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Gentrification, affordable housing and the fight for Pilsen’s public schools

Our city cannot, and frankly should not, try to prevent communities from changing naturally and organically. But if every neighborhood is to have good schools and affordable homes, there are lessons in Pilsen’s story.

Mosaics of Mexican and Mexican American icons and figures decorate a satellite building of Cooper Elementary in Pilsen.
Mosaics of Mexican and Mexican American icons and figures decorate a satellite building of Cooper Elementary in Pilsen.
Rick Majewski | For the Sun-Time

For years, the elementary schools in Pilsen were bursting at the seams.

As far back as the 1950s, Mexican immigrants flocked to a neighborhood that felt much like those they had left behind. The local restaurants served carnitas, a slow-cooked pulled pork. The bakeries sold conchas, a traditional sweet bread. Most everyone spoke Spanish, and maybe your new neighbor was friends with your cousin or grandparents back home.

Pilsen flourished, eventually becoming a favorite destination of tourists and restaurant-goers. The neighborhood public schools flourished too, to the point where overcrowding became the norm.

But in recent years, young, affluent singles and couples have moved in, sending rents soaring and forcing out working class families. The newcomers, if they have children at all, mostly send them outside the neighborhood or to private or parochial schools.

And as the Sun-Times’ Carlos Ballesteros reported on Sunday, gentrification has had a stunning impact on Pilsen’s elementary schools.

Altogether, Pilsen’s nine public elementary schools lost 40% of their students between 2005 and 2019. At three of the nine schools, enrollment fell by 50%. Citywide, enrollment has declined by a comparatively modest 20%.

“We didn’t want to leave,” Maria de la Luz Guerrero told the Sun-Times. Yet she had no choice back in 2016, when she and her three daughters moved to Gage Park because their new landlord wanted to raise the rent from $600 to $1,200.

“We looked around the neighborhood for a new place,” she said, “but couldn’t find anything.”

Pilsen is not the only neighborhood to undergo a dramatic demographic shift. North Lawndale, now African American, was once the city’s largest Jewish community. Bridgeport has changed from a white, working class community to a neighborhood that is two-thirds Asian American and Latino.

The city cannot, and frankly should not, try to prevent communities from changing naturally and organically, over time. All neighborhoods do.

But if every neighborhood is to have good schools and affordable homes, whatever its demographic makeup, there are lessons in Pilsen’s story.

For one, schools that are losing students should not be left to wither until the city one day decides to just shut them down. The current budgeting practice of funding schools based on enrollment penalizes schools that need more money, not less, to maintain adequate staff and robust programs. That policy should be revised.

Some schools will inevitably shut down when enrollment falls too far. But allow them a fighting chance to rebound.

The Pilsen Education Task Force had the right idea in 2016 with a plan to launch specialty magnet programs — in foreign language, fine arts, International Baccalaureate and other areas — in the neighborhood schools. Create a special selling point for each school. And, if all goes well, each of those schools could experience a real turnaround in coming years.

Indeed, education research points in that direction: Magnet programs have been shown to boost school enrollment and foster racial and economic integration.

But as Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) told the Sun-Times, that will never be enough.

Unless more affordable housing is created, families of modest means will continue to move out — and school enrollment will continue to go down.

A new task force on affordable housing, created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, has been charged with strengthening the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which applies to residential developers who want city subsidies, city land or a zoning change.

The task force would do well to further limit the option that lets developers pay a financial penalty instead of building a certain percentage of affordable housing units in new or renovated buildings. It’s a small price to pay when a developer is asking for city help to make money.

Housing advocates also have argued for a program, built on financial incentives, to preserve the two- to four-flat buildings that provide low-cost housing in many neighborhoods. Nearly two-thirds of Pilsen’s housing stock is made up of these two- to four-unit buildings, according to data from the DePaul University Institute of Housing Studies.

Developers who buy these smaller apartment buildings often demolish them to build single-family homes that can turn a bigger and faster profit.

“We need a comprehensive strategy of preserving two-flats,” Sarah Duda of DePaul’s Institute of Housing Studies told us in recent months. “It’s incredibly important to the city’s housing stock in general, and provides relative affordability for middle-income people.”

Pilsen is the beneficiary of what we would hope to see for every Chicago neighborhood — new investment by new Chicagoans. No city, and no neighborhood, can stand still. And we’re sure the Guerrero family’s new neighborhood, Gage Park, will be lucky and happy to have them.

But neighborhood change, even in the face of marketplace gentrification, need not be so quick, so complete or so cold-hearted.

Decades ago, City Hall routinely allowed remarkable old buildings, such as the Garrick Theater on Randolph Street in the Loop, to be torn down in the name of commerce. How foolish of our city. Now we put a much greater premium on architectural preservation.

Great old Chicago neighborhoods, such as Pilsen, should be prized in the same way.

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