then-president Barack Obama prepared to deliver his farewell address at McCormick Place, Rosa Esquivel was setting up chairs and tables at a Chicago Public Library named after another prominent community organizer, Rudy Lozano. Esquivel, a Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in the area since 2003, volunteers as a community board member for Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots social justice organization headquartered two blocks west of the Rudy Lozano library. The day’s community meeting marked the latest chapter in the organization’s nearly two-decade history of working to protect its neighborhood.
Pilsen Alliance convened the meeting after residents told the group about The Gentry, a new loft office and retail development on the corner of 18th Street and Sangamon Street owned by John Pagone of Villa Capital Properties. Many took the name of the development, a reference to the British genteel society of the eighteenth century, as a “slap in the face” for the thousands of Pilsen residents who have been displaced by the recent influx of mostly white professionals in the area and subsequent higher rents and mortgages.
About three weeks before, Pilsen Alliance had sent letters to Pagone, Alderman Danny Solis of the 25th Ward, and the building’s listing agents, Zach Pruitt and Michael Nelson of NelsonHill, a real estate agency, inviting them to attend the meeting. None of them came. Pagone, who originally said he’d attend, pulled out at the last second, claiming that since NelsonHill wasn’t attending, there was no point in him being there, either. Solis was later confirmed to have been at McCormick Place watching President Obama’s farewell address instead.
Esquivel was flustered. Dozens of people had already congregated at the library, expecting to air their concerns to the community’s major stakeholders. She apologized to the crowd for their invited guests not showing up, but informed them that the meeting would go on anyway. “Let’s use this time to talk about how we feel about this building and what we can do about it,” she said. The meeting then became an organizing effort, with members of Pilsen Alliance guiding the conversation as to how best combat The Gentry and all that it represents.
A couple of days later, Pagone nixed the name after getting “one bit of negative feedback from a perspective tenant,” as he told DNAinfo. When asked about the issue, Solis also commented to DNAinfo that the name was “kind of silly…but it’s not a kill-the-deal issue, either.”
The fight against The Gentry encapsulates the political landscape Pilsen Alliance finds itself in: Solis, who, as the group pointed out at the January 10 meeting, received campaign donations from Pagone and NelsonHill employees, defers from engaging with Pilsen Alliance directly, and real estate developers refuse to receive community input. This is nothing new for the organization, which has been fighting the same battle for nearly twenty years. But president of Pilsen Alliance’s community board and lifelong organizer Magda Ramirez-Castaneda describes the current stakes as particularly high. “We’re being hit from all sides, from the president of the United States on down,” she said. “But the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Ramirez-Castaneda’s optimism is ubiquitous among the members of Pilsen Alliance. She is the first to admit that when it comes to working for affordable housing and other issues important to Pilsen, “it’s as hard as it’s ever been.” But for an organization used to waging battles against millionaire developers, coal power plants, and an uncaring City Hall, the present-day struggles don’t just represent one of Pilsen Alliance’s biggest challenges; they’re also the Alliance’s time to shine, and another opportunity to establish the community its members wish to see.
Pilsen’s history is defined in large part by displacement and resistance. In the 1950s, thousands of Mexican residents living in the Near West Side were displaced to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway. Residents held their ground until the last possible moment, but many were dislocated and moved into Pilsen. More Latinos were pushed into Pilsen by a southward campus expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in the early 1960s. Again, residents did not go quietly: on March 19, 1961, hundreds of Mexican protesters took to the street, deriding Mayor Richard J. Daley for selling them out. Once again, however, their voices were ignored. One month later, City Council designated 106 acres for UIC.
Today, Pilsen’s longtime residents are suffering through another round of displacement. According to a study by John Betancur and Youngjun Kim of UIC, more than ten thousand Hispanic individuals left Pilsen between 2000 and 2013, representing a quarter of the neighborhood’s total residents, while the number of white residents grew by twenty-two percent.
The roots of this new round of gentrification stretch back to 1997, when UIC expanded southward yet again and when City Hall created the Pilsen Industrial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District aimed at jumpstarting industry in the area. Activists and community leaders expected these twin developments to drive up the price of living in the area and lead to the displacement of families living on the east end of the neighborhood. As a response, they organized a Community Congress for Pilsen in 1998 in order to develop a strategic plan for community preservation. Out of that plan came Pilsen Alliance. Since then, the organization has fought and won numerous battles in the name of protecting its community from wealthy outside forces and idle politicians. Pilsen Alliance’s philosophy is simple: Defend the community at all costs.
That mission, however, has become increasingly difficult. The pressures driving displacement across the neighborhood are in full force, and with Solis hurting more than helping their cause, Pilsen Alliance has found itself with few allies in high places. Ramirez-Castenada, however, finds hope in the one place it is most needed: the community.
“I am a believer that if people unite we can have a better place for all of us to live,” Ramirez-Castanada said. One major source of hope is the young people who are taking a lead in the organization. “The youth that are coming in and becoming organizers are strong and knowledgeable. When you have that, you don’t fail.”
One of those up-and-coming youth organizers is Javier Ruiz, a twenty-one-year-old lifelong Pilsen resident studying journalism at Malcolm X College. Ruiz was introduced to Pilsen Alliance by an internship after high school aimed at helping “at-risk” youth—at the time, he was on probation. “I was always aware as a young age that our society is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “But Pilsen Alliance introduced me to the world of organizing. Before I thought organizing was just marching and protesting and whatnot, but there’s a whole science behind it—gathering contacts, following back, you know, organizing.”
Another up-and-comer is Barbara Cruz, who is studying government at Cornell University in upstate New York. Part of Pilsen Alliance since her junior year in high school, Cruz credits Pilsen Alliance for developing her critical understanding of the personal being political. “Pilsen Alliance has made it so evident to me that unless you are working directly with the community and involving them in the process, then it’s so difficult to achieve meaningful change for the people,” she said. “A quote that was painted on a mural in the office during my first summer with Pilsen Alliance reads, ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’ Pilsen Alliance fully embodies that in every sense.”
Lorena Vargas, a single mother of two, first came in contact with the group when her mother was losing her home last year. While unfortunately her mother wasn’t able to keep the house, Vargas became more involved with Pilsen Alliance, and is now part of the group’s community board.
“We’re always gonna fight for our people,” she said. “One thing I have learned from my people is resistance. At Pilsen Alliance we have fought, and it’s been tough sometimes, but the hope from the people that come in, las ganas de luchar and not give up is what fuels us as an organization to keep us fighting for justice.”
Pilsen Alliance made its name through its work on affordable housing and educational equity, issues that, according to Ramirez-Castenada, are still the group’s main focus. However, since its inception, Pilsen Alliance has also dedicated itself to creating alliances and coalitions with other social justice groups that work to make Chicago a better place for its people. Most recently, members of Pilsen Alliance traveled to Standing Rock in protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, disrupted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Martin Luther King Day breakfast, and helped organize the massive demonstrations across the city the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“In the same way you cannot talk about class without talking about gender without talking about race, you cannot talk about food access without mentioning affordable housing,” Cruz said. “You can’t talk about violence in the neighborhood without talking about police brutality. We can’t have a conversation about immigration rights without talking about increased policing of communities of color. All of these systems and issues work off of one another in order to perpetuate oppression.”
Chicago’s most prominent adopted son centered his farewell address on the fractured state of our democracy and called on all of us to do something about it: “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” he said. It’s a philosophy that’s driven Pilsen Alliance’s work for two decades.
Did you like this article? Support local journalism by donating to South Side Weekly today.