The city is in a hurry to turn a large section of Pilsen into a landmark district to save its historic buildings and murals from demolition but many residents are cautious thus far.
The Chicago Landmarks Commission received 65 letters written in opposition, only five in favor, from homeowners in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Many of the dissenters showed up to the commission’s public meeting on Wednesday to request that the city change or slow down the process.
“I’m not opposed to the concept of this, but the way it’s being rushed upon us is unacceptable. It reeks of old [alderman] Danny Solis and there are very few benefits to current property owners,” said Kyle Frayn, who owns a three-flat building in Pilsen.
In December, the Landmarks Commission approved a preliminary recommendation to create one of the largest of the 59 historic districts in the city—including nearly 850 commercial, residential, and industrial buildings bounded by 18th Street, Ashland Avenue, 21st Street, and Racine Avenue. Much of the district consists of a 1.5-mile stretch of the 18th Street “Main Street” commercial corridor, a stretch of Blue Island Avenue and a 13-block residential area south of 18th Street.
Pilsen developed its own special style of late 19th and early 20th-century architecture it calls “Bohemian Baroque” after the Bohemian and other Eastern European-built brick and stone structures, the commission says. The buildings have flair expressed through “unusually shaped parapets, carved stone lintels, and decorative patterns in brickworks.” The Pilsen Historic District promises to protect certain high-quality buildings crafted by immigrants from 1870 to 1940s as well as structures containing significant Mexican murals painted since 1978.
The landmarking process was set to extend later into 2019 but was hastened in March after the city denied a developer’s request to raze multiple century-old buildings at 1730-34 W. 18th Street—structures that landmark commission lists as contributing to the historic district. The city now has 90 days to approve the landmark district to block the destruction of the buildings.
Those urging caution included 25th Ward Alderman-elect Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who says the focus should be on saving long-time residents in addition to the century-old buildings they inhabit.
“We want to address issues of displacement as well as demolition,” said Sigcho-Lopez, who takes office next month. “We continue to see big development come into the area and I’m concerned that developers will be the ones benefiting from this [proposal]… Let’s make sure we have a robust process, everyone is at the table and we don’t rush this.”
The Pilsen Landmark proposal was announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office last fall as one of five components of a comprehensive plan aimed at retaining the “culture, character and affordability” of the Lower West Side neighborhood and Little Village—the Midwest’s largest Mexican community.
The proposed district lies within the national Pilsen landmark district approved by the National Park Service in 2006, which gives tax benefits for renovations that preserve a buildings’ historic value. But because the program is voluntary, it hasn’t necessarily stopped unregulated real estate speculation and gentrification in a neighborhood that saw 10,000 residents leave between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2016 study, and its Latino population drop by more than 25 percent in that time.
“Gentrification terrifies me, and if don’t get landmark status, I’m afraid developers are going to come in and destroy what neighborhood we have left,” said Robin Rodgon, a Pilsen property owner who spoke out in support of the designation. “The character is changing so much with buildings being torn down. We need to preserve the architectural structures and the people who live there. It’s our neighborhood. I want to keep it that way.”
Humphrey Darragh, a third-generation Pilsen property owner, and one of the few remaining of Czech descent doesn’t think the district goes far enough. His 120-year old stone apartment building on Morgan Street falls a block too far north.
“The boundaries should be bigger because I’m seeing a lot of places torn down that shouldn’t be—it’s irresponsible,” he said while pointing to a single-family mansion recently built on his block. “I don’t think the neighborhood should look like this.”
But many Pilsen residents are concerned that the district’s long term effect will mean an increase in property taxes. There’s some suspicion of anything the city does considering that the proposal involved Solis, who was accused of pay-for-play schemes with developers in an FBI investigation reported in January by the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Historically, the [city] always hurts us so there’s validity to that idea,” said Sigcho-Lopez. “So it’s a matter of getting all the facts, and then reassuring people that this can be a good thing if we can get a little more help for the people who need it the most.”
The Landmarks Commission is meeting again at the Cook County Board of Commissioners on May 16th at 12:45 p.m. to vote on the Pilsen Historic District.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the Landmarks Commission meeting was at 12:45 p.m. not 10 a.m.