Big Shoulders

Postcard from Chicago

By Maria S. Pedroza

CHICAGO—This city boasts a diverse composition of groups that have made the town their home since its incorporation in 1837, one migration wave after another. The changing locales from one generation of ethnic enclaves to another intrigue me as I wonder how my particular neighborhood will fare in the future.

Chicago neighborhoods are known for being delineated and segregated by physical structures (i.e. highways, bridges). The separation not only affords Chicagoans the opportunity to demonstrate their pride but also makes a tour of the city reminiscent of a mosaic. Chinese characters spell out street signs against a backdrop of Chinese architecture in Chinatown; two jumbo-size Puerto Rican flags on the North Side lend a festive air to the turf of Logan Square and Humboldt Park; an imposing, pink, concrete arch at the eastern border of Little Village lends an hacienda air to the neighborhood. The often cartoonishly large landmarks allow inhabitants to see a physical embodiment of their pride. The communities can begin to feel like small towns within a big city.

Living in the Mexican neighborhood of Little Village has helped me appreciate my heritage. The neighborhood has boomed and is a lively reflection of Mexico in its color and culture. It was not until I commuted to a high school near downtown on the number 60 bus that I realized how differently people can experience “Chicago.” On those first few rides to high school, I realized how close I lived to one of the largest pockets of blacks in the city. Yet, I had rarely seen non-Mexicans in my neighborhood. I didn’t think of such segregation as negative, just as a fact of city living. I didn’t think about how it came to be that blacks on 22nd Street scarcely settled across one set of railroad tracks near me on 26th Street, as if by an unspoken rule.

The settlement patterns throughout the city seemed permanent to me. Italians east of me in Bridgeport, blacks north in North Lawndale, Polish and Irish south in Back of the Yards, and white suburbia in the West. The four corners of the hub of my world seemed so clearly drawn. The large, pink, concrete arches on 26th Street welcoming visitors to Little Village seemed like they had always been guarding the neighborhood from unlikely and unpleasant change.

I relived my high school commute, my original eye-opener to the segregated variety within Chicago, each morning this summer that I traveled to my internship downtown. Out of my bus window I see the change in the urban landscape and wonder how some neighborhoods change more than others. I wonder if all neighborhoods change, or—if they do—if it is always a positive change. Retracing the 60 route made me feel that the more I think about Chicago, the less I know the city.

Starting from Little Village, the bus cuts through and adjacent Mexican neighborhood (Pilsen), followed by a gentrifying black neighborhood, then marches its way through Little Italy, around the circle campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Greektown, and finally through downtown Chicago.

Little Village and Pilsen used to be Czechoslovakian, Polish and German ethnic enclaves, closely tied to a junction of railways that engulfed the Near West Side. The early Czech settlers in Little Village honored the Old Country by naming the church Blessed Agnes of Bohemia. Now, the church serves the largest concentration of people of Mexican-descent in the Midwest. I doubt that many parishioners or congregants wonder about the church’s remote name. As more Mexicans arrive and are born in Chicago (Latinos now compromise about 25 percent of the city’s total three million population), it becomes easier to forget the legacy of old neighborhoods.

The black neighborhood south and west of my prestigious, private high school used to be run-down and crowded with public housing shacks and projects. Since my departure to college, parks and condos have increasingly sprung up, making for a more “pleasant” scenery and “improving” the area near downtown while “beautifying” the city as a whole. The area’s economy is improving; it is a safer place to hang out after school gets out, and some people have moved in as an alternative to the suburbs. There is a sense of “progress” for an area that was once a blighted eyesore. Seemingly overnight, the slummy shacks and projects disappeared and “dream homes” arose. Through this experience, I have seen the establishment of new communities and the uprooting of old ones, changes whose origins I don’t quite understand.

Little Italy’s remains cling around the intersection of interstate highways and UIC’s circle campus; what is left is demarcated by a few restaurants and a statue of Joe DiMaggio. Greektown is a collection of lively eateries, a few Greek columns, bakeries, and an increasingly young, professional population inhabiting lofts. As the 60 route takes me through each of these neighborhoods, I wonder about the permanence of other establishments I take for granted, especially my own neighborhood.

Such changing neighborhoods are easy to embrace because of the “before and after” pictures of the urban makeovers. But soon enough, questions arise: Where did the old inhabitants go? Are they also enjoying “progress” in more “pleasant” scenery and “beautified” neighborhoods? How much choice did they have in the relocation that accompanies skyrocketing property taxes? I believe that there are two main ways of looking at the situation. First, the same inevitable forces that drive change perpetuate community segregation. Second, certain people who insulate themselves in their communities or move out have more choice in the matter than others. The level of choice involved in moving in or out for different people is not always clear, but it appears that people remain where they are when they reach a level of comfort in their surroundings.

Where people end up interests me because as I look around the growing Little Village community, I have a hard time imagining it change or fizzle out. The community seems permanent in my mind, but like the white population surrounding 26th Street that came before us and everyone else that has started over in a different locale, change is inevitable. I just hope people in the future will remember just how alive 26th can be.

Maria S. Pedroza ’04, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator living in Winthrop House. When she is not riding the bus in Chicago, she has stints as an intern at a talent agency in downtown Chicago and as a caddie for the 5th year in the western suburbs where she is feverishly working on her farmer tan.