Contested Chicago

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification

The term “parachuting” is probably familiar to anyone who has ever worked on a community-specific public project. It is a word that public artists and activists alike dread, as it is usually remarked in derision: it poses questions of authenticity, legitimacy, and sincerity, and critiques the artist’s role within, or commitment to, the community for which the artist or activist claims to speak. Based on my experience parachuting calls to mind the sticky mess artists and activists often make of our good intentions when we want to show solidarity with a group or community, but do not think through, or chose to ignore, all the ramifications of adding our voice to an issue. Thus, I was happy to discover that my initial trepidations with the “Contested Chicago—Pilsen and Gentrification” show mounted at Mess Hall this past June were quite unfounded. I had rather cynically questioned, when first I saw the announcement for the show, why a research project about the gentrification of Pilsen was being presented much like an art exhibit all the way up in Roger’s Park (a long train ride for neighborhood residents worried about a development planned next door to them on 18th Street). After speaking with those involved with the project, including urban geography professors Euan Hague and Winifred Curran at DePaul University, and with Alejandra Ibanez, the Executive Director of the Pilsen Alliance, I was excited to not only have my questions answered, but to witness an effective model for collaborative, cross-community projects in Chicago.

The show was typical of public mapping and social activist projects Mess Hall often presents so well. Photos and sketches of various lots and buildings, and maps of zoning surveys in West Pilsen shared wall space with personal anecdotes from residents and activists, didactic texts, and graphs, charts, statistics, and even some protest ephemera. The survey maps indicating current and proposed changes to zoning laws, coupled with photos displaying side-byside comparisons of old single-family houses and newly constructed, RT-4 zoned condominiums (meaning that they may be four stories high, and thus would tower over the original Pilsen housing stock) offered powerful visual representations for data that too often seems to be abstract or invisible. The strength of the exhibit, if not the whole project, lies in the multi-faceted attempts the authors have undertaken to make visible and digestible the myriad concepts and practices of developers, lawmakers and others involved in planning neighborhood development. Because residents of an affected community may not otherwise have access to these tools and databases, the exhibit served as an excellent educational resource. As Hague, one of the two DePaul professors behind the show, noted after seeing the data and organizing community workshops in the neighborhood, Pilsen residents are often more informed of the laws, history, and statistics (and their effects) of area planning and development than the aldermen to which they so often must appeal when development runs unchecked.

But the project is interesting beyond its use as a traveling informational capsule to educate people in other communities—like Roger’s Park —affected by gentrification. What I find most promising, after speaking with a number of people involved with this long-term research project and experiment in collaboration, is how the relationship between these professors, their students, and the grassroots Pilsen Alliance (pa) has developed into a sustainable model that cuts across class, community and institution, to build cooperation between groups with such different concerns. For an organization like the pa, well-known in Chicago for effectively tussling with developers, city zoning board, the cta, and powerful aldermen, I was at first curious what they stood to gain from working with Hague and Curran. I imagined the residents of Pilsen to be a bit tired of having academics poking about their lawns and sidewalks with clipboards, especially after the University of Illinois at Chicago’s redevelopment of Maxwell Street into University Village (University Pillage, as Ibanez called it) only a few blocks to the north. Furthermore, I was intrigued to see how an institution like DePaul (with such a direct involvement in Chicago’s history of gentrification) might avoid the “parachuting” dilemma that plagues so many similarly well-intended projects. The answers, I discovered, are positive and hopeful for other possible ventures based on this collaborative approach.

The Introduction to Urban Geography class that Hague and Curran have been teaching at DePaul is not a dry, academic approach to geography, history, and urban planning. With more than just a nod to philosophies associated with radical geography, Curran and Hague have been teaching a history of American cities that underscores the complicated tax and zoning laws, often-prejudiced urban planning decisions, and waves of “white flight” and “urban renaissance” that define contemporary US cities by using Chicago as a working example of the theories and practices the class covers. Hague does not speak of urban development in the “natural” analogies favored by developers and real estate agents whom often suggest that neighborhoods evolve organically and amorphously over time. Hague instead prefers to teach this history as a series of traceable, interconnected decisions, court cases, and laws enacted and enforced by individuals with the power to alter a city.

To further stress how individual involvement can directly affect a community, students of the class are also required to do field research (in the case of this project, by surveying the zoning and land usage, lot by lot, of occupied and vacant land in Pilsen) and to perform “service learning”, a concept emphasized at DePaul that encourages the practical application of knowledge and experience through community and civic outreach. Showing students “the relationship between a building on the street and what the zoning laws mean,” Hague says, demonstrates for them how “zoning laws aren’t just about boring old court cases.” It instead frames for the student how development is a “very direct thing that happens in our cities and that’s why our city looks how it looks.” And even if every student does not get out of the class what Hague hopes they will, DePaul students who have never been to Pilsen are forced to engage in direct community involvement when they encounter local residents in the street while conducting survey work. They are able to dispel many of the myths and misunderstandings they may have about the neighborhood.

The extended results of this project have been beneficial for all involved. When I posed my cynical question to Ibanez at the pa (basically, “So what do you get out of being lab rats for folks with PhDs?”) she was excited to recount how many of the students have continued to work in the community, often as interns and as volunteers for door-to-door political campaigning and, in the case of one student I met, developing the pa’s website, long after the class had ended. Both she and Hague noted how important the databases developed by these classes are to an organization like the pa. Hague described how one database his students compiled resulted in a list of residents who were entitled to but not collecting various tax exemptions. By going door-to-door with this list, activists could inform residents about these tax benefits while also recruiting for more support for their causes from within the neighborhood. Furthermore, both remarked about a shared sense of symbiotic “legitimacy”. Activists and residents armed with the research, maps and graphs can march into an aldermanic office or zoning board meeting and be taken seriously by those in charge. Hague and Curran’s project gets the blessing from those on the street level of housing activism when later presented within academic circles.

Hague mentioned that he and Curran are not alone as they work within such a collaborative model. He mentioned the work of Dennis Grammenos, at Northeastern Illinois University (and his work in Albany Park), as well as Danny Block at Chicago State University (working with community groups in the Austin neighborhood), as other dynamic research and community activist collaborations. Both he and Ibanez talked at length about the desire to see this type of project replicated and repeated across Chicago and elsewhere. Hague and Ibanez also hope to exhibit “Contested Chicago” in Pilsen this fall at a space or gallery there to coincide with Chicago Artist’s Month and Pilsen Open Studios. I join their hopes that this, too, will work out successfully, as the project deserves the audiences who will be drawn to Pilsen that week and could undoubtedly learn a thing or two about collaboration and public art, to say nothing of zoning laws and Tax Incremental Financing districts. °— Contact the organizers at (Euan Hague) and (Alejandra Ibanez).


Contested Chicago will be exhibited this fall in Toronto as part of an exhibit there called Condo Boom.


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