Beyond Your Baggage: Real Talk about Pilsen and Gentrification

The Pilsen location of Bow Truss coffee has caught a lot of flack as a harbinger of gentrification since it landed on 18th Street late last summer. And last weekend, the neighborhood’s hipster-est coffee shop was targeted again, this time with Chicago flag stickers doctored to read,  “White People Out of Pilsen.” Chicago media had a field day with the incident, with articles calling the sticker graffiti everything from “disgusting” to “threatening” and “racist.” The coverage is superficial at best, straight-up biased at worst.

But the coverage has gone beyond standard sensationalism: the media totally glossed over (read: intentionally ignored?) the complexities of gentrification in Pilsen, as the phenomenon relates to all of our least favorite -isms. Yes, Chicago media, writing about sticker graffiti as an “attack” while ignoring gentrification-fueled aggressions against Latinx and black residents is plain shoddy “reporting,” if we can call it that. And it feeds into the narrative that gentrifiers need to “settle” their new neighborhoods by ridding them of their “uncivilized” populations. Or are we the only ones who’ve heard hipsters humblebrag: “There was nothing here when I first moved in,” or the classic, “at least there are safe parts of this neighborhood now that it’s, er, changed”? The colonial era is over, bro; time to start acting like it.  

But don’t worry, media. The Gozamos crew is always here to remind you when you’re not playing fair:

  1. “This graffiti is racist.”

Many folks complaining about the sign want to make it about supposedly pervasive racism against white people. But these same people actively ignore the discrimination against residents of color that can lead to tension in hoods like Pilsen undergoing whiplash-inducing change. And let’s not forget: In our fine country, systemic racism–racism upheld by the very systems that regulate and reproduce our society, like immigration laws, the public school system or prisons– does not oppress or disenfranchise white people. Simply put, an individual person might express prejudice against white people based on their race, but that same discrimination will never impact white people systemically, the way it does black and brown people. In Pilsen, that means it’s no accident that suburban-born, wealthy-ish, mostly white hipsters are the ones able to buy or rent homes, encourage city investment or bankroll generic, bathroom-less (is this even legal?!) coffee spots like Bow Truss.  

  1. “Targeting business is the wrong way to speak out against gentrification.”

But other people are a bit more willing to admit gentrification might be a problem for neighborhoods like Pilsen. For these folks, it’s fine to call out injustice–as long as you do it according to the rules, without stepping on the toes of the powerful (you know, the ones who privilege whiteness and wealth). Our would-be allies fall into the “well-meaning but misguided category.” And when it comes to the latest incident at Bow Truss, they tend to argue another method of discussion would have been “better” if the tagger wanted to be taken seriously. ( petition, anyone?) Would-be allies  are concerned with respectability (read: civility, for those of you picking up on the colonial undertones of that language). They tend to be the ones who freak out at the sight of a #BlackLivesMatter protest, but privilege the rights of coffee shop windows over those of actual black, brown and poor bodies.

Reminder: social change isn’t brought about by doing what’s popular, and reactions to systemic oppression can’t and shouldn’t always be registered politely, through the “proper” channels. Enough insisting on that Uncle Tom shit, okay? “White People Out of Pilsen” comes from a real place of anger. Let’s focus on critically examining the horrifying historical causes of that anger instead of fixating on a lame critique of how it’s expressed.  

  1. One sticker doesn’t speak for all of Pilsen.

How do Pilsen’s longtime residents feel about gentrification and the new businesses and residents in the neighborhood? We don’t know! Because in DNAInfo’s second article on the incident, the reporter interviewed the owner of Bow Truss, Alderman Daniel Solis, and Pilsen Alliance—not everyday residents. But why did this reporter (and others) feel justified in ignoring their voices? Were the reporters scared, or could they simply not be bothered to speak with anyone in the actual community? By not engaging the people most affected by gentrification, DNAinfo took for granted that every “old” Pilsen resident agrees with the message “White People Out of Pilsen” (unlikely) and tars them all with the “angry brown people” brush,  compromising their journalistic credibility in the process.

  1. Biased coverage of the graffiti justifies the “hostile natives” narrative.

An article by self-proclaimed right-of-center outlet Gateway Pundit exaggerates the hostile nature of the graffiti, calling it “threatening” and “racist.” “Of course, if this was a black-owned store,” the columnist writes, “the story would make national headlines.” Gimme a break. While Gateway Pundit is far from a legit outlet, it’s always fun to see how quickly people go for the “if this were a black person” comparison, waving their own bigot flag in the process. When the white, rich and/or powerful act on their racism, people of color are told to get over it. But when people of color show their own prejudices (it’s worth noting here that we still don’t know who made the sticker, or their ethnicity), rooted in their relationship to systemic racism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc., etc., it becomes a threat.  

  1. Columbus-ing: Gentrifiers are not pioneers.

Gentrifiers like to imagine themselves as trailblazers, frontiersmen, and not just in Pilsen. Author Eula Biss writes how often she encountered the gentrifiers-as-pioneer attitude in traditionally working-class Rogers Park. With this colonizer Manifest Destiny mindset, current residents become part of the atmosphere of a neighborhood, or maybe a “criminal element” that gives hipsters street cred with their goober friends for living in such “shady neighborhoods, man,” but never as members of established communities. Neighborhoods like Pilsen, while mostly ignored by City Hall, have always been meccas of culture and conviviality (kind of like the Americas, circa 1491). But it’s only now that the neighborhood is being not “discovered,” but colonized that  outlets like the New York Times taking notice.

