Behind the Paint:
Gentrification, Commodified Culture, and Public Art in Pilsen
Thesis Advisor: Professor Ana Aparicio
Secondary Reader: Professor Jessica Winegar
May 3, 2013
“Culture” is the new urban trend captivating contemporary cities. The use and marketing
of culture has become a cornerstone in the ways that neoliberal cities refashion themselves in an
era of globalization and industrial urban decline. This thesis asks how neoliberal city
governments use culture to transform cities and neighborhoods. I explore this question through
an in-depth study of a City of Chicago sponsored public art initiative in Pilsen, a predominantly
working-class Latino neighborhood in Chicago that is undergoing rapid gentrification.
Neoliberal trends in urban development are often connected to the privatization and
interiorization of space. While it may seem contradictory that public art emerges just as social
theorists announce the death of the public sphere, I will ultimately show that this is not a
contradiction at all; public art intersects with processes of urban restructuring and neoliberalism,
albeit in less overt ways. Like Miles (1997) and Deutsche (1996), I seek to contest the universal
romantic view of public art, whose promotion appears to politically neutralize its use within the
city yet masks its political outcomes, particularly on those excluded from the new image created.
Through ethnographic analysis and critical scrutiny of Pilsen’s Art in Public Places Initiative, I
expose the tensions and contradictions behind the initiative’s visual, rhetorical, and spatial veil.
In so doing, I reveal the power dynamics and gentrification strategies masked behind layers of
On a dreary, white-skied Sunday morning in late October, I found myself squished
against a window in a crowded and buzzing trolley, conveniently stalled at the foot of the Pink
street ‘L’ stop in the commercial district of Pilsen. Drawn by a sleekly designed
advertisement of fuchsia, lime green and turquoise that had been promoted in the Chicago
Reader and in cyberspace at large, I had come to the free trolley ride – proudly sponsored by
Ward Alderman Danny Solis to showcase the murals in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago
– to glimpse of the new “Art in Public Places” initiative in-progress. While the trolley wove
through the residential streets of Pilsen, I peeked at the host of murals that adorned public and
private walls in the neighborhood, familiar from months of fieldwork earlier last year.
As the trolley turned right onto 16th
street from Ashland Ave and made its way down the
several mile span to Damen Ave, the etchings on the cement wall that clings to the railroad
tracks transitioned from fading murals produced by local artists decades ago into the freshly
painted eye-catching murals of the Art in Public Places’ urban regeneration initiative. A one
and a half mile stretch of wall space from Halsted St. to Damen Ave that was once tagged with
graffiti and blotchy with brown paint from the Chicago Graffiti Blasters program now boasted
several large pieces, including colorful abstract pieces by big name street artists from around
the world: an enormous possum that bore a cavernous hole in its stomach as an optical illusion,
a stylistic glaring owl spray painted in blacks and yellows, and a mural featuring bright stacks of
Chicago-based books, among several others. After twenty minutes, the trolley pulled back to its
starting place at the foot of the ‘L’ tracks, beckoning to new visitors, and I emerged from the
voyeuristic exposition of Pilsen’s murals with the swaths of tourists that would be none the wiser
of the tensions, debates, and hierarchies of power hiding behind the paint.
Scholars have declared a cultural revolution in contemporary cities. The use and
marketing of “culture” has become a cornerstone in the ways that cities refashion themselves in
an era of globalization and industrial urban decline. Tourism and entertainment based-
developments are growing, while cultural workers and ‘creative classes,’ including architects,
entertainers, artists, and opinion makers, are increasingly recognized to be central to the
economic vitality of modern cities (Zukin 2010; Dávila 2012; Goode 2004; Sassen 2001).
Cultural initiatives take center stage as the “motor of economic growth” as city governments
increasingly compete for tourist dollars and financial investments, including businesses and
corporate elites, by bolstering the city’s image as a center of cultural innovation (Zukin
1995:148; Logan and Molotch 1987). However, not everyone and everything affected by this
cultural revolution benefits equally.
Culture forms the basis of what Zukin calls the “symbolic economy” and is comprised of
two parallel production systems: the production of space, in which aesthetic ideals, cultural
meanings, and themes are incorporated into the look and feel of architecture, streets, and parks
(the public landscape); and the production of symbols, in which more abstract or cultural
representations influence how particular spaces within cities should preferably be “consumed” or
used and by whom (Zukin 1995:145; see also Ouroussoff 2009). The symbolic economy is
intertwined politics and power, as people with economic and political power have the greatest
opportunity to shape public culture and anchor place to profit. As Zukin writes, “…if visible
culture is wealth… the ability to frame the vision brings power” (1995:15).
