A Portrait of Politics: The Cultural Marketing of the Chicago Neighborhood of Pilsen

Photo by Scott Braam (Unsanctioned Street Art on 16th street in Pilsen, Chicago 2014)The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

Urban space is temporal, contextual and fluid. It is socially and culturally produced, often exhibiting shifting social and interpersonal political power dynamics. In certain contexts, the aesthetics of urban space via public art (murals) can challenge or reinforce entrenched normative spatial hierarchies. These localized urban aesthetics exhibit socioeconomic and political power dynamics that are uniquely relational to the physical and social world they are part of (Harvey, 2005; Lambert, 2013; Lefebvre, 1968). Contentious politics portrayed in the aesthetic of community created murals, can help to induce bottom up sociopolitical processes that alter or disrupt hegemonic political forces. Public art via muralism holds the power to push back against the hyper-individualistic nature of the neoliberal city, often providing a more communal experience for residents and visitors alike.

In Chicago’s Pilsen enclave the spatial dynamics of culture, commerce and political power are publically on display – representing disparate contextual eras and shifting community interests and lifestyles. Pilsen has a long history of community-born politically-symbolic murals that, depending on their origin, particular artist and temporal context, symbolically represent a myriad of interests ranging from the normative interests of the community to the hegemonic interests of the state. Considering the aforementioned, how have murals played a political role as both “promoters of” and “deterrents to” gentrification in Pilsen?

Pilsen has historically been a port of entry for working-class immigrants in Chicago. Beginning in the early 1960s, Pilsen was targeted for urban renewal projects designed to serve the accommodation, accumulation, and consumption desires of artists, students, and young professionals (Betancur, 2005). Over-time, Pilsen changed from a predominantly working-class community to a higher-income community, displacing many of its original residents and economically empowering entrepreneurial newcomers and real estate stakeholders (Betancur, 2005). This unequitable gentrification process has drastically affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood. My research attempts to not only track gentrification in Pilsen through the shifting themes and aesthetics of its murals, but also highlight the public policy disconnect between the community’s aldermanic leadership and the neighborhood’s long-time residents.

Pilsen’s earliest murals were prized and celebrated by the community, often portraying scenes from the Mexican revolution. Murals served as artistic vessels for self-recognition, politics, identity, Mexican cultural, and community pride. Murals were conceptualized and produced within the confines of Pilsen – by Pilsen’s cultural creators. Home grown murals acted as territorial borders that marked and claimed Chicago’s precious urban space for Pilsen’s Mexican residents. Today in Pilsen, murals born from top down processes led by aldermanic privilege and the neoliberal urban growth machine, are often seen as tools to promote and market the neighborhood, at a cost to the community.

The political culture of the Chicano Muralism Movement fostered political activism, self-help institution building, and neighborhood mobilization – themes central to the survival of the community. However, a new wave of muralism has developed – one that reflects the encroaching gentrifiers. New wave murals focus on procuring real estate investors and making college students swoon. Non-Mexican art and artists are commonly commissioned, in fact preferred. Murals, financially backed by the new political and economic steak holders of Pilsen, are designed to attract young hip professionals, with the lure of a culturally rich and gritty urban living experience (Betancur, 2005; Davila, 2004; Zukin, 2009; Lloyd, 2006).

The Art in Public Places (AIPP) initiative, created by Chicago’s 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis has made inroads at successfully rebranding the neighborhood. As Pilsen became more observed by tourists and coveted by investors – as the name “Pilsen” became ingrained in the vernacular of young white hipsters, more pathways of capital accumulation and consumption were established, and rent in Pilsen skyrocketed. This process has displaced many long-time residents including cultural producers, while contributing to the rebranding of Pilsen from a Mexican enclave to a hipster haven.

Those with political power in Pilsen see murals as a conduit toward a wealthier and more financially-competitive neighborhood. Pilsen social justice activist Nicole Marroquin sees Pilsen’s elites as “using art strategically to gentrify” while dumbing down Pilsen’s rich history of Latino art by erasing the activist part of the Chicano Muralist Movement, in favor of “cute decorations” on walls (N. Marroquin, Personal interview, 2013).

Well-planned and initiated neighborhood art-based public policy ought to better integrate community and contain built in structural mechanisms that would supply funding for the upkeep and maintenance of the art. Art initiatives in culturally gifted communities like Pilsen ought to prioritize local artist’s work, therefore propping up a community’s cultural creators rather than out of town artists. Public walls used for murals need to be prepared correctly, curated properly, adequately funded, and maintained by local government via the city.

Gentrification in Pilsen can be viewed through the shifting aesthetics of the neighborhood’s murals. Under the neoliberal umbrella – in an era of federal urban fiscal abandonment – the culturally gifted Pilsen community and its long history of muralism was utilized as an aesthetic marketing tool for Alderman Solis and Pilsen’s business elites. This hijacking of Pilsen’s Mexican culture was framed as “beneficial” to all residents, but clearly the scales were tipped in the direction of the state and its global business partners.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Scott Braam is a 4th year PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and will soon take his comprehensive exams in Urban and American fields. His research “A Portrait of Politics: The Wholesale Marketing of the Chicago Neighborhood of Pilsen” was awarded the Best Paper Presented in a Poster Format at the 2016 MPSA Conference.


Betancur, J. J., & Deuben, L. (2005). Gentrification before Gentrification? The Plight of Pilsen in  Chicago. A Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement White Paper.

Castillo, M. (2013, October 13). Chicano Muralist Movement’s Mario Castillo [Personal interview].

Dávila, A. M. (2004). Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gonzalez, J., & Zimmerman, M. (2013, November 20). Chicano Muralist Movement’s Jose Gonzalez [Personal interview].

Harvey, D. (2001). Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. New York: Routledge

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, OX, UK: Blackwell.

Marroquin, N. (2013, July 25). Community activist Nicole Mannequin [Personal interview].

Pacheco, L. (2014, July 17). Lauren Pacheco head of the A.I.P.P [Personal interview].

Zukin, S. (2009). Changing Landscapes of Power: Opulence and the Urge for AuthenticityInternational Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2).