Pilsen Versus Gentrifiers: An Interview With Diego Morales

Pilsen is Chicago’s first majority Latinx neighborhood. For years, real estate speculators have sought to profit off the community’s famous public murals and local culture while displacing its residents.

Diego Morales is a Chicago DSA organizer. As a Pilsen resident, he fights for housing justice through Pilsen Alliance and Lift the Ban. With Pilsen’s fight against gentrifiers back in the mainstream news thanks to the corrupt Landmark District proposal, Morales shared his thoughts about past victories and losses in the struggle so far.

Pilsen has been fighting off outside developers for decades. Why do gentrifiers go after immigrant communities?

Diego Morales: Large developers and landlords and people who speculate in the real estate market see these neighborhoods as their canvas. And when you think of immigration policy at the national scale, it’s kind of the same thing, right? The idea is to kick these people out and then we can have “our country” in “our image.”

Do you see raids as being a tool sometimes of gentrification?

DM: Oh absolutely. It is a tool in the arm of the capitalist class to control the tenant population, the working class population that live here. Landlords have used the undocumented status of their tenants against them time and time again. It’s an intimidation tool. I’ve heard of landlords here in the neighborhood who call ICE on tenants that they know are undocumented. I’ve heard landlords say ‘I would rather have a single white person live here and I would rather these Mexicans and these undocumented “illegal” folks weren’t here.’

Rent control is illegal in Illinois thanks to the Koch brothers’ ban. Pilsen Alliance and Chicago DSA are in coalition together as Lift the Ban to, well, lift that ban. Pilsen’s new alderman, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, was a co-founder of the campaign. How does the fight for rent control intersect with the anti-gentrification struggle in Pilsen?

DM: Rent control is absolutely necessary in order to keep immigrant families together. The way that they can basically ethnically cleanse entire areas is by making it very expensive to live here. They buy up property that immigrant families live in and jack up the rents, which is essentially evicting them. But it’s not counted as an eviction! There are eviction statistics, right? In order to be evicted you gotta have a notice and you show up to court and this whole process and it’s documented legally. But much more often there’s this other form of evictions in which you just raise people’s rent. Rent control would give breathing room to the people who live here to be able to afford the communities and the homes that they many times grew up in and have families in and their kids grow up in.

Tell me about the showdown in Pilsen in December 2018.

DM: The Emerging Neighborhoods conference? Oh man. So there’s this real estate publication called Bisnow. So Bisnow held a conference in this development and called it “Emerging Neighborhoods” and invited people in the industry from around the country. People flew in from New York from California from Florida, etcetera etcetera, to come in and talk about all the wonderful “up-and-coming” neighborhoods in Chicago. 

And they named Pilsen, they named Logan Square, they named Uptown, they named Humboldt Park. All these places where you’re seeing, rapid gentrification, displacement, erasure of culture and peoples. And this was just a nice, fun little emerging opportunity, right? As if these neighborhoods were nothing beforehand, as if there wasn’t anything of value before it had all of a sudden become a hot commodity. There was unanimous response, absolute outrage. We basically came in and shut it down—blockaded the doors, had two people infiltrate inside and disrupt their presentations.

With all the bad press, they had to scale back their plans, but it’s still a commercial building, right?

DM: The Bisnow hit didn’t stop the development. Mural Park lied to our [Alderman Sigcho-Lopez’s] office, telling us they’ll lease to local businesses hiring local workers. They ended up negotiating with Blue Cross Blue Shield to take up shop with zero local employees. But the deal ultimately fell through because of the pandemic.

Alderman Sigcho-Lopez was elected shortly after the Mural Park showdown. Since then, he’s stopped the development of St. Adalbert church and he’s fighting against the “Landmark District” proposal that would displace Pilsen residents. What is Mural Park’s significance in hindsight?

DM: It was definitely a signal that Chicago is not a city that is just going to lie down while these people parcel up our neighborhoods and our families. We’re going to fight back.