This thesis asks how neoliberal city governments work through culture to transform cities
and neighborhoods. I explore this question through an in-depth study of a City of Chicago
sponsored public art initiative in Pilsen, a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood in
Chicago that is undergoing rapid gentrification. Public art continues to be viewed as a
democratic way to beautify the city and as a way to empower communities. The reality on the
ground is much more complex. In many ways, the initiative can be seen as part of the culture
and arts industry that is being developed to turn the city center (and its neighborhoods) into a
landscape of consumption, attracting the commerce of the overconsuming ‘haves’: suburbanites
and urban gentry. As Harvey (2005), di Leonardo (2008), and Logan and Molotch (1987) note,
neoliberalization is characterized by uneven geographic development and creates increasing
stratifications, most obvious in the “rapidly changing land use patterns that tip and re-tip
property away from use-value and toward exchange value” (di Leonardo 2008: 12). Neoliberal
trends in urban development are often connected to the privatization and interiorization of space.
While it may seem contradictory that public art emerges just as social theorists announce the
death of the public sphere, I will ultimately show that this is not a contradiction at all; public art
intersects with such processes of urban restructuring and neoliberalism, albeit in less overt ways.
As Dávila notes, “Neoliberalism is often connected with homelessness and poverty, residential
segregation, and other indexes of inequality, yet ‘culture,’ a well-known instrument of
entrepreneurship used by government and businesses, a medium to sell, frame, structure, claim,
and reclaim space, is closely implicated in such processes and always in demand of closer
scrutiny” (9). Indeed, as a nexus of culture and place, public art is still firmly attached to the
apparatus of urban redevelopment and must be placed within the context of the consumer-driven
landscape and the ongoing pressures presented by gentrification.
This research contributes to a growing body of work that links culture to urban
redevelopment, neoliberalism, and gentrification, and offers a) an examination of public art,
which Kim Babon (2000) has referred to as a “blindspot” in the social scientific analysis of urban
space and social processes, and b) a detailed ethnographic account of the ways in which various
residents, actors, and stakeholders of Pilsen’s Art in Public Places initiative think of and imagine
the initiative. Like Miles (1997) and Deutsche (1996), I seek to contest the universal romantic
view of public art, whose promotion appears to politically neutralize its use within the city yet
masks its political outcomes, particularly on those excluded from the new image created. In
analyzing the macro-level politico-economic processes of neoliberalism, the socio-political
context of Pilsen, and the micro-level human perspectives surrounding the Art in Public Places
initiative, I will ultimately expose the tensions and contradictions behind the initiative’s visual,
rhetorical, and spatial veil, exposing the power dynamics and gentrification strategies masked
behind layers of paint.
Research Site & Methodology
Pilsen, a predominantly working-class Mexican neighborhood in Southwest Chicago, is a
contested site in which various populations, stakeholders, and developers project varying visions
for the future. Also known as the Lower West Side, Pilsen is just southwest of the Chicago’s
Central Business District, referred to as the “Loop.” Immediately west of the Dan Ryan
Expressway and south of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC),1
its official boundaries are
Western Avenue to the West, 16th
street to the North, and the South Branch of the Chicago River
to the East and South. Pilsen is easily accessible by the Chicago Transit Authority’s blue and
pink lines, providing a direct route to and from Chicago’s Central Business District. It is a
community with a long multicultural immigrant history – a formerly Bohemian, Lithuanian,
Italian, Czech, and Polish neighborhood. The large influx of Latinos/as – predominantly
Mexican – into Pilsen began in the early 1950s, reflecting an expanding Latino population in the
United States. In 1970, Pilsen became the first majority Latino community in Chicago. While
other Chicago neighborhoods now surpass Pilsen in terms of their Mexican ethnic makeup, it is
still referred to by many as the “heart” of Chicago’s Mexican American community (Lutton
Ward Website 2013).
In late 1960, Richard J. Daley offered the Near West Side’s Harrison-Halsted site for the construction of the
University of Illinois campus in Chicago without consulting the Near West Side Planning Board; although it was
opposed by many leaders and residents, the construction ultimately went forward in 1963 and displaced thousands of
Mexican Americans from the Taylor Street neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks from Pilsen. This,
along with urban renewal projects and the construction of federal expressways, forced many into the neighborhood
of Pilsen. While many Mexican American leaders and residents opposed the project, Alderman Danny Solis was
included in a university oversight committee to plan and monitor the UIC expansion and supported the university
endeavor. This geographical movement in the 1960s precipitated the emergence of social and political activism,
particularly among second generation Mexican Americans. For more information, see Betancur 2005.
I first became familiar with Pilsen in Fall of 2011 while working on a research project
regarding notions of legitimacy and acceptability of graffiti in the neighborhood. However, it
was not until October 2012 when I stumbled upon the trolley tour advertised in the Chicago
Reader that the focus of this thesis began to take shape. In Summer 2012, Chicago’s 25th
Alderman Danny Solis launched his “Art in Public Places: A 25th
Ward Community Initiative”
(which I refer to as AiPP throughout this thesis). The Alderman financed AiPP with $15,000
from his campaign fund; his goal was to have national, international and local artists create
murals throughout Pilsen. The keystone of this initiative – and my research site within the larger
context of the neighborhood – is a one and a half mile stretch of murals painted along the
railroad viaduct that lines 16th
Street, running east from Damen Avenue to Halsted Street. The
viaduct, seen by many as the entrance into Pilsen, has older murals to the West of the AiPP site,
although many are fading and in need of restoration.
