Catholics in a Gentrifying Pilsen

It only took two or three weeks of my first sociology class with Dr. Anne Figert for me to fall in love with the subject. Later sociology classes led me to investigate gentrification in neighborhoods such as the Near North Side and Uptown. The causes and effects of gentrification captured my imagination, which has led to past projects exploring gentrification from different lenses such as housing, race, and education. One side often left out of the question when examining gentrification is religion.

Pilsen is a Chicago neighborhood with a rich art culture and community and an even richer history. The name Pilsen is an anglicization of the city name Plzen, the second largest city in West Bohemia according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. WTTW provides an excellent recounting of the area’s history. Like many of the neighborhoods of Chicago, Pilsen started out as small communities set up along the canal, turning raw goods into marketable products. The Irish claimed the area as home as they dug the nearby canal. As waves of other immigrants found refuge in Chicago, the Pilsen found itself primarily inhabited by Czechs, many of whom were Catholic. Fast-forwarding, the Mayor Daley’s urban renewal program in the 1950s saw the construction of the Stevenson Expressway. This construction displaced many Latinx families in the Near West Side who then found refuge in Pilsen. The construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago displaced even more who followed the previous migration towards the affordable Pilsen neighborhood. According to WTTW, the Catholic Churches of Pilsen were essential to welcoming these new families to the neighborhood.

As the Latinx newcomers became the majority of the community, they began fighting to make the neighborhood their own. They built or renamed community centers (see video above), made bilingual education the norm in schools, and installed vibrant murals and mosaics in public spaces. These vibrant spaces combined with the marginalized community made the area ripe for the first of the stages of gentrification: the arrival of the first few outsiders. In the years since, the area has gone through all of the stages as property values skyrocketed, a majority of the original community members have been kicked out, and wealthy residents have moved in. This story of wealthy residents pushing out community members certainly sells newspapers, but perhaps there is a greater story to be unearthed.

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A cartoon illustrating four stages of gentrification: underserved area, the entrance of marginalized groups, initial re-investment, and large-scale development. (Source)

With each wave of new community members which Pilsen has seen, Irish, Czech, Latinx, and now wealthy urbanites, there must be a support structure both for the newcomers attempting to build community and the community members who call the neighborhood home. It was well-established last semester that Catholic Churches acted as the first community centers for many immigrant groups such as the Irish and the Czechs. In my research, I hope to look into how Catholicism played a role in the entrance and removal of the Latinx community in Pilsen and how Churches are fairing in this gentrified neighborhood.

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