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Pilsen Historic District, Cook County, Illinois

National Hispanic Heritage Month
September 15-October 15

Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

Pilsen, nestled in the crook created by the Chicago River and the railroad lines that run along West 16th Street, has historically been a first-stop neighborhood for American immigrants, first from Bohemia  (today located in the western half of the Czech Republic) and later from Mexico. Pilsen has an extraordinary architectural and urban landscape created entirely by and for its newly arrived settlers. Pilsen’s Bohemian builders, whom arrived n 1871, were so successful in shaping an environment suited to their needs as newly arrived immigrants that the neighborhood today retains its distinctively dense urban fabric, a characteristic that fostered the Bohemians’ creation of a cohesive community in the 1870s and the Mexicans’ continuation of this tradition in more recent times.


[graphic] photo
Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

Several aspects of the neighborhood distinguished it from other immigrant enclaves in Chicago and beyond.  First, the Bohemians enthusiastically expressed their national identity in architectural terms, constructing many buildings based on the forms and styles of their homeland.  Often these buildings were more modest than the monuments they emulated, but Bohemian-American builders endeavored to replicate the materials, massing, decoration, and functions of the buildings they knew in Europe, which today stands at the center of the District’s architectural significance. Second, the Bohemians created an environment with an unusually high degree of functional eclecticism, creating Pilsen mixed-use buildings by placing houses, stores, workshops and factories in close proximity to each other, often in the same block. Third, the District’s mixed-use buildings and mixed-use urban pattern encouraged a high degree of economic self-sufficiency and social isolation.  Fourth, as Pilsen became economical successful, the residents were able to erect more buildings. And so the neighborhood was built in stages. When new immigrants from Mexico began moving into the neighborhood after World War II, they adapted its distinctive features to their own needs, preserving the urban fabric created by their Bohemian predecessors while developing their own distinct institutional life and culture.  By the 1960s and 1970s the languages of the streets had shifted from Czech to Spanish, but the District retained its cultural homogeneity, its social and economic autonomy, and its rich architecture and urban character.

Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

The Bohemian Origin of Pilsen Historic District: The Bohemian population of Chicago began settling in Pilsen after the great fire of 1871. The first wave of Bohemian immigration to the United States occurred after the failed revolution against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1848, and after an immigration treaty signed between the United States and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the 1860s, more arrived.  Pilsen, settled by many Bohemian artisans, became known as the Bohemian American community in the United States. Pilsen remained a predominately Bohemian neighborhood well into the 20th century.  After 1918 and the long-awaited granting of Czech independence, immigration rapidly declined. As with many immigrant communities, the Bohemians by the 1950s had largely assimilated into American life and no longer needed the community and old-world feeling offered by the dense urban life of Pilsen.  Yet the urban fabric of Pilsen remained, providing an opportunity for a new group of immigrants to the United States: the Mexicans. While the Bohemians had been the builders of Pilsen, the Mexicans were its preservationists.  The Mexican community found Pilsen attractive for the same reason as had the Bohemians: it provided a sheltered, familiar, and self-sufficient landscape, easing the process of assimilation.


[graphic] photo
Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

The Mexican Community in Pilsen: The demographic shift of the neighborhood, from an overwhelming Bohemian majority to the 93 percent Mexican-American population it boasts today, was rapid, yet there was a period when the two groups inhabited Pilsen simultaneously. This shift was manifested in the new uses put to spaces that had been built originally for the Bohemian population.  An August 1962 fair held on West 19th Street between South Racine Avenue and South May Street offered a variety of foods that reflected the demographic change, serving both Mexican pancakes and Czech pastries.  While the two ethnic groups co-existed in Pilsen, they created a joint-effort to save the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s.  The same urban renewal trend that had forced the Mexican community into Pilsen during the construction of the University of Illinois’ Chicago Circle Campus north of the District threatened the neighborhood. The Bohemians and Mexicans joined together, creating a neighborhood council, Pilsen Neighbors, in 1954.  They were successful and Pilsen was spared from the destruction and rebuilding of urban renewal.  By 1970, the shift between the Bohemian and Mexican populations in Pilsen was complete.

Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

Carrying on the preservationist approach that the Mexican immigrants had begun in Pilsen by fighting urban renewal, the Mexicans began renovating and rehabilitating individual buildings. Pilsen neighbors helped their fellow residents improve their homes and build new ones, aiming to ensure that the neighborhood remained fully accessible to Mexican immigrants. The group also initiated the Rehab Project in the early 1970s, ensuring that the one hundred year old buildings in Pilsen could support new generations of immigrant inhabitants. The group also formed a consumer education program and a food-buying club that helped to make food cheaper for the low-income Pilsen population. In addition to preserving the actual buildings of Pilsen, the Mexican-American community attempted to revive the mixed-use nature of the district. Because the combination of residential, commercial, and industrial uses was what had made the neighborhood so conducive to an immigrant community, the Mexican community sought to rekindle the industrial component to the neighborhood. The Mexican Americans in Pilsen also rehabilitated some of the community and cultural centers that had been so essential to the Bohemian community. The Mexicans’ rehabilitation projects included updating of the Temple Smirna on West 18th Street and the Howell Neighborhood House, the Bohemian Settlement House established in 1905.  In 1970, the Mexicans who had taken over the later structure changed its name to Casa Aztlán. The goal of the large, three-story building complex and the organizations it houses were described by director Humberto Salinas in 1982:
Immigrants newly arriving in the United States are beset with problems of assimilation involving languages, customs, cultural expectations, social problems, employment, and the alienation of youth, By providing a community of cultural and artistic experiences, it is hoped that transitions will be eased and the life of the newcomers and established citizens enriched…


[graphic] photo
Pilsen Historic District
Photo by Lydia Brandt, courtesy of theIllinois State Historic Preservation Office

The Casa Aztlán offers art and dance classes for Pilsen’s Mexican-American children, the Benito Juarez clinic provides low-cost healthcare to the largely uninsured Pilsen population, and the Neighborhood Service Organization has fought for the rights of Mexican-immigrant laborers. The Casa Aztlán was decorated by the Mexican American community in bright murals depicting the history and culture of the Mexican people--- a mural shop taught in the building was responsible for initiating many of the murals throughout Pilsen that celebrate Mexican heritage. The murals created a means for the Mexican population to claim an architectural landscape and depicting ethnic pride and progress.

Pilsen’s Mexican community restyled another historic community center in adapting the building that had served as St. Vitus Church at West 18th Street and South Paulina Street.  The Catholic Church sold the building in 1992 to the faith-based community development organization Resurrection Project.  It now serves as a day care center, Centro Familiar Guadalupano, for the neighborhood. Mexican-Americans have created their own structures to serve their needs as well.  Benito Juarez High Scholl, named after the President of the Mexican Republic who resisted the French installed Emperor Maximilian in the 19th century, was built in 1977 and designed by Bernheim, Kan, and Lozano with consulting Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez. Although the architect was famous for his internationally acclaimed Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the residents of Pilsen were upset he had been chosen over local architect Fidel Lopez. The building, as completed, recalls the massive monuments of the Aztec civilization in Mexico while Spanish heritage was reflected by the 43-foot high indoor patio, which functions as an assembly hall and can be viewed from all three levels of the interior classrooms. Large, colorful murals were designed and carried out by the mural workshops of Casa Aztlán, led by artists Aurelio Diaz and Jose Moya.


Full documentation on the Pilsen Historic District

Hispanic Heritage Month

 

 

 

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