I conducted ethnographic and archival research in Pilsen over the course of six months.
My methods consisted of frequent visits to the neighborhood, participation and observation at
public events, interviews, archival research, and photographic documentation. Additionally, I
conducted seven semi-structured interviews that lasted roughly an hour each in cafés, restaurants,
informants’ homes, and organizations in the neighborhood. I prefaced each discussion by asking
the informant’s permission to record the interview; all informants gave their consent. Interviews
were recorded either on a tape recorder or smart phone, transcribed, and supplemented by brief
field notes. Interviewees represented a wide range of stakeholders in both the AiPP initiative and
the Pilsen neighborhood who exhibited varying viewpoints regarding AiPP, although their titles
blurred the boundaries: two organizational representatives, one from Yollocalli Arts Reach, a
cultural institution that offers free art programming to teens and young adults2
, and the other
from Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization committed to developing grassroots leadership
; four local artists, including a long-time resident and Mexican muralist, an
artist/educator at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a political artist who also manages
the “Image Task Force” 4
in Pilsen, a recent Pilsen resident and working artist who is
contributing to AiPP, and one of the AiPP organizers/special assistant to Alderman Danny Solis.5
Two of my informants are participating in the initiative. All of my informants currently live or
work in the Pilsen neighborhood, and their lengths of residence in the neighborhood range from
three years to over twenty.
Before or after interviews I would collect field notes in the neighborhood, making sure to
walk or drive past the 16th
Street location of the AiPP “art walk” to document any progress and
speak informally with people passing by. Participant observation consisted of attending both a
Chicago Public School community meeting regarding potential school closings in Pilsen6
also one “2nd
Fridays Gallery Night,” an event organized by real estate mogul John Podmajersky
III, who owns much of the property in East Pilsen7
. Both events drew very different crowds:
They have painted over 30 murals in the neighborhood, and contributed a piece to AiPP. Sam is also contributing.
They are also an anti-gentrification group.
Her role as part of the Pilsen Quality of Life Plan, created in 2005 by a wide range of stakeholders in the
neighborhood with the goal of ensuring development in the neighborhood would benefit local residents and the
As a measure of protecting the confidentiality of my informants, I have replaced their names with pseudonyms in
This showed me how the community mobilizes itself in the face of harm to the neighborhood and presents itself to
authorities. It showed me the strong attachment residents feel to their neighborhood. Residents have taken other
great strides to protect their schools and community spaces. In one notorious example, parents and residents staged a
43-day sit-in at Whittier Elementary School to prevent the demolition of an adjacent field house, arguing that the
building should be turned into a library.
Fridays Gallery Night, the gallery spaces throughout what the developer terms “Podland” – both the
large galleries and the workshops in which the artists also live – flaunt their wares at the encouragement of their
realtor and provide wine and cheese. This event is part of Podmajersky’s marketing tactic to attract young, artsy-
types to his properties; tourists are directed towards the Podmajersky information office, open only on 2nd
and Halsted. Along the top of one of its large glass windows, floating grey letters indicate that one has entered
the “Chicago Arts District” (CAD). Here, visitors can pick up a map of the galleries and Podmajersky property
promotional material, including business cards and pamphlets that tout the slogan “Building SoHo in Chicago.”
Pilsen residents, parents, teachers, and children in the first case; and a diverse group of hip, artsy-
types in their 20s and 30s in the latter – the very crowd that the new Art in Public Places
initiative seeks to attract. My participant observation permeated the digital sphere as well: I
followed several Pilsen Neighborhood groups on Facebook, which offered me an important on-
the-ground insight into the uber-local information that other followers consumed, how followers
responded to postings regarding local happenings, and built upon each other’s discourses.
Archival data collection consisted of research on shifts in demographics and housing
prices; local policy and organizing; and most prominently the ways in which the Alderman,
Pilsen, and AiPP are marketed to the general public.
Neoliberalism and Gentrification in Pilsen
Pilsen is attractive to real-estate developers and potential residents alike due to its
proximity to “the Loop,” the center of the City of Chicago’s business district, its recognition as
an ethnic community with a large stock of murals, and the local government and city’s branding
of the city as a tourist attraction. Pilsen has gentrified at a rate much slower than other cities in
the country, largely due to residents’ and activists’ ability to mobilize (J. Mumm, personal
communication, February 17, 2013). However, as local government has ushered in “upscale”
development, this has changed (see Betancur 2005). In the past 12 years, over 10,000 Latinos
have been displaced from the neighborhood as gentrifiers have entered, reflecting a 25.5% drop
in the Hispanic population (see table 1).
