The Pilsen community is located south of the UIC campus. OCENHP's core area is bounded by 16th Street to the north, the curving Chicago River to the east and south, and Western Avenue to the west. Pilsen has served as a port of entry for many immigrant groups that have come to Chicago seeking work and a better life: Germans at the turn of the century, followed by immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia, and others. During the 1950s, Mexican families began to move into the neighborhood. This trend accelerated in the 1960s, when Latinos became the major ethnic group.
Today, Pilsen is Chicago's largest Latino community. According to Claritas, Inc, of a total 1998 population of 44,133, 93.5% are Latino, predominantly of Mexican heritage. The median age in Pilsen is 18 years, the youngest for any Chicago community. More than one-third (36%) of the community's children live below the federal poverty level. Of the 12,340 households in Pilsen, approximately 22% are headed by women, and 31% have incomes of less than $15,000 per year. The 1989 median household income in Pilsen was $20,571, more than 20% lower than the citywide median of $26,301. Between 1979 and 1989, the median income in Pilsen declined 8%, compared to a 1% decline for the city.
In addition to poverty and related social problems, Pilsen residents must cope with high levels of violence. In 1992, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority named Pilsen one of the "hot spots" in the city for street gang violence. Today, the level of gang-related violence in Pilsen is widely considered to be second only to East Los Angeles.
Land use in Pilsen is unusually mixed, with residential, commercial, and industrial buildings on the same blocks, together with numerous vacant lots. Pilsen is home to some of the oldest housing in the city of Chicago: 78% of its 13,689, housing units were built before 1939, and many buildings date back to before the 1877 Chicago Fire. Traditionally a workers' housing district, Pilsen's many inexpensive wood-frame buildings now show widespread physical deterioration, exacerbated by a high number of absentee landlords. Between 1990 and 1998 Pilsen lost 359 housing units, a 2.6% loss for the community. In Pilsen, more than 65% of housing units are occupied by renters, compared to 60% for the city of Chicago.
Pilsen's deteriorating housing stock and the poverty of its residents, together with trends toward gentrification, have created a damaging cycle of building neglect, deterioration, and abandonment, followed by displacement of residents. An estimated 40% of Pilsen households spend more than 35% of their income for housing. The population density is nearly twice that of the rest of the city.
Commerce & Industry
Pilsen's economic assets include the Pilsen and Western Industrial Corridors, a retail economy based on 18th Street, Cermak Road, and 26th Street, and the community's strategic location near the city's center and regional transportation network.
While factories are interspersed throughout Pilsen, industry is most concentrated in the Pilsen Industrial Corridor along the Chicago River which curves around the community. According to a City of Chicago report, Corridors of Industrial Opportunity: A Plan for Chicago's West Side, 184 industrial firms in this Corridor employ 8,059 individuals. At the turn of the century, a diverse mix of manufacturing, warehousing, and transportation operations were attracted to the area by a transportation infrastructure which included extensive canal and rail systems. But now the infrastructure and many buildings have deteriorated or been abandoned. Local industry began to decline in 1960s following national and regional trends, and the continued loss of firms and jobs has created high unemployment.
Much of Pilsen has a "village economy" with a strong entrepreneurial bent. The community's main commercial strips feature convenience stores such as groceries, pharmacies, and hardware stores, restaurants that attract tourists and customers from across the city, and a bustle of sidewalk vendors and other entrepreneurs. Pilsen has been the center of the muralist movement in Chicago since the early 1970s, and areas such as 18th Street feature numerous colorful murals. A market feasibility study of the 18th Street commercial strip by one of UIC's partners, the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, found that most Pilsen residents shop weekly in the neighborhood. Despite this strong support for local businesses, most people are afraid to shop at night because of crime and gang activity.
Education & Unemployment
Children growing up in low-income immigrant families face unique obstacles. Their parents often have little education (70% of Pilsen adults have not completed ninth grade), limited mastery of English, no marketable skills, and few of the basic skills necessary for survival in Chicago. As a result, many children start out behind and are unable to compete in school and subsequently in the workplace. Teen pregnancy and parenthood are alarmingly common, as are gang involvement and substance abuse.
Fully 65% of children in Pilsen drop out of school, according to the Chicago Board of Education, with dire consequences for their future participation in the work force. Pilsen's main high school, Benito Juarez reports that 94.5% of their students are classified as low income. In 1990, Latino youth (ages 16 to 19) unemployment in Chicago was 27.9%. The 1990 U.S. census reported a 13% unemployment rate for all Pilsen workers, compared to 7% for the city of Chicago. More recent estimates range up to 25%.
Pilsen is a well-organized community with a large network of community organizations, social service agencies, churches, and schools. Pilsen residents have taken leadership roles in many community improvement efforts at the local and city-wide level, including Chicago public school reform and community policing programs.
Pilsen's rich cultural and organizational base makes it one of Chicago's most vibrant and unique communities. Residents' commitment to rebuilding their community is evidenced by major housing programs led by community-based organizations. Local schools are strengthened by dedicated teachers and active Local School Councils and complemented by a network of adult education and vocational training providers. Community health services are provided by the Pilsen/Little Village Mental Health Center, Alivio Medical Center, and St. Anthony, Mount Sinai, and UIC hospitals. Extensive family support services include El Hogar del Nino, El Valor, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the YMCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs.
OCENHP has operated since 1995 in developing and facilitating relationships, organizing collaborative projects, and supporting teaching, research, and service work in Pilsen. Over this period, the number of projects with active OCENHP support have increased to forty, with the number of community partners increasing to over 100. Nearly sixty faculty members and over 100 students have worked on the projects with community partners (see Project Table included and Summary Table below).
OCENHP has developed relationships with several community partners, including: The Resurrection Project, Renacer West Side Network, Near West Side Community Development Corporation, 18th Street Development Corporation, West Side Consortium, Benito Juarez High School, Suder School, the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club, the Henry Horner Local Advisory Council, to name a few.
Main university department and center partners include the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood Improvement, the City Design Center in the College of Architecture and the Arts, College of Education, Jane Addams College of Social Work, UIC Center for Urban Economic Development, the School of Public Health, the UIC Medical Center, the Great Cities Institute, and the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, to name a few.
Public agency involvement includes the City of Chicago's Department of Planning and Development, Department of Human Services, and Department of Housing; as well as the Chicago Housing Authority, local schools, and other bodies. Various other non-profits and private business agencies are involved in the projects, as described in the body of the regular reports sent to the HUD Office of University Partnerships.
One of the goals of OCENHP is to spin off successful projects to stand on their own, and this has become a reality in some case. For example, Esperanza Familiar in Pilsen, a family needs assessment and counseling agency formed at The Resurrection Project in Pilsen with substantial UIC help, was awarded the Sara Lee Foundation Spirit Award of $100,000 for its work.
Other ongoing, successful projects receiving substantial support outside OCENHP and the HUD grants include: the Affordable Housing Fund; the Great Cities/Great Careers project with Benito Juarez High School; the Urban Youth Leadership project; and the Near West Side Commercial development project.