The Outposts | Pilsen, Chicago

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The Lincoln Continental was inspired by Edsel Ford’s frequent travels, and the insights he uncovered helped shape his perception of world-class design. He found inspiration in unexpected places. In that spirit, we collaborated with The Atlantic to create The Outposts, a two-part series that celebrates the historic, evolving neighborhoods that prove a city’s identity is built on its frontiers. In Part II: Pilsen, we explore a neighborhood in Chicago’s Lower West Side that has evolved over the decades from workers’ haven to Czech political ground to a landscape of public murals and art. Today, Pilsen combines all those influences to bring warmth and color to the Windy City.

Pilsen might be the only place in the country where decades-old taquerias — Mexican restaurants specializing in tacos — line streets with Czech names, and vibrant public murals turn alleyways into exhibitions. South and west of Chicago proper, the neighborhood of Pilsen is geographically small but densely packed with vintage stores, Mexican restaurants, art galleries, record stores, young visitors, and families who have been in the area for generations.

In the mid-19th century, the area was serviced by multiple major trade routes into Chicago, attracting German and Irish immigrants who initially developed the neighborhood now known as Pilsen. The abundance of jobs in manual labor also attracted a significant population of Czech immigrants to the area beginning in the 1870s.

The first time “Pilsen” was applied to the neighborhood was likely with the opening of a neighborhood restaurant called “At the City of Plzen”: Plzen was then the second largest city in the Czech Republic, and the Czech population in the Chicago neighborhood was, by the late-19th century, overshadowing the German and Irish presence. As industry increased and considerations for workers lagged, widespread strikes proliferated and eventually culminated in the citywide Haymarket Riot of 1886. Murals and posters advocating for workers’ unions and fair labor conditions still paper Pilsen’s streets.

Labor and work continued to help define the neighborhood, as worker shortages during World War I and infrastructure projects that tore other neighborhoods down brought a growing number of Mexican immigrants to Pilsen. The forced removal of a significant Mexican population to the north of Pilsen to make room for the University of Illinois at Chicago campus eventually led to a Pilsen that had a Latino majority by the 1970 census. A neighborhood community center, formerly known as Howell House, was renamed Casa Aztlán to reflect Pilsen’s new demographics.

The neighborhood is now bound, roughly, by South Damen Avenue and South Halsted Avenue to the west and east and 16th Street and West Cermak Road to the north and south. Pilsen has become a haven for young artists in need of affordable studio space: Its galleries and studios are included in Chicago’s monthly Gallery Night. For both locals and visitors, Pilsen itself also hosts an art walk every first Friday of the month that explores the public art, galleries, and open studios of the neighborhood. Its residents have fought hard to maintain its character, and though it continues to evolve, it’s incorporating new influences rather than being overshadowed by them.

 

READING IT BACK

When Mary Gibbons and her business partner opened Pilsen Community Books in February 2016, they knew that their strengths were twofold: They knew how to choose books, and they knew how to sell books. Their beautifully curated and maintained storefront on 18th Street and South Carpenter Street make that clear. What might be less clear to a passerby is the store’s implicit presence in Pilsen’s classrooms. Through a book giveaway program, the store donates entire curricula to local schools, using their own sales profits and outside donations.

Mary, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, calls Pilsen “more of a community than other neighborhoods I’ve been in,” which is why a fundamental part of her store’s mission is to reinvest in its neighborhood.

THE BROAD STROKES

Pilsen’s public art is more than decoration. The murals scattered throughout the neighborhood —often political and uplifting—were largely part of a 2012 ward initiative with the Chicago Urban Art Society to reinvent abandoned or underutilized space.

Neighborhood residents can often recognize an individual artist’s work based on that mural’s styling and motifs. Ruben Aguirre, a Pilsen-based artist whose work is visible throughout the neighborhood, points to Pilsen’s rich history of Chicano art as a larger movement of which he is one part. “When I was experimenting with and exploring different public areas to make my art, I can see how I fit in a notch in the timeline of public artists coming from this area.”

“The unexpected beauty and intention of murals have the power to change the perception of ignored neighborhoods and spaces.”

Some of Pilsen’s most notable works are spread out across 16th Street, where an elevated freeway provided over a mile of blank wall space. The people who live in and come to Pilsen embrace the art as part of the neighborhood’s character, though Ruben warns that the growing attention to the neighborhood also threatens its legacy. In that sense, the murals, particularly those painted by local artists, are a manifestation of empowerment and ownership for the people who identify with them. “It’s been embraced in the Mexican neighborhoods here,” Ruben says. “People want us to paint their walls.”

THE SHIFT CHANGE

Ruben is a painter, but that word doesn’t seem to sufficiently describe what he does. He uses entire cities and streets as his canvas, taking influence from everything, from traditional architecture to contemporary Latino art. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in Pilsen, where he always considers how his work affects the context and neighborhood in which it will be placed.

“The unexpected beauty and intention of murals have the power to change the perception of ignored neighborhoods and spaces,” Ruben’s statement reads. “My current work embraces contemplation on a space’s use, history, and people to reimagine and create a public visual language.”

NEW CENTURY, SAME MISSION

As the 19th century drew to a close, Pilsen was still largely Czech and working class. John Dusek, a local tavern owner who wanted to bring entertainment to the neighborhood, commissioned the architects Faber & Pagels to design a multiuse building that functioned as both a gathering hall and a performance space, and Thalia Hall was born in 1892.

Over the following decades, Thalia Hall remained a crucial neighborhood establishment, not only for performance and the arts, but for political organization. What we now know as the Czech Republic and Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but thanks in part to the activism of Pilsen’s Czech population, statehood was granted to “Bohemia” in 1918. Thalia Hall was where those activists gathered.

Though it fell into disuse and was closed to the public in the 1960s, the building was recently purchased and restored (with the majority of its historic architectural details intact) by Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, Chicago-based real estate and restaurant investors. Its neo-Gothic architecture and imposing height make it stand out on its block, but Bruce and Craig don’t see themselves as bringing a foreign influence to Pilsen. “We were trying to re-establish a place that would be there for the people who lived in the neighborhood,” Bruce says. “I think it kind of cements the neighborhood…It’s been there since the 1890s.”

Pilsen is incorporating new influences rather than being overshadowed by them.

Thalia Hall isn’t just a neighborhood fixture anymore, though—residents from all of Chicago’s neighborhoods recognize the name, and have probably seen a show there. Bruce and Craig say that they see a “nice cross-section of the neighborhood” on any given night at the venue or in Dusek’s.

Outposts explores the historic, evolving neighborhoods that show how a city’s identity is built from influences on its frontiers. On the journey and for the length of your visit to such a place, the experience and the memories it leaves behind are all in the details: That’s Continental. To learn more about the new 2017 Lincoln Continental, please visit us here.

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