According to their website, Podmajersky “founded the Chicago Arts District to assist with strategic development”
and “provide overall support” to the artists and businesses in the neighborhood, though if you look at an aerial view
map on their website, Pilsen is not even identified and the map cuts off just several blocks to the west of the district.
John Podmajersky III created CAD in 2002 “with the goal of creating a destination art community.” There are
several rumors that Podmajersky is waiting for his father, the original visionary of the artist colony, to pass away so
that he can sell the buildings to other developers.
This is not an uncommon trend in neighborhoods bordering the Loop. Accompanying
these population shifts has been a host of neoliberal policies, all of which disproportionately
affect working class residents: rising rents, government withdrawal from the social sector, and
welfare cuts. In June 2012, unemployment estimates for Pilsen were 25%, compared to the
estimate for Chicago at 8.7%. The Pilsen poverty rate is over 36% for children. Two of the
largest employers in Pilsen – coal-fired power plants – are slated for closure in 2014, which will
terminate 550 union jobs in the neighborhoods. And while Mayor Rahm Emanuel and
Superintendent Garry McCarthy made an announcement in April 2013 that homicides fell
sharply in the first quarter of the year 2013 compared to 2012, gang-related violence keeps
happening in Pilsen and affects the entire community (Fadden 2012).
Rahm Emanuel was elected as Mayor of Chicago in February 2011 and has since then
pursued a strongly neoliberal agenda; for example, in 2012 the city gave a $524 million dollar
tax break to the owners of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and simultaneously closed six of
the 12 mental health clinics in Chicago (Vevea 2012; Joravsky 2012). This year his
administration proposed the largest round of public school closures in history, 8
disproportionately affecting Chicago’s poorest children; 38 of these were located in Pilsen and
neighboring Little Village.9
The Chicago Cultural Plan
In addition to school reform, in one of his first acts as Mayor of the City of Chicago,
Rahm Emanuel reinvigorated the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to
revisit Chicago’s cultural plan, which had been untouched since 1995. Unveiled in October 2012,
the plan is a framework to guide the city’s cultural and economic growth. The promotional
materials for the plan fervently emphasize that it is as a community-guided initiative: “The plan,
too, was created by visionary thinkers – you, the citizens of Chicago,” reads a foreword written
by Mayor Emanuel and the Commissioner of DCASE. This assertion of inclusivity10
accompanies the growth motivations that fuel the plan. . The government claims that it will be
the centerpiece that continues “to elevate the City as a global destination for creativity,
innovation, and excellence in the arts," and it also posits that the "inclusive" plan will
simultaneously enhance the community's assets and local networks.
At the same time, the government valorized and approved the opening of dozens of privatized charter schools. For
more information on the neoliberal policies of Emanuel, see Chicago Reader reporter Ben Joravsky.
When the first list of possible school closures came out, 38 potential school closures were located in Pilsen and
neighboring Little Village. I attended one of the CPS community hearing meetings regarding the potential school
closings. It drew over a thousand parents, teachers, and students and I was filed into a spillover room where upset
residents voiced their frustration at the administration (and at the fact that they were unable to attend the actual
meeting in the downstairs auditorium): “My son is downstairs in the main room,” one woman exclaimed. “How will
he know that I’m here fighting for his school, for his future?” The meeting showcased the organizational ability and
power of the community: “This community operates from the grassroots,” one student’s father stated in a public
testimonial. “We are the boss of this community.” In a show of collective power, the mom of the student downstairs
interrupted CPS’ slideshow and urged everyone to flee to the auditorium; outside the guarded doors (by 8 police),
the mob chanted, “Let us in! Let us in!”
This is perhaps best illustrated by the page following the cover for the plan that features photos of post-it notes
that varying Chicago residents created responding to the question, “what is culture?” Responses range from “Music,
music, music” to “quality of life/happiness,” but none referenced anything relating to money, growth, or competition
on a global scale.
Chicago’s use of culture to polish its image and jump-start investment is nothing new.
City governments across the United States promote and create neoliberal reform that includes
cultural incentives to revamp their cities as centers of innovation and global destinations to
attract industry. The Chicago Cultural Plan builds upon Mayor Richard M. Daley’s regime of
revitalization, which aimed to transform downtrodden areas in the city into desirable ones. He
focused on Chicago as a tourist destination as opposed to a manufacturing base, and spearheaded
the conversion of Navy Pier into a popular tourist destination, expanded parkland, added flower
planters along many primary streets, and expanded the Museum Park district. His signature
development in the city center was Millennium Park – a twenty-five-acre site for art, music, and
recreation that replaced a wasteland of rail lines. The park opened in 2004, and between 2004
and 2008 the park helped boost tourism to Chicago by nearly fifty per cent and has become one
of its most important public spaces (Osnos 2010). He also oversaw the revitalization plan of the
North Side, which destroyed thousands of units of public housing in favor of mixed-income
housing and upscale development.
