Community networks are essential to addressing displacement

Featured Image: A note found stuck to a closed-down Mexican business this summer. 

This is a follow-up article to Pilsen Schools Face Drop in Enrollment and Funds published in October 2015.

The tipping point

When anti-gentrification activists posted signs on a newly opened coffee shop earlier this year decrying the business as racist and exclusionary, reactions from within the Pilsen community were mixed.

While many denounced the maneuver as aggressive and misguided, fears surrounding the neighborhood’s rapidly changing character were palpable among long-time residents and newcomers alike.

Although “gentrification” has become something of a catch-all term to describe Pilsen’s demographic shift from a low-income neighborhood to one that is increasingly wealthy and inaccessible to low-income earners, a recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Nathalie P. Vorhees Center for Neighborhood Development and Community Improvement found that Pilsen’s economic base is actually more stable than might be expected.

Which, according to lead author Dr. Janet Smith, isn’t to say that fears are overblown.

In fact, Pilsen boasts a number of factors that make it ripe for gentrification. Its proximity to the Loop, aged housing stock and high proportion of renters make the area particularly appealing to developers looking to earn a profit. Other citywide factors such as a push to attract tech workers and the conversion of North Side apartment buildings to single family homes have further put Pilsen in the crosshairs.

“That, to me, says Pilsen is tipping,” Smith said.

Among other areas, these gentrifying forces have helped compound a destabilization of neighborhood schools.

For many elementary schools in Pilsen, it’s a shrinking student population within its attendance boundaries and a drop in students from outside the neighborhood who are willing to travel to Pilsen to attend a particular school within.

Regardless of their respective situations, the long-term viability of these schools is interwoven with broader trends affecting the neighborhood.

Gentrification Index reflects the larger economy

Published last October, the “The Socioeconomic Change of Chicago’s Community Area’s (1970-2010)” is commonly referred to among community development specialists as the “Gentrification Index.”

Through a research process that examined a wide range of socioeconomic variables related to gentrification, the authors sought to better understand how Chicago neighborhoods have changed since 1970.

With regards to Pilsen, the neighborhood ranks close to several others in a category reserved for communities that have remained relatively low-income and stable.

Alongside the Douglas and South Lawndale community areas, Pilsen is said to have exhibited little change in terms of either economic upgrading or downgrading. The Center’s calculation was based on factors such as income, educational attainment and homeownership rates.

Gentrification Index Pilsen Little Village Douglas Park

Still, this analysis is incomplete as it extended only through 2010. As Smith points out, a number of factors since that year have set the stage for a further shift in both character and composition of the neighborhood.

Particularly in East Pilsen, the signs of gentrification are evident on nearly every corner. What were once locally owned storefronts have been replaced by chain businesses catering to a more upscale demographic that, for so many years, steered clear of the neighborhood altogether.

And Jungman School, sitting nearby, lost 25 percent of its local student body from 2008 to 2014, as we found in Part One of this story.

A separate 2005 study by UIC researchers signaled the possibility of a large-scale shift in the demographics and character of the community.

“Pilsen’s location has attracted the interests of developers and City Hall, especially with the transformation of the city from a manufacturing (center) into a service city anchored by the interests of a growth coalition of financiers, developers and high service professionals from the (Loop),” the report reads. “In short, the area has moved into center stage as a high stakes development/gentrification prospect.”

For those hoping to bring year-to-year stability back to Pilsen’s neighborhood schools, this poses a serious challenge.

“I think there are different factors (leading to decreased enrollment) at each school, but there’s one common thread and that’s the economy,” said Martha Alba, principal of Cooper Elementary School, a dual language academy.

Demographic changes within the neighborhood will continue to be influenced by larger trends in Chicago and throughout the region. One important challenge for Pilsen residents comes in finding a way to accommodate the new arrivals while also ensuring the stability of their neighborhood schools.

Community networks essential to addressing displacement

Alongside Juan Soto, executive director of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, Alba was instrumental in leading the process that resulted in the 2010 Pilsen Education Plan.

Cooper Elementary by Jackie Serrato

Among other factors, the document points to the importance of maintaining strong networks of educators, parents, social workers and community representatives as a means of staving off the potential side effects of gentrification.

Alba’s concern — and the concern of many Pilsen residents — stem from fears that new development exists to serve newer, more affluent arrivals rather than residents who have resided in the neighborhood for extended periods of time.

She said a cohort of local principals have recently documented a “chain of transition” out of the neighborhood whereby many families, forced out by rising rents, leave for nearby Little Village and subsequently the suburbs.

A recent data analysis by the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council confirmed the shift of Chicago’s Latino population away from Pilsen and into communities further southwest such as Archer Heights and West Lawn.

Firmly aware of the pressures they face from changing neighborhood demographics and the uptick of privately operated charter schools, the principals of Pilsen’s neighborhood elementary schools are in regular contact with each other and local community organizations in order to maintain important community networks.

But factors beyond their control make such a task dauntingly difficult.

Housing stock and developers

Because the neighborhood currently features a relatively old housing stock — due largely to having been one of the few centrally located neighborhoods spared from the destruction wrought by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — relatively low housing prices present an opportunity for investors to scoop up properties and redevelop them for the benefit of new arrivals.

Moreover, the area’s large proportion of rental units — Pilsen’s housing stock is comprised of only 10.4 percent single family homes and condominiums as compared to the 45.7 percent rate citywide — means the population is especially at risk falling prey to redevelopment-minded evictions.

Developers looking to avoid including affordable units in their Pilsen projects will be required to pay either $50,000 or $125,000 per unit to a citywide affordable housing fund, according to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance. Should planners ultimately decide Pilsen qualifies for the lower fee, developers will find it far less expensive to opt out of building affordable apartments.

housing stock Pilsen

Stabilizing traditional institutions

Reintroducing stability to Pilsen’s elementary schools will also depend on the ability of community organizations to effectively collaborate and meet resident needs.

Despite limited funding, Alba said Pilsen institutions have historically managed to put the needs of the community first.

“Even though many of the social service agencies in the community do similar work and are in constant competition for funding, they really do come together for the good of the community,” she said.

That spirit of collaboration, however, is threatened by the ongoing budget battle in Springfield, particularly as it relates to the funding of community-based organizations.

“Pilsen is considered a resource-rich community, and if that were to change as a result of state funding or changes at the city level, I think that might make it a less desirable community,” Alba said. “I think that could all change pretty quickly.”

If the neighborhood’s institutional network continues to suffer, many local leaders predict a scenario in which the process of gentrification is even further accelerated.

What all of this means for Pilsen remains to be seen, but the stressors associated with changing demographics have made themselves manifest in schools, social institutions and other networks essential to the community’s cohesion.

“What does this look like over the next four or five years?” Soto wondered. “It’s only going to get more dire before it gets better.”

Article by Paolo Cisneros
Pictures by Paolo Cisneros and Jackie Serrato

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece was a graduate student at UIC at the time of publication.

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