  1. Pilsen is an immigrant neighborhood, and no one “owns” it.

In addressing gentrification and the changing demographics in Pilsen, certain people like to bring up the fact that the neighborhood wasn’t always predominately Latino. It’s a sly way of trivializing the problem of gentrification, making the point that changing demographics are “just the way things go.” The DNAInfo article chimes in, reminding readers, “in the mid-1800s, Pilsen was settled by Irish, German, Polish and immigrants from other Eastern European countries. By the end of the century, Czech immigrants inhabited the area, and by 1970, Latinos became the majority in Pilsen.”

Pilsen has always been an immigrant neighborhood for its central location, near both industry and the Loop. But the DNAinfo article’s casual mention of Pilsen’s “white past” fails to acknowledge A.), most of these immigrants were not considered white in the context of 1850s Chicago, and only later became white through assimilation; and B.), like many urban neighborhoods throughout the US, Pilsen experienced a demographic shift in the mid-20th century, due both to “white flight” and the closing of the Union Stockyards, where many residents worked. People choosing to leave their neighborhood for the middle class, lily-white suburbs is a much different phenomenon than families being displaced by rising rents or bought out by developers. Though the neighborhood hasn’t been heavily Eastern European since the 1960s, people still emphasize the neighborhood’s past, implying that white Europeans, not Latinxs, are Pilsen’s “rightful” owners. But the issue here isn’t whether Pilsen should be white or Latino; it’s how to move forward without having to leave the majority of the people who already live there, behind.

  1. Non-white millennials are moving to Pilsen, too.

An ABC article on the Bow Truss sticker incident says, “Pilsen is going through a transition with more millennials moving into the West Side neighborhood,” blurring the line between a younger Pilsen and a whiter Pilsen. But by pegging the current demographic shift as a generational one, the article sidesteps the issue of ethnicity in a doubly problematic way. On the one hand, glossing over the whiteness of the new residents ignores the racial-tension element of gentrification on the ground. Secondly, the article equates being young with surplus income as a white thing. But gentrification is exacerbated by class tensions, too, and we’ve got to remember that middle-class kids moving to Pilsen from the suburbs can’t escape their own part in the icky process of gentrification simply because they’re of color.

  1. We need to call out the forces of gentrification.

Though many people still try to convince themselves racism doesn’t exist (because Obama?) and that gentrification isn’t problematic (because segregation and redlining never happened?), most people in our readership probably accept racism and gentrification as real issues with complex histories. But when it comes to calling out specific groups or businesses that contribute to gentrification, why are we so reluctant to be confrontational? If Bow Truss insists on selling overpriced coffee marketed to a certain sector of the neighborhood’s population (though they once claimed they were coming to Pilsen because the barrio has no cafes; please see a full list of the neighborhood’s fine coffee-serving establishments here), we should insist on letting Bow Truss and other businesses focusing on catering only to a white, hipster demographic, know that we consider them antagonistic to the Pilsen we know.  

  1. Neighborhood development must benefit local residents.

Gentrification’s critics are often caricatured as “anti-progress,” as traditional Latinos who they prefer their neighborhoods to remain “undeveloped” (more of that lovely colonial-speak). But since when is gentrification the only solution to a lack of neighborhood services? Instead of depending on “the outside” to develop the neighborhood, Pilsen should have the opportunity to welcome businesses, renters and visitors who are a part of, engaged with and work to better the community.

  1. Gentrification is an economic issue, complicated by racial politics.

Colonialism was a capitalist venture: “So much unused fertile, resource-filled land! So many natives lazing about! Don’t they realize what their land is worth? Well, maybe we could just sneak in here…” Gentrification works in much the same way. That Pilsen is a mostly Latino neighborhood changes how the impacts of  gentrification are felt, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference when it comes to why gentrification happens. Whether the neighborhood was populated by Eastern European immigrants or newly arrived Syrian refugees, what matters isn’t that the residents are not white Americans (though it certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to framing gentrification as a symptom of racial tension), but that they’re poor. And now that Chicago’s industrial heyday is long past and the wealthy have grown tired of suburban living, the low-income residents of Pilsen (like those in neighboring Bridgeport, and the South Loop before that) are sitting on prime real estate. Business interests are interested only in exploiting the neighborhood and its centrally-located appeal to turn a profit. For them, displacing a bunch of low-income and Latino residents is just one of the many easy ways to legitimize their project.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated in point #1 that racism does not affect white people, and we edited that to say, “racism does not oppress or disenfranchise white people.” It is the belief of the writers that racism–by definition and in practice–systemically benefits white people. These benefits are evidenced throughout U.S. history and in prevailing racial disparities of all kinds (wealth, education/school quality, incarceration, housing/loans, etc.), however normalized those disparities might be in the mainstream. Thank you to our readers for bringing that error to our attention.