Cultural strategies of renewal make up an industrial policy for a new economic age, with
city officials running on a fast-paced treadmill of global competition (Zukin 2010). Chicago
competes with cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles to be a “global cultural
destination;” however, it self-consciously sees this as a goal yet to be achieved: “While Chicago
boasts premier cultural offerings- its world class institutions and events- it must continue to
strive to reach its full potential as a global cultural destination…In 2011, Chicago ranked 34th
among global cities in innovation…Given our vast cultural assets, Chicago should rank much
(City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012:8). Striving to remain relevant in an
It continues with a comparison to other cities with higher tourism rates: “In 2011, Chicago welcomed 1.2 million
international visitors. Six other U.S. cities received more international visitors than Chicago (New York, 4.6M;
interconnected world, Chicago sees cultural tourism as the key to its future. One of the ways in
which it hopes to promote itself as a unique site is by highlighting and building upon the “culture”
that exists in neighborhoods that frame the corporate city, expanding its cultural regime into new
territories. One of the three primary goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan is to “elevate and expand
neighborhood cultural assets,” in conjunction with aestheticizing the city as a whole: “This
priority [of expanding neighborhoods’ cultural assets] focuses on cross-pollinating neighborhood
experiences; broadening cultural participation citywide; communicating the diverse cultural
assets throughout Chicago; and integrating art in public places to its fullest potential” (City of
Chicago Cultural Plan 2012: 12). The Chicago Cultural Plan thus fits into broader varied
policies affecting people in Pilsen.
Selling Pilsen: The Packaging and Promotion of a Mexican American Neighborhood
It’s all here in Pilsen: architecture, ethnic restaurants, art (street and gallery), churches and its
own vibe, all in a compact district easily reached by CTA ‘L’ train…It begs to be explored, for
its surprises are everywhere, from galleries and shops to carts selling tamales to exterior wall
murals that can be beautiful, or challenging, or both…With the colors storefronts (be sure to
look up) and murals, and the vibrancy of the people, the museum and neighborhood seem as one.”
-Chicago Office of Tourism website (cited in Wilson, Walters, and Grammenos 2004: 1176)
Perched on the corner of 18th
and Wood St, you get the sense that this is a working-class
Latino community that wears its Mexican identity on its sleeve: vendors sell tamales and corn in
pushcarts on the street; children noisily scuttle out of Orozco Academy, adorned with colorful
mosaic tile portraits depicting significant Mexican and Mexican American men and women; a
panadería borders a lunch locale that will sell you a molette with a side dish; and enormous
murals featuring “Mexican heroes,” as one respondent called them. You are standing on the
edge of Harrison Park, just several blocks from the home and studio of Oscar Martín, a Mexican
muralist (and interview subject of mine) who has been painting murals in the neighborhood since
the 1980s; his work is oftentimes featured in the local museum, along with many of the other
community-based Mexican artists in the neighborhood. Homes surrounding the park bear
Spanish last names on their mailboxes; La Virgín is not an uncommon site in this neighborhood,
whether tacked on a window or painted along a passing building.
As you continue East down 18th
street, the landscape shifts to something altogether
different: buildings take on a more modern look and vintage shops crop up. The sidewalk boasts
Miami, 3.7M; Los Angeles, 2.9M; Newark, NJ, 1.7M; Honolulu, 1.6M; San Francisco, 1.5M)” (Chicago Cultural
Plan 2012: 8).
less foot traffic, less chaos, although it is still connected aesthetically to West Pilsen through the
continuity of lamp posts featuring the Mexican symbol of the eagle and snake, marking the
neighborhood as Pilsen12
. The area is still connected to the West Pilsen commercial district
through the continuity of lamp posts adorned with the that mark the neighborhood as Pilsen.
Passing through East Pilsen and Halted St, there is a subtle uniformity at play: half-orange,
half-blue address signs affiliate the eclectic mix of buildings, gated and sheltered from the heavy
traffic on the street. The buildings belong to one of the largest and most powerful real estate
developers in Chicago – Podmajersky, Inc. who have been cultivating the area as an artist
colony since the 1960s.13
The artists and students who live in these properties are transforming
the neighborhood in ways that Neil Smith, David Harvey, and Sharon Zukin describe. However,
this reshaping is capitalized upon and catalyzed with the help of the local government and city
Chicago’s efforts to attract capital are not limited to the city center, but pervade the
surrounding neighborhoods as well. Stakeholders in attracting capital and people to places often
leverage the cultural context of existing residents to reinvent the perception of place. This often
manifests itself in the manipulation and commodification of the cultural representation of a
community’s existing fabric in order to market as a unique place that outsiders and tourists are
encouraged to visit and “experience” (Judd and Fainestein 1999).
