Pilsen is a neighborhood made up of the residential sections of the Lower West Side community area of Chicago. Beginning in the late 1960s Pilsen saw an increasing population of Mexican as people were forced to move when their former small enclave to the North of Pilsen was torn down in the mid to late 1960s to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Latinos became the majority in 1970 when they surpassed the Slavic population. The neighborhood continued to serve as the port of entry for immigrants, both legal and undocumented immigrants and mostly of Mexican descent. Many elderly central Europeans, some even without English language skills, also still reside in Pilsen. Pilsen’s Mexican population is increasingly dwarfed by what has become the largest Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, Little Village. There is also a former county seat in Poland named Pilsen (Pilzno) from which a number of Polish Chicagoans hail, and in 2004 their organization the ‘Pilsen’ Society of Chicago Klub Pilznian festively celebrated its 80th anniversary.
Many of the new residents of the neighborhood are not Hispanic and it is projected that the neighborhood will continue to become more diversified in the years ahead. Half of Pilsen’s population in 1996 had turned over by 2000. Development adjacent to Pilsen grew significantly on its northern border over the past decade with new construction as well as restoration of National Historic Register properties such as the 800+ unit South Water Market, an old concrete cold storage warehouse, and the Chicago Housing Authority’s plan for the transformation of the ABLA projects. That development has now spilled over into Pilsen proper with the now nearly complete Chantico Loft development, Union Row Townhomes as well as the defunct Centro 18 on 18th Street in East Pilsen. Infill construction of condominiums and single-family homes is now in full force on the east side of the neighborhood as Pilsen becomes one of the next major development areas for that type of infill construction. Some local advocacy groups have formed urging the neighborhood’s alderman to curtail gentrification to preserve the Mexican-American cultural and demographic dominance. These groups have met with limited success, as many of the neighborhood’s property owners are in favor of redevelopment and increasing property values. However, Pilsen became a National Historic Register District on February 1, 2006, at the behest of the alderman.
18th Street is an active commercial corridor, with Mexican bakeries, restaurants, and groceries through the principal district for Mexican shopping is 26th Street in Little Village, Chicago’s other formerly majority Pan-Slavic community, which is currently the main area of successful Mexican immigrant commerce. The east side of the neighborhood along Halsted Street is one of Chicago’s largest art districts, and the neighborhood is also home to the National Museum of Mexican Art. St Adalbert’s dominates over the skyline with the opulence typical of churches in the Polish Cathedral style. Pilsen is also famous for its murals. The history of the murals is often misspoken of as a purely Mexican cultural type which is historically and factually inaccurate. The original murals in Pilsen along 16th Street started as a cooperative effort between Slavs and Mexicans when the neighborhood was undergoing change. If one looks closely one finds amongst the latter Mexican images the earlier ones which are decidedly non-Mexican and include storks, scenic European farms, and Lipizzaner horses.
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