Why Are Pilsen and Bronzeville Redeveloping at Different Speeds?

Chicago’s Pilsen and Bronzeville neighborhoods have a lot in common. They are both near the Loop, have lots of public transportation, and, after decades of disinvestment, offer plenty of residential and commercial buildings ripe for renewal…

A mural featuring scenes of Latin American culture

Chicago’s Pilsen and Bronzeville neighborhoods have a lot in common. They are both near the Loop, have lots of public transportation, and, after decades of disinvestment, offer plenty of residential and commercial buildings ripe for renewal.

But in recent years, the two communities have been redeveloping at different speeds. Why? A recent study by two social scientists suggests one reason: the public has very different perceptions of the neighborhoods—though in both cases those perceptions are based on stereotypes about the primary population living there. In one case, the perceptions are poisonous; in the other, they are condescending, despite their seeming benevolence.

The study’s authors were Matthew Anderson and Carolina Sternberg, classmates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they both completed their doctorates last year. (Anderson, a Hyde Park native, now teaches geography at the Montana State University-Billings. Sternberg, from Buenos Aires, is an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul.) For the study, they interviewed residents, developers, government people, and others, both inside and outside the two neighborhoods.

The public perception of Bronzeville, Anderson says, is bound up with the large tracts of CHA housing that sprang up there in the second half of the 20th century. “Even though [the public housing towers] have all been torn down,” he says, “there’s still this very established perception that this is the site of some of the worst crime and poverty in the city. The process of redevelopment has been a slow and stubborn process. It’s attractive to affluent African Americans, but it hasn’t attracted other demographic groups.”

That static profile, which ignores the neighborhood’s rich cultural history, inhibits the flow of money into the neighborhood, whether it comes from tourists or an influx of new residents. Without that, Anderson says, “what’s there can’t survive, and residents will end up having to go north to [dine and shop].” That could undercut any progress the neighborhood has made—and all because, as Sternberg puts it, “Bronzeville has been so stigmatized by its past.”

In contrast, the authors point to Pilsen. A point of entry for successive waves of immigrants since the 1840s, Pilsen has for a few decades been majority Latino. That has led to a public perception that, though sunnier, is no less stereotyped than the image of Bronzeville. In their report, the authors quote one interview source as saying that “Mexicans seem more festive. The culture I would say is perceived as more fun and mainstream. They get flak for stealing our jobs, but people are still gonna love drinking margaritas and eating burritos.”

Sternberg says that the interviews turned up a common perception of Latinos as hard working, socially mobile, and submissive. In other words: more welcoming to white people. And while the authors note that this perception has made outsiders far more willing to visit and spend money in Pilsen, it’s hard to ignore the colonialist undertone. (Neither author wanted to comment on that, preferring to stick to the descriptive language of their report.)

Pilsen’s highly regarded National Museum of Mexican Art, as well as its heralded restaurants and gallery walks contribute to the “festive” aura of the neighborhood. But more important, they attract the money from outsiders that helps sustain and improve the neighborhood. “People are starting to recode the image of Pilsen as the Mexican mecca of the Midwest,” Sternberg said. “And this recodifying appeals to the commercial and [residential] developers.”



1 year ago
Posted by Ars Catarina

Pilsen has also marketed itself heavily to artists of all backgrounds, especially with the warehouse district. It also lies close to the gentrification projects of UIC and offers a cheaper alternative. Bronzeville is still home to a lot of CHA relocations which does denote a higher crime rate. Public transit is more accessible in Pilsen, and racism is less prevalent. (As a white woman, I have received a lot of animosity when I go into predominately black neighborhoods or if I'm on a predominately black bus).

1 year ago
Posted by BourbonJW47

Who made the rule that these neighborhoods HAVE to be integrated? Did anyone ask the residents of Bronzeville and Pilsen if they wanted other races living in their neighborhoods? perhaps they don't.

As the CHA towers were coming down, many residents were very sad to leave them. Even with the horrible and unsafe living conditions, this was their home. Their family and friends were there, they had developed support networks and many residents were very active in trying to make the towers as livable as possible.

