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.”