Between 2000 and 2010, 10,000 Mexican residents left Pilsen, says Nelson Soza, a community organizer. “When you displace people without giving them the tools to be able to succeed in society, when you’re just hiding poverty instead of fixing it, I think that we’re lying to ourselves,” he says. Photo by Juan Antonio Labreche.

Luke Giveen is afraid that he will soon be priced out of Pilsen.

For the past year, the 22-year-old has lived in an apartment building near the corner of 17th Street and Racine Avenue. He earns just enough as a freelance bike mechanic to cover the $500 monthly rent for his two-bedroom apartment.

But Giveen has recently noticed potential investors and real estate agents visiting his Southwest Side building. If the ownership changes, a price hike could be on the horizon, he fears. He knows all too well that such a scenario has played out at many other neighborhood buildings.

He and his girlfriend “love the neighborhood and we’re very involved in the community,” he said, but “we don’t make a lot of money.”

Giveen’s story is a familiar one in Pilsen, where many low-income residents have been forced to move out as the neighborhood has grown popular for its proximity to Chicago’s downtown.

This is why Giveen reached out to the Pilsen Alliance, which works to fight such displacement. Nelson Soza, the nonprofit community organization’s executive director, explained that Giveen’s building, like many others in the community, badly needs maintenance. It needs plumbing repairs and pest extermination. The cost for such repairs, which he estimated could reach well into six-figures, will likely propel rent hikes—especially if the building gets sold, he said.

Soza is no expert in housing issues, but that doesn’t faze him. He got into community organizing more than 20 years ago in Chile. “I experienced the repression of the dictatorship, the violation of human rights, and that started a desire on my part to help in the search for social justice,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do [in Pilsen].”

Soza is now exploring creative ways to raise funds to help upgrade the neighborhood’s decaying housing stock. He would like to see his neighborhood get access to Tax Increment Financing District funds. Meanwhile, his organization is trying to empower residents by regularly holding workshops to educate them about tenants’ rights.

The Chicago Reporter recently sat down with Soza to discuss gentrification and how it affects low-income families.

Why should people be concerned about gentrification?

It is a matter of fairness. It is a matter of justice. Everyone talks about the American dream and the land of opportunity. I think that, when you displace people without giving them the tools to be able to succeed in society, when you’re just hiding poverty instead of fixing it, I think that we’re lying to ourselves.

What’s happening to Pilsen and other low-income communities across the city is that people are being robbed of the opportunities that other generations had in the past. And by kicking them out of where the jobs are, you’re basically condemning them into more poverty. If we keep denying people the power to make decisions, then you’re pushing people into desperate situations and to a continual cycle of desperation that destroys lives.

How has Pilsen evolved as a result of gentrification?

Pilsen is a result of policies people call ‘urban renewal’ or what some other people call ‘urban removal.’ In the ’50s, with the expansion of [the University of Illinois at Chicago]: A lot of people who used to live in that area where UIC is today were people of Mexican descent, and those people got pushed out of that neighborhood, so they ended up here. So, in a way they are refugees of this urban renewal process. But, when European folks left the city, Mexicans, people with strong family values, created their community—partially because of the segregation that people of color experienced. So they created this community as a reflection of the culture that they have left behind, and they made this community flourish. Now we see that is changing. That community that I’m talking about was a community of working families, people who were factory workers, people who work in construction. So that community that was formed by Mexicans started to receive the pressures from this expansion from that investment, particularly in the eastern side of Pilsen, the part that’s closer to downtown.

The bottom line of all this is that just in the last census, between 2000 and 2010, 10,000 Mexicans left this community. So, some of the people who were here through the hard years were not able to experience this bloom that we see today, like increased services. The most concrete way in which we see this decrease of the traditional population in Pilsen is in the diminished enrollment in some of the schools, particularly on the eastern boundary of the neighborhood and the reduction of affordable housing—which is one of the biggest problems in this community. Today it’s becoming harder and harder to find [affordable housing] for people who are below the median income. A lot of the people in the community are still laborers and people who don’t have a huge income. Basically what we see today is that there are fewer options for those people, so they have to leave.

In 2007, we [collaborated] with the geography department at DePaul University and did a study on building inventory and figured out what was happening on the ground with the housing situation. We identified some of the factors that are contributing to 10,000 people leaving. What we found was that gentrification was happening due to increased property values. [There were] a lot of demolitions of old buildings and zoning changes. Zoning changes would allow properties to be built in place of the older properties at a higher density. For example, if I have a house and I get rid of it and I build five stories up, then we can see that, instead of making money from one house, I can make money from five. So these zoning changes were a big factor in [raising property values].

In what ways have you helped families who have been affected by gentrification? 

We help people every day. We help them with information about jobs, about housing, legal things. We connect them to services and resources. Above all, I think [giving] them a voice, an opportunity to exercise their power—it’s probably the greatest contribution that we can make. We can sit here and talk about gentrification all day but, if you don’t mobilize, if you don’t put pressure on the people that hold the purse strings, you aren’t getting anywhere. So, the best way that we know how to help people fight gentrification is to help them express their voice.

How can a poor community be converted into a richer community without changing its identity?

I think there [should] be more opportunities for people to buy their own properties, to become owners. There have to be affordable housing opportunities. If we lose affordable rentals, we need to create new ones. If [people] want to bring new developments, we have to ask those developments to minimize the impact that they could have. For instance, if you’re going to build 20 apartments, we have to make sure that some of those apartments are really affordable.

Why do you think people are so attracted to the neighborhood? 

Well, on the one hand, you have the Mexicans, new immigrants and then there are more established first-and second-generation Mexicans. Then you have the white, hipster culture. I think those two groups are attracted to Pilsen because of different reasons. Maybe there are some connections, but for Latinos, Pilsen represents the place where you sleep at night. It also represents a community, a culture that embraces things that are relevant to people’s lives, relevant to survival, in some cases. People here help each other. There is a social, cultural and family element that I think Latino people seek, and I think that serves as a way to be at home away from home. I think that hipsters are attracted for similar reasons even though they don’t have that same need. They like the murals and the people selling the fruit. I think people think this is a pretty and interesting neighborhood to explore. They’re also 15 minutes away from downtown by virtually any means of transportation. You’re close to where things are happening, and that is a very attractive element to this community.

Are there any upsides to gentrification?

The positive side could be that Pilsen is getting better; there are [higher] taxes and more services. OK, so how come the library is closed half the time? Why [are] all the parks overcrowded? We want more parks, we want better schools, and we want more libraries. That’s how you create opportunities. So, I don’t think that gentrification in the way that I define it—in the sense of this class replacement—has any benefits. We all believe in economic and community development, but that’s a different thing. Displacement is always bad. If you have to leave a place that you love because you can’t afford it anymore, where’s the benefit in that? Who benefits from that?