Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Executive Director – Eighteenth Street Development Corporation
Alex Esparza’s introduction to Pilsen came in the form of a running group. While living in neighboring Bridgeport, he would occasionally venture north to spend time with the organization whose membership included the woman he would eventually marry.
When it came time for the newly wedded couple to discuss where to live, it wasn’t up for debate. “She basically said, ‘I’m not leaving Pilsen,’” he said with a smile.
Since then, Esparza has become the executive director of Eighteenth Street Development Corporation — an organization focused on providing Pilsen businesses with the resources they need to grow and prosper.
Early on, Pilsen for Esparza was just a place to lay his head at night. But as he developed relationships with community leaders, he found himself becoming more and more deeply attached to the people, organizations and culture within the neighborhood.
“It wasn’t until I started getting involved with the community that it started to take effect,” he said. He now lives with his wife and son just around the corner from his office at 19th and Carpenter.
Since he started at ESDC he has taken the reigns on important neighborhood events such as Mole de Mayo, effectively increasing attendance from 10,000 visitors to 30,000 by moving the festival from 16th Street to 18th Street. His staff works closely with local business owners to help position their operations for long-term sustainability.
He’s also hard at work conceptualizing future events aimed at drawing the community even closer together. Prime among them: a 5K run down 18th Street to showcase the history, culture and vibrancy of the neighborhood’s main commercial corridor.
As those of us who love this place continue to engage in important conversations about economic development, housing availability and the hazily defined specter of gentrification, this kind of work is arguably more necessary than ever before.
Esparza is a third-year student at the John Marshall Law School. He is firmly of the opinion that Pilsen can leverage its newfound visibility among Chicagoans to lift people up while refusing to sacrifice its soul. He’s an ambitious guy, and his enthusiasm spills over into his vision for the neighborhood.
“I think understanding what people want in the community helps us be more successful,” he said.
Whatever projects he takes up, Esparza said his motivation will remain rooted in the relationships he’s built with leaders and neighbors throughout Pilsen.
Interview by Paolo Cisneros
Photos by Paolo Cisneros