By Zachary Basu, Medill, Immigrant Connect
“I grew up here,” says Marta Gerez, stretching her arms out and motioning toward the organized chaos of West Fullerton Avenue. “My parents came to Logan Square from Puerto Rico when I was seven and I lived here comfortably for 25 years. Then six months ago everything changed and I had to move away.”
Gerez, like countless others in Logan Square, fell victim to a 12 percent rent hike last December. Despite her longtime residency and her regular, uninterrupted employment for years, she could no longer afford to live in the area she called home. She relocated to Dunning, a neighborhood near the western edge of the city.
In 2000, Logan Square was one of seven community areas in Chicago where Latinos made up more than 60% of the population. The Mega Mall, a sprawling indoor flea market on North Milwaukee Avenue, served as an unofficial landmark and center of business and culture for the community’s 54,000 Hispanic residents. Flash forward 14 years and that number has decreased to about 34,800 Hispanics, a drop of nearly 36 percent. The Mega Mall is set to be demolished in June and will be replaced by a massive residential and retail complex.
Gentrification is a real and recurring phenomenon in Chicago and it has been for at least the past 60 years. As wealthy residents, rising property taxes and spiked rents creep into certain neighborhoods, low-income families become displaced, forced out of their homes for the sake of “economic development.” In Logan Square and eight other gentrifying neighborhoods throughout the city [see community typology map prepared by the University of Illinois at Chicago], the families whose livelihoods are being traded for shopping malls and building complexes are often Latino.
For years, researchers have struggled to accurately map displacement and relocation because of a lack of reliable data, says John J. Betancur, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of “The Trajectory and Impact of Ongoing Gentrification in Pilsen,” Latino immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, tend to leave without a trace, flying under the radar with little housing protection or concern from their local government. However, Betancur estimates that in Pilsen, a historically Mexican neighborhood on the near southwest side, more than 10,300 Hispanics have left the area since 2000.
Pilsen has been at the forefront of controversy surrounding gentrification recently, as all signs seem to indicate that it’s become one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for developers and new businesses. For decades, Pilsen had managed to stave off gentrifying efforts through community activism. Now, a group called The Pilsen Alliance is one of only a few community organizations that still actively oppose gentrification. Change in the neighborhood that Mexican-Americans have called home since the 1960s seems imminent.
“We’re not against change,” says Byron Sigcho, director of the Pilsen Alliance and a former candidate for alderman in Chicago’s 25th Ward. “But we want to be included.”
One of the major issues that the Pilsen Alliance aims to combat is the
area’s lack of affordable housing. They believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Danny Solis, who has been criticized for his use of an alderman’s unrestricted zoning power, don’t seem to care about the needs of Latinos in the 25th Ward despite the fact that they’re a majority population. The Alliance works with Latino residents who have been displaced from Pilsen because of rent hikes and evictions. Even though the bulk of them are moving west of the city, many still maintain their close ties with the community and its institutions.
“I live in Cicero now, but I still think of Pilsen as home,” says Rosa Torres, a 56-year-old Mexican-American woman. Like Marta Gerez, Torres relocated further west of the city, where properties remain slightly more affordable. However, she still works in Pilsen and commutes to the neighborhood each Sunday to attend mass at St. Procopius Church.
Dense, place-based ethnic fabrics are an especially strong phenomenon in Chicago’s Latino community, says Betancur. Known for their fierce family and religious values, pockets of Latino communities can easily be mapped throughout the city, especially prior to some of the more successful waves of gentrification. Though Gerez and Torres are both bilingual, many Latinos in Logan Square and Pilsen are solely Spanish-speaking. Eighty percent of the clients who visit the Pilsen Alliance with issues pertaining to housing don’t speak English, says staff representative Lorena Vargas. Therefore, ties to their institutions of support and representation are incredibly important for maintaining healthy community dynamics and lives. When severed by gentrification, families are often forced to live in communities where they don’t fit in and where their needs aren’t met.
Though data and anecdotes indicate a general trend of westward migration, a surprisingly large number of displaced Latinos have actually the country altogether. Throughout the 1990s, immigration accounted for all of Chicago’s population growth. The number of Mexican immigrants in Chicago rose by 117,000 during that decade, which was 105 percent of all growth, according to “Chicago and Its Mexican Immigrants—a Need Like No Other,” a study by demographer Rob Paral for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the last ten years, neighborhoods that once served as ports of entry for Mexican immigrants like Pilsen and South Lawndale have lost huge chunks of their immigrant population. Latinos who return to their country of origin, either because of displacement or otherwise, may destabilize Chicago’s population, which for years has relied on immigration as its main source of growth.
Thus, culture and community fabrics aren’t the only things that are fragmented as Latinos migrate west of the city and back to their homelands. Once it reaches a certain level, the destabilization of Chicago’s population will counter the intended goal of gentrifiers: economic growth. That’s why the consequences of gentrification and displacement don’t just concern the Latinos or the African-Americans or any other marginalized community for that matter – they concern the entire city of Chicago.