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Failed landmark preservation effort in Chicago provides lessons for planners

Gentrification fears heightened among Pilsen neighborhood residents doomed ambitious preservation plan.

April 19, 2021 |

Courtesy Pixabay

A plan to preserve one of Chicago’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods ended in failure when it could not generate community support.

The Pilsen neighborhood, home to Eastern European immigrants in the 19th century and later to newcomers from Mexico, includes ornate “Bohemian Baroque” buildings with brilliant murals expressing the area’s Mexican heritage. The city proposed establishing a historic district to protect more than 850 buildings in Pilsen, but was not able to assuage concerns from neighborhood residents.

The historic district was a part of a larger preservation strategy that included housing supports, economic development measures, park space, and more. Other than some financial support, though, the other measures stalled, prompting suspicion in the neighborhood.

Residents strongly opposed the strategy, fearing that landmarking would not provide relief from displacement and gentrification. Part of the problem: design guidelines on how historic building elements had to be maintained according to the district’s standards were never completed and the city could not present a good estimation on the costs of building repairs nor on the value of incentives that would be available to make repairs.

An important lesson for preservationists is the need to partner with more community development organizations, social justice organizations, housing developers, and planners.

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