Ethnic Commodification and Tourism
Tourism in Pilsen became a major development initiative and industry as part of a
citywide growth agenda in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s Alderman Danny Solis has been
one of its main advocates (see PPC-Quality-of-Life-Plan, 2006; as cited in Sternberg 2012).
Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the City of Chicago began marketing Pilsen as an
authentic Mexican neighborhood; this was part of a larger strategy of packaging Chicago in a
tourism bundle to visitors, an endeavor encapsulated succinctly by Office of Tourism
representative Patricia Sullivan:
The city sponsored an initiative to put up banners and lampposts celebrating Pilsen’s Mexican heritage at a time
when members of the community were being displaced.
Podmajersky’s development has been seen as one of the moves that opened the doorway to Pilsen’s gentrification
(Sternberg 2012; see also footnote 7).
Pilsen and Chicago go hand-in-hand. A true Mexican neighborhood like Pilsen is one
part of the total ethnic puzzle that makes Chicago a diverse ethnic city…preserving this
ethnicity is key. It is our job to identify [this], capture [this], and sell [this]” (discussion,
8 July 2002; cited in Wilson et. all, 2004:1186).
As part of Chicago’s role in attracting capital, Pilsen needed to become a vibrant neighborhood
to serve the purposes of the city’s entrepreneur and competitive ethos; the goal here was and still
is to anchor Pilsen for future profit, and this has particular consequences for whoever has a right
to this space.
This “commodity-ethnicity” development team, featuring the Chicago Office of Tourism
and Alderman Danny Solis14
, enact several prominent themes in their growth agenda: a need to
upscale Pilsen physically, to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit, to establish a stronger area retail
base, and to embellish and display Mexican ethnicity (Wilson et. all 2004). The manipulation of
cultural heritage is evident in the branding of Pilsen on Alderman Solis’ 25th
Pilsen is the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community whose wealth of
restaurants and shops is matched by its cultural riches, much of which is found in a
renowned museum. A recent influx of public art murals and galleries has given rise to a
bustling Chicago Arts District. The adjoining Heart of Chicago community also has deep
Northern Italian roots best experienced through its top-rated restaurants.
Chicago’s Official Tourism website brands
“…with the colors storefronts…and murals, and the
vibrancy of the people, the museum and neighborhood seem as one” (cited in Wilson et. all
Local residents and activists have inserted themselves into these processes as well in
order to ensure that the community benefits from tourism. For example, Pilsen Alliance, a social
justice organization dedicated to empowering and improving the lives of local residents, has been
working on a campaign to expand upon the Pilsen Historic District in order to incorporate the
Mayor Daley appointed Alderman Solis 25th Ward Alderman in 1996.
interests of immigrant, working class residents and create Living Wage jobs for residents.
Miguel, the organization’s director, explained to me that they hope these efforts ensure the
permanence of local residents:
So tourism is something that’s been happening anyway…People are attracted to the
murals, the food, the culture, and that’s a cool thing. We just don’t want it to be a façade,
like a Mexican Disney World or something. If you’re going to sell this community as a
Mexican community, how do you make it Mexican without the Mexicans? You don’t
make it Mexican just by hanging up a bunch of eagles from the light poles.15
If tourism is going to be the name of the game in the neighborhood, Miguel believes Pilsen
residents should have the jobs in that industry in order to make living wages and reap the
benefits of tourism. “We had to unfortunately get in the business of doing business,” he chuckled.
“Tourism can go both ways, but if you participate, at least it can go your way. If you never
participate, it’s never going to go your way.”
Art in Public Places: A 25th
Ward Community Initiative
In late August 2012, Chicago’s 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis announced the “Art in
Public Places: A 25th Ward Community Initiative” (AiPP). As per his office, the new initiative is
“a diverse selection of creative community experiences in the 25th Ward [that] builds the
community’s overall creation of a pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing environment for
residents, business owners and visitors” (Press Release a). The keystone of this initiative – and
the focus of my research – is the conversion of a 15-block stretch of wallspace in Pilsen from
graffiti-ridden “blight” into an “art walk” that boasts murals16
by international, out-of-state, and
local artists. Alderman Solis boasts the benefits of the initiative in the 25th Ward press release,
He is referencing an initiative in which the city put up banners and lampposts featuring the Mexican symbol of the
eagle and snake to celebrate Pilsen’s Mexican heritage, even as many members of the community were displaced.
A descriptor disputed by several of my interview informants; I will delve into this later.
arguing that the effort will also “create and enhance17
the cultural, educational, and artistic value
for the community.” But in the case of Pilsen, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that has been
the target of urban redevelopment initiatives supported by the local government for decades, this
public art initiative demands closer scrutiny.
