A Saturday morning walk through the Lower West Side (“Pilsen”) community of Chicago may trick you into thinking you’ve accidentally stumbled across the southern U.S. border. The sidewalks are crowded with pop-up artisan markets, stands selling homemade tamales and aguas frescas, and pickup trucks loaded with fresh produce for sale. The vivacious community overflows with people and colorful murals. It feels as though a small piece of Mexico was transplanted to the Heart of Chicago, but it didn’t start out that way.
From the 1800s to the mid-20th Century, Pilsen was a destination community for families emigrating from eastern Europe to work in nearby railroad yards and manufacturing plants. Gads Hill Center opened its doors in 1898 as a Settlement House to help these families integrate into their new adoptive country and community, honing programs to fit the evolving needs of the different immigrant groups over time.
Mexican workers first moved to the area during World War II when they were recruited by the U.S. government to meet the labor shortage caused by the war. In the 1960s, Mexicans began to move to Pilsen en masse, making it the first majority Latino neighborhood in Chicago (Betancur & Kim, 2016). Ever since, the active and tight-knit community has worked to prevent outside development and to create culturally responsive schools and nonprofits (“My Neighborhood Pilsen”, WTTW).
Gads Hill Center became a hub for these Latino families, shaping programs to fit their educational, familial and linguistic needs, and played a critical role in helping them establish roots in their new community. Gads Hill Center is part of the rich fabric of nonprofit organizations that throughout the years have promoted the quality of life in Pilsen. Many residents who attended Gads Hill Center in their youth now enroll their own children into their programs.
Gentrification in Pilsen
However, Pilsen has experienced a significant decline in Latino residents. A 2016 study by John Betancur and Youngjun Kin with the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that from 2000 to 2013, the overall population in Pilsen declined by 8,678 residents, and that 99% of those were Latino families. At the same time, the number of white residents in Pilsen grew by 22%.
Median household income is also on the rise in Pilsen ($35,611 in 2013). While still lower than the city of Chicago average ($47,270), there are areas of Pilsen with a median household income over $63,000—compared to 2000, when the highest median income in any area of Pilsen was just over $40,000 (Betancur & Kim, 2016).
Pilsen is also shifting from a family to a non-family community. From 2000-2010, family households declined by 40.9% while non-family and one-person households increased by 88.6% and 17.8%, respectively. This rapid shift in household type suggests a jump in gentrification (Betancur & Kim, 2016). Pilsen is no longer a gateway community for new immigrants as it once was; second- and third-generation households now outnumber first-generation households (Lulay, 2016).
Meanwhile, as the number of one-person households increases, the total yearly enrollment for Pilsen public elementary schools decreased by 29% from 2005-2016, as documented in a recent report by UIC Great Cities Institute (2017). Decreased enrollment will ultimately impact the quality of education offered in Pilsen, as enrollment numbers are directly linked to budget allocations. Furthermore, local schools are feeders for programs at nonprofit organizations serving school-age children, such as Gads Hill Center.
Gads Hill Center’s own needs assessment, conducted in partnership with Northwestern University in March of this year, corroborated these patterns of gentrification. The assessment surveyed families across all 10-plus communities served by the agency’s four locations. One of the most notable findings was that Pilsen was the neighborhood from which the most families moved away in the past ten years. Across interviews, families reported that raising rent in the area forced them to move out of the neighborhood.
The need for human services is diminishing in Pilsen as the needs of the new higher-income community do not align with the mission of local nonprofits. Gads Hill Center is faced with a dilemma: should the organization make plans to leave the neighborhood after almost 120 years of continued presence?
This question is not unique to Chicago. Similar reports about gentrification have been published about Washington D.C. (2016), Boston (2015), New York City (2017), and San Francisco (2015). In fact, U.S. Census data revealed that nearly 20% of low-income communities nationwide have been displaced by gentrification since 2000 (“Gentrification in America Report”, 2015).
For organizations like Gads Hill Center that have accumulated more than 100 years of expertise, the answer to the gentrification dilemma lies within the mission of the organization. If a nonprofit was formed to create pathways for low-income children and families to access a better future, the future of the organization remains with these families. If they are displaced by a new population that does not align with the mission, the organization must follow.
Pilsen is an example of what a community can achieve as a unified front; the comprehensive network of resources exists as a direct result of community-led organizing aimed at enhancing quality of life. As nonprofits move with displaced families to new communities that lack this established cohesion, they should take their expertise with them, leveraging the strengths of the community to work collectively toward positive change.
(Not yet published electronically)
October 2017 Quality-of-Life Plan, produced for the Pilsen Planning Committee by UIC’s Great Cities Institute
Erin Malcolm is a nonprofit development professional in Chicago. She obtained both her Bachelor and Master of Social Work degrees from Loyola University Chicago, where she specialized in Migration and International Social Work. Since graduation in 2014, her resulting career has led her to focus on fundraising for majority Latino-serving nonprofit organizations, with an emphasis on institutional giving.