However, our corrupt government in IL from the get-go did little to nothing to keep up maintenance on the buildings. Some basements in the towers were found stocked full of brand new appliances, never put in apartments, they just rusted away and someone put a huge wad of money in their pockets. Empty apartments were not refurbished and filled with new tenants because the goal of the CHA and politicians was to run the towers into the ground so they would HAVE to be torn down and the residents dispersed.

So now we have the beginnings of redevelopment in Bronzeville, and perhaps it should be marketed to middle and upperclass African Americans to encourge them to come back to the area.

Perhaps Target can build a big store there like they are doing at the old Cabrini Green site. Perhaps more affordable workforce housing can be built to finish out the site and complete the redevelopment. There are many avenues that can be traveled to put the community back together and perhaps it is the residents themselves who should be put in charge of doing so.

As for Pilsen, I agree that Latin areas tend to be more mainstream and draw in all different people. One needs to realize that the Latin experience in this country and the African American experience is 360 degrees from each other. I also think that many white people are more comfortable around Latins because they seem "more like us" (that is not how I look or feel about it, just my observation with others). I dont know what the answer is, but unfortunately I don't see the attitudes towards black neighborhoods changing much (from the majority of whites). White flight is still alive and well and realtors still red line or "steer" their clients to other areas. Have far we have come and how far we still have to go. Everyone should check out Bronzeville and Pilsen, there are some really cool places in each neighborhood and most people are friendly and are very willing to tell their stories of the neighborhoods.

1 year ago
Posted by Ald. Pat Dowell

When I read Emily Badger’s take on Bronzeville as described in her article in The Atlantic Cities - Neighborhoods - “How Black Gentrifiers Have Affected the Perception of Chicago's Changing Neighborhoods” and Dennis Rodkin's blog for Chicago Magazine, I didn’t know at first whether to laugh or to cry. As a former urban planner and community development specialist my initial impulse was to laugh, but as a resident homeowner, community activist and elected official I’m tempted to cry out in frustration. No matter which hat I wear or in which circle I travel, the misperception is the same; That acceptance by the majority population is required to validate whether Bronzeville has been successfully turned around, or gentrified. “What nonsense,” I say.

I agree with the point of the article, but I reject the notion that we need, as a matter of absolute fact, other demographic populations to improve our community.  We welcome diversity of population into Bronzeville to live in our residential areas and also to invest in our economy, but overcoming segregation has always been more difficult in black communities than in the general population. So, it is unfair to compare the transformation of predominantly black communities like Bronzeville to other changing communities like Pilsen. The dynamics are not the same, and pretending they are is ignoring reality as well as history. What is far more important for us to achieve “validation” is for more black people to be investing in business development and supporting those of our own who venture into the commercial/retail markets. When that happens, we will have truly arrived. The true legacy of Bronzeville, was when there existed a viable, self-sustaining Black Metropolis. Look at how much we have had to overcome in this community. Even before the blight of high density public housing communities, we had to endure decades of forced segregation and housing covenants that prevented integration of our community by law.

Overcoming the legacy of public housing and its negative perceptions has been challenging. When the first question the owner of a major restaurant chain asks in my first meeting with him about opening a restaurant in our community is on public safety and car theft, you can imagine how difficult attracting investment into our area is. Unfortunately, many of our own residents help to perpetuate the same myth, that change is not occurring.

Make no mistake, change is occurring. The problem is, dramatic changes happen in degrees, which can be difficult to measure from one day to the next. However, when you measure the economic landscape in cycles of say two years or four years, the degrees of progress are more visible and measurable. When you can point to thriving black businesses that are patronized by diverse groups who don't live here, and that are featured in mainstream venues like “Check Please” on WTTW-Channel 11, or “Chicago Magazine”, businesses like Chicago Chicken & Waffles, Gallery Guichard, Blanc Gallery, Norman's Bistro, Pearl's Place, Uncle Joe's Jerk Chicken, the South Loop Hotel, Ain't She Sweet Cafe,Southside Community Art Center etc. then people might be more inclined to accept the proposition that Bronzeville is indeed coming back in a big way.

Pat Dowell,
3rd Ward

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