Chicago Real Estate Developers Fuel Tension Over Pilsen’s Gentrification With a Cluelessly Named Building

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Gentrification is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Mainly because wealthy white folks are “developing” our neighborhoods out of existence, and the word for that is, well, gentrification. But oftentimes when a word becomes so politically charged, it starts to distance itself from its original meaning. For residents of Chicago’s iconic Mexican barrio Pilsen, that distance was dramatically closed when some bird-brained developers had the idea to rebrand a local paint factory as “The Gentry Building.”

Of course, “gentry” originally referred to a landed upper class in Britain just below the nobility, and has come to be synonymous with “the upper or ruling class” and “wellborn and well-bred people.” Judging from the common usage, it seems the folks over at Villas Capital Partners – who underwrote the massive retail and office space project – were telegraphing their target audience. But they forgot one teeny tiny detail: 82% of the neighborhood is still primarily working class and Latino.

Unsurprisingly, local residents were pissed, and thanks to a deep tradition of community organizing and advocacy, their response was swift and effective. Led by a group called the Pilsen Alliance, neighborhood activists pushed back aggressively with letter-writing campaigns, protests, and engagement with local representatives. In response, Villas Capital Partners reverted the building’s moniker back to its prosaic street address – 917 W. 18th Street – while playing up the importance of neighborhood tradition in the redevelopment project.

But even with this small symbolic victory, rents on Chicago’s Lower West Side continue to skyrocket as more and more Latino families are displaced. Ultimately it will be up to development-hungry Chicago politicians to decide what their moral obligation to pre-existing communities is, and how to translate that into tangible policies.

H/T City Lab