Granted, she is the alderman's daughter, but Maya Solis also symbolizes the new
resident —young, of Mexican descent and college-educated. Instead of dashing to the 'burbs after college, these new residents are not only living in their parents' and grandparents' neighborhood; they are involved in Pilsen's community improvement organizations.
"My friends and I call ourselves 'muppies' — Mexican yuppies. We came back here to raise our families," says Solis, special assistant to Ald.
The muppies mark another chapter in Pilsen's rich history, explains the alderman. First came the Eastern Europeans in the 1800s. Later came the post-
influx of Mexican immigrants, including Ald. Solis' parents. "They came here to make enough money to retire to Mexico," he explains. But their children, the Baby Boomers, stayed and created a little Mexico here.
While other community leaders use the term "Hispanic," Ald. Solis says "Mexican-American" because that's what Pilsen is. "We've put our flag in the ground," he says. One step into the neighborhood proves it: Murals of Mexican heritage. The
. The eagle statue from a former
mayor. Tile mosaics in the sidewalks.
Pilsen is known for its huge colorful murals that depict the histories of Mexico and Pilsen and even some universal stories such as "Gulliver's Travels." The latter is a "metaphor for
," says Jose Guerrero, a Pilsen-based muralist and owner of Pilsen Mural Tours. Originally, murals were used to communicate to illiterate people. The Mexican Revolution, says Guerrero, helped revive murals because the uneducated workers used them to communicate their causes. Today, Pilsen's murals are part decorative, part educational. Like the Mexican murals that preceded them, says Guerrero, "their colors help lift the spirit."
The 18th Street commercial district is a slice of Mexico, where living over the store is still the norm and storefronts are painted in tropical colors. "We don't have the big-box stores, but if you want them, they are 10 minutes away," says Maya Solis.
Evidence of Pilsen's Eastern European origins lingers, but is harder to find: the St. Procopius Catholic Church, street names such as Cermak and, of course, the neighborhood's name, which comes from Plzen in what is now the
. Except for "the girls," a group of women in their 80s and 90s who gather daily for coffee at Miceli's Deli on Oakley Avenue, most of the Europeans here moved to the suburbs a generation or two ago.
Because Pilsen is on the National Register of Historic Places, its residents can apply for property tax assessment freezes. This, says Ald. Solis, has helped keep the number of teardowns at a minimum. Restoration, strongly supported by the alderman, "has a domino effect," he says.
To answer residents' questions about housing and zoning, Ald. Solis hosts a monthly "Arquitectos" workshop.
Tucked into Pilsen's residential neighborhoods are 11 public and four Catholic grammar schools. High schools are Cristo Rey Jesuit and Benito Juarez Community Academy, which is undergoing a renovation that will include a new performing arts center.
The redevelopment guidebook in Pilsen is its "Quality of Life Plan," which focuses on economy, family/health, housing, culture/identity and education. "We have a great deal of
or pride, in what we have built in Pilsen, and we believe that the best future for this community is one that incorporates and celebrates our Mexican culture," reads the plan.
Neighborhood development during Ald. Solis' tenure has included the 1998 creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district, which includes 902 acres, or about one-third of Pilsen. Thanks to TIF dollars, employers including the Chicago International Produce Market have expanded or come to the neighborhood. The largest infill project is the mixed-use Renaissance Village, slated for completion in 2011. It will include 500 residential units and 45,000 square feet of commercial space.
Judging from the makeup of his customers, Miceli's owner Lou Miceli says the neighborhood is evolving from mostly blue-collar to a combination of blue- and white-collar. Under family pictures of the Obamas, his lunch crowd discusses their economic fears.
"The blue-collar people, they are laid off work or worried about it," says Miceli between orders for sub sandwiches. "The older people who have paid for their homes, they're OK. The people who work for the city; they still have jobs."
Although many Pilsen residents voice opposition to "gentrification," it isn't happening here en masse. Scattered, new condominium buildings are priced higher than the older buildings they replaced but are far outnumbered by houses and flats that are 80-plus years old.
"The older places are bought by muppies and yuppies who know they can get a good deal on a place and have rental income, too," says Miguel Chacon, Pilsen resident and real estate agent with Sheldon Good Brokerage in Chicago. "They grew up here or nearby. They aren't the people who won't go south of Madison [Avenue] without an armored car."
"Some people say, 'I don't want the neighborhood to change,' " says Chacon. "But then they raise their rent, which of course brings in more professional people."
Single-family houses are the exception to the rule in Pilsen, which is populated with two- to four-flats. Sales in 2008 ranged from a two-flat fixer-upper for $223,000 to a rehabbed four-flat for $484,000.
Although Ald. Solis has been on the job for 12 years, his work isn't done, he says. His to-do list includes additional streetscaping and infrastructure improvements, continuing to fight crime and encouraging building restoration. He gives a thumbs-up to the La Casa residence hall on Paulina Street. Slated for completion in 2011, it will bring 150 hungry college students to Pilsen's restaurants.