Mexican Bohemia: Chicago’s Pilsen

From the Loop, the Pink Line El bursts west, floating among the rooftops of a low-rise industrial district. As the city’s wall of downtown skyscrapers drifts away and the train enters an expanse of limitless sky, it’s as if the Pink Line is darting toward far more distant destinations than its terminus in neighboring Cicero. The slightly undulating horizontals of the warehouse roofs take on the characteristics of the rolling, arid Plains and desert beyond, stretching almost ceaselessly to the south and the west.

Stopping at 18th St., though, it’s more apparent the journey transports mentally further than it has physically; the Sears Tower still looms totemically, as it does over most of pancake-flat Chicago’s south and west sides. But something else has happened: the station is covered in a riot of color; art infuses every step and crevice. Alighting here, the rider descends this urban canvas into Pilsen: first settled by crafty vrais Bohemians, resettled by Mexicans and increasingly claimed again by bohemians of a different sort, Pilsen is a neighborhood where artistic traditions run deep.

The evolving neighborhood is summed up well by the corner of 18th and Bishop. Here, Czech immigrants, naming the neighborhood after their Bohemian home, demonstrated their fondness for the wedding-cake architecture of fin-de-siècle Austria-Hungary, erecting two monuments to their homeland: a stocky stone edifice, now home to the tellingly named Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez, and the delicate, refined turret that now houses Café Jumping Bean.

The latter is Pilsen’s perfect centerpiece: hinting at Jugendstil but grounded in tradition, its walls meet to rise into a graceful turret. Set in this architectural shrink-rap, a product of Pilsen’s first Bohemians, the café teems with their second wave — the creative class. The Jumping Bean title, of course, alludes to the neighborhood’s ethnic interregnum, a Mexican population declared so independent enough of hybrid Chicano culture that Pilsen cuisine is seen as some of the most “authentic” Mexican food in the United States.

Café Jumping Bean

Pilsen’s Mexican population didn’t just leave its imprint on the neighborhood’s cuisine. The area’s walls, too, burst with the vibrant palettes of Mexican artists, and religious and political themes — one corner is highlighted by a wounded conquistador — abound. In a subtle twist to the prototypical artists-colonize-the-immigrant-neighborhood story, Pilsen nurtured creativity well before its demographics began to shift.

Still, although the area’s mural art tradition has ossified somewhat with the establishment of the National Museum of Mexican Art and the migration of its Mexican population to other parts of Chicago, it’s still the eastern, “bohemian” part of the neighborhood, with its rows of minimalist gallery spaces and “Chicago Arts District” branding, that feels more institutional. In March, one stout old building undergoing renovation sprouted a wry real estate slogan: “Can you imagine?” It wasn’t clear if its originators understood in how many ways the question could be taken.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Saturday June 12 2010at 05:06 am , filed under Architecture, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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