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Aug 15, 2008

DePaul University Publishes Findings From Two-Year Building Inventory Project In Pilsen Community

DePaul University professors Euan Hague and Winifred Curran began work on a research project four years ago to provide their students with firsthand knowledge of how changes in urban land-use can impact a neighborhood. They ended up teaching them a whole lot more.

Collaborating with the Pilsen Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving the mostly Hispanic neighborhood, a team of DePaul geography students conducted a building-by-building inventory of the community from 2004 to 2006. The information was collected by students in a database of records from the City of Chicago, the Cook County Assessor’s and Treasurer’s offices, City News Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority. The database currently includes more than 5,000 properties.

Hague and Curran have published their findings in a book titled “Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification” ( 2008), which provides a detailed look at the way that gentrification happens both on the ground and through public policy, as well as how community activists have tried to stop it. Through their case study of one Chicago neighborhood, Hague and Curran hope to illustrate how cities are changing in a global age and encourage citizens to question what they want their cities to look like.

There may be no other neighborhood in Chicago more emblematic of the impact of the city’s real estate boom than Pilsen, located just three miles southwest of the Loop. For the past several years, taller condominiums and expensive townhouse developments have sprung up next door to quaint single-family homes that were built in the mid to late 19th century. Pilsen’s clash between longtime residents who want to preserve their homes and community, and developers who want to gentrify the neighborhood, has resulted in numerous newspaper headlines

“Change is inevitable, but the way that change occurs is not,” explained Curran, who teaches classes in urban, social and cultural geography. “We could see genuine community development in Pilsen with minimal displacement, but that would mean a less profitable housing market. Development without displacement would require a different set of values than those currently on display in city planning policy.”


Hague, whose areas of expertise include cultural, social and political geography, also expressed doubt that real estate developers will offer properties at prices that will thwart displacement. “In U.S. cities, once gentrification has begun, it has proven impossible ‘to turn off the tap’ and produce a long-term mixed income community,” he said. “Places like Brooklyn and Lincoln Park are examples of areas that gentrified in the 1970s and 1980s and are now out of financial reach for people of average incomes.”

Pilsen’s unique historical legacy, outlined in “Contested Chicago,” underscores the area’s rapid development. Pilsen was a part of Chicago when the city incorporated in 1837 and was not damaged by the Great Fire of 1871. Therefore, the architecturally significant houses in Pilsen are some of the oldest in the city. Once a port of entry for central and eastern European immigrants, Pilsen—with a population of 44,031— is today 89 percent Hispanic with a median income of $27,763. “Pilsen’s proximity to the Loop, attractive architecture, old buildings and relatively low rents make it a neighborhood primed for gentrification,” the book states.

The 53-page booklet contains more than 50 photographs and illustrations of real estate in Pilsen and detailed maps produced by geography student Harpreet Gill. Photo layouts often juxtapose century-old ornate houses next to basic, contemporary multi-unit buildings under construction. Photos in the book also capture the Hispanic cultural influence of the area evident in public artwork, such as murals and mosaic tableaus.

“Contested Chicago” points out how Pilsen’s zoning codes have made it an easy target for developers because much of the area is zoned for multi-family buildings with a height of 38 feet, while the community has traditionally been comprised mostly of single-family homes. “This mismatch between zoning designation and actual use means that developers can buy a single-family home, demolish it and rebuild three- to four-story condominiums,” the book states.


Several factors contribute to the displacement of working-class residents in Pilsen, including rising property taxes, according to the book. Homeowners facing increased property taxes in Pilsen have not taken advantage of the homeowner’s exemption allowing for reduced property taxes. Hague and Curran’s research showed that one-third of Pilsen homeowners do not claim tax reductions to which they are entitled. As a result of this finding, the Pilsen Alliance is conducting ongoing community workshops to educate homeowners about the exemption and help them claim current and previous tax exemptions.

Meanwhile, DePaul’s work to update and map data as well as inventory buildings is ongoing, as is the Pilsen Alliance’s struggle against gentrification. The book details strategies that have been adopted to fight it, including a down-zoning referendum designed to maintain the scale of buildings and reduce the trend of condominium construction in the historic neighborhood, which grew out of discussions about data from DePaul’s Building Inventory Project. Down zoning is a popular strategy used nationwide to slow heated development.

Although the Pilsen referendum passed in March 2006 with 75 percent of the vote, Ald. Danny Solis, (25th) publicly announced soon after that he would not enact down zoning of Pilsen.

“Through work on this project, DePaul students have learned that there is more to this world than their previous experience of it,” said Curran. “While Pilsen may not have always seemed to them like a ‘nice’ neighborhood, students have come to understand why community activists are fighting so hard to preserve their homes and they can sympathize with the struggle.”

“They realize that contrary to media portrayals, gentrification is not a win-win situation, and some people are being forced to move out of homes they grew up in and away from neighborhoods they enjoy,” added Hague.


“Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification” is available to download for free for a limited time at                              




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An older Pilsen rental property sits next to a new condominium property.

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A changing street in Pilsen juxtaposes an older single family home with a multi-unit building.

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Pilsen homeowners exemption pie chart.