Alderman Solis personally selected Aimee Arango as special assistant to the alderman
and the lead for the initiative. Aimee runs Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS), a gallery space
nestled in a converted factory in East Pilsen; for this reason, Ald. Solis sees her as the binding
link between Pilsen’s intermittedly overlapping worlds of politics and art. Aimee selected Matt
Martins, co-founder of Wicker Park’s Pawn Works Gallery, as the initiative’s other curatorial
partner. While Aimee focuses on local talent, Pawn Works is responsible for recruiting and
bringing in the international and out-of-state talent. As of April 2013, Alderman Solis had
personally commissioned and flown in several renown international and out of state street artists
– from Belgium, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, Spain, UK, Canada, Australia, Nevada,
and more – to contribute to the art walk. Several Chicago-based artists and two youth-focused
cultural institutions supplemented these contributions. While the seed money for the initiative
comes from Alderman Solis’s personal campaign funds18
, the AiPP team is currently dedicated
to figuring out how to use more government money – such as Tax Increment Financing dollars –
and solicit further funding from the City of Chicago.
The AiPP plan is a four-year plan, and the first two years are dedicated to “getting the
press and the marketing component of it together,” Aimee explained. Indeed, even as a project
Note the close parallel to the City of Chicago Cultural Plan’s rhetoric: “expand and enhance cultural assets” (see
Danny Solis has what Natalia termed a “campaign treasure chest.” In 2011, a single donor to Danny Solis’s
campaign to be re-elected for alderman – the New Chicago PAC, Rahm Emanuel’s funding wing – gave more to
Solis than all of his opponent’s donors combined, dropping a total of $38,000 on the Emanuel-backed incumbent
(see Guzzardi 2011).
in-progress, the initiative has generated extensive media coverage and promotion. To help
promote the initiative, Alderman Solis sponsored a free trolley tour of Pilsen’s murals, featuring
both older murals and the murals-in-progress, an experience I described earlier. A Google search
for “Art in Public Places: Pilsen” generates a laundry list of news articles, websites, and blogs
that reference the highly acclaimed initiative, including www.choosechicago.com, a decisively
tourist-oriented piece of media. A www.choosechicago.com piece about AiPP, decorated with
several photos of murals in-progress featuring prominently those by renowned street artists ROA
and GAI, urges visitors to “take a stroll down Pilsen’s public galleries.” In an attempt to
repackage and “sell” Pilsen, they continue, “Today, because of the Art in Public Spaces
campaign, you can witness the transformation of problem areas in Pilsen to dynamic and
beautiful works of art created by a variety of American and overseas artists” (Gonzales 2012).
While Aimee and Alderman Solis’s official narrative regarding AiPP seems democratic,
community-oriented, and inclusive, closer inspection shows that the unofficial narrative differs,
particularly in the goals and motivations underlying the initiative. Aimee and Alderman Solis’s
primary goal for AiPP is to combat unsanctioned graffiti and tagging in the ward. “It came at
perfect timing, the [Chicago] Sun Times had just come out that the mayor had just cut a
significant amount of the Graffiti Blaster program,” Aimee told me.
“The fact that we have this blight that sort of cuts through our community, that’s not well
maintained by the property owners, that millions of city dollars are being used to paint
over graffiti, whether its graffiti art or gang territorial stuff. It’s a problem. So lets
recognize that these walls are an asset. So what do you do? Fucking paint on the walls!”19
Using art to prevent graffiti and gang tagging is not a new idea; in fact, several Pilsen residents and businesses
have done and continue to paint murals on the facades of their homes and stores informally, leveraging local
networks of artists. While doing fieldwork last fall, I stumbled upon a property owner who was having an angel
painted on her garage door. Because of her proximity to Carpenter Street, which divides two gang boundaries, her
house is the target of much tagging. By having an angel painted on her garage door, a message (in her words) to
One of my informants celebrated the initiative as a beautification effort. Christina, the director
of Yollocalli Arts Reach who is raising her son in Pilsen, appreciates the new initiative because
“it’s just nice to continue to have space that wasn’t being used at all, to now be a piece of public
However, conversations with local artists and with the AiPP illuminate contradictory
messages. When I asked Aimee what her personal goals were for the 16th
Street “art walk,” her
response diverged from the initiative’s purported goals:
Well, I want to make sure that Chicago is put on the map for strong public art projects…
There’s no reason Chicago can’t compete with some of these more innovative, boundary-
pushing cities, and I think with regard to...this railroad, these walls have been an issue for
the community. And it just makes simple sense for people to activate it in particular with
the arts, and so I would like to let people know that these inventory of murals is a way to
best sort of support an art community, whether they’re legacy or rotating or roving or
whatever you call it, to sort of move forward with it. But it’s a tourist attraction,
community beautification, it serves every possible agenda that makes sense. Until you get
to a taste level, you know? Some people have different tastes and interests, but ultimately
its putting Chicago on the map with some of these other large-scale public art projects in
other cities. (emphasis added)
While the goals for the local community involve combating graffiti and beautification, they are
but a façade for the underlying growth goal anchoring initiative. Her “unofficial” response
aligns with the goals of the Chicago growth machine and the Chicago Cultural Plan: to refashion
Chicago as a global city and to increase Chicago’s stance as a cultural destination for tourists.
Pilsen, for her, is a proxy for the City of Chicago, and the insertion of culture and art into the
neighborhood need not be attached to the community in which it is displayed.
“stay away knuckleheads,” she is proactively curbing graffiti tags. In a conversation with an employee of the 18th
Street Development Cooperation, he told me that he constantly urges his boss to paint a mural on the side of the
building to stop tagging. Gómez advocates for more murals in neighborhoods with a high degree of graffiti activity,
saying that "murals themselves, whether they contain an anti-graffiti message or not, discourage graffiti because
writers tend to respect artwork" (695).
Thus, it is clear that this is an urban redevelopment initiative to position Chicago
advantageously in relation to other cities. The press release of AiPP also discusses the abstract
“economic benefits” to be had through the implementation of the initiative. “With the significant
press, on sort of this revitalization of public art in Pilsen, has contributed a lot of attention [sic],”
Aimee told me. “They’re coming to the area to look at the murals because it’s pretty awesome
to see a big stretch of murals that are pretty contemporary. Some of the more traditional stuff
incorporated in there as well. But it’s bringing in these people and they’re coming to Pilsen not
just to check out the artwork but then they’re also going to shop, they’re also going to eat, so that
industry is further stimulated. It’s cooler with the murals as a backdrop.” Aimee made sure to
clarify to me that they were not “spearheading any major tourist attraction,” but simply adding to
it. Simultaneously, she discussed her plans to create special events involving the 16th
walk that indeed sound like curated tourist events. The first is “Open Streets,” which shuts down
5 miles along 16th
Street from car traffic to encourage tourists and residents to walk
Street to view the murals and then to shop and eat on 18th
Street. Additionally, she has
plans to introduce a Renegade Craft fair to those streets, a “curated indie-craft marketplace
showcasing the brightest talents in contemporary craft and design” (renegadecraftfair.com).
While proponents of AiPP and similar programs claim that such initiatives will benefit
local residents, research has shown that the benefits of growth associated with public art do not
successfully trickle down the social hierarchy (Sharp 2005). Indeed, most urban redevelopment
is accompanied by deepening social inequalities (Sharp 2005; Dávila 2004). Dávila (2004) links
urban development initiatives to gentrification, and claims that "gentrification – whether called
urban renewal, revitalization, upgrading, or uplifting – always involves the expansion and
transformation of neighborhoods through rapid economic investment and population shifts, and
yet it is equally always implicated with social inequalities" (11).
The Problems of Process: Cultural Domination and Exclusion
“If people think it's just so romantic and separate from the humans that exist here. The thing is
though, that Aimee's promoting that agenda -- that art is separate from the life here, it's separate
from ideas and the lived experience and the homelife and the dreams and aspirations...it's this
-Amanda, local artist, educator, and Pilsen resident
Here, I will I analyze the ways in which artists were recruited for the project and the
overarching process of the initiative. Art in Public Places is not only marketed as, but also
symbolically named as, a “community initiative.” Specifically, Aimee and Alderman Solis
defined the 16th
street initiative as a “community project” consisting of a “diverse selection of
local and out-of-state murals.” The reality on the ground is more complicated, and like the
underlying goals of AiPP, it may be that Aimee is selling one thing and ending up with another.
Recruitment and Selection Procedures
In our discussion, Aimee told me that anyone could apply to paint a mural as part of the
initiative. The press release put out to the general public confirms this: “individuals can submit
proposals on a rolling basis by visiting the Alderman’s website.” However, closer inspection of
the materials put out to the public and discussions with my interview subjects illuminated a much
more selective process, contesting the initiative’s façade of inclusion. While the press release
links visitors to the 25th
ward website, it fails to direct visitors to any specific place in which they
can learn about the application procedures and apply. In my site visits to local cafes and to the
Museum of Mexican Art, I did not see any notices either. Natalia, a political artists, activist, and
co-chair of the image task force of Pilsen, articulated the initiative’s exclusive recruitment
Anyone who's been on that wall has been through direct contact with the Alderman's
office because they knew that this was supposed to be coming. And they do have to
submit information and plans, whatever their plans are for the thing, but it's not like an
open call, it's not like they put it on their website – like ‘if you want to put a mural on
16th street, here are the steps you have to follow.’ If it was open to everybody in the
public, it should be on their website. I have yet to see it on their website. I have yet to see
any postings at the museum, at any of the parks, at any of the cafes, nowhere. Nowhere
where the artists and the public gather. Nowhere. So it's not open. You have to be able to
negotiate with Aimee to get a space on the wall. Point blank. (emphasis added)
Indeed, two of my subjects participating in the initiative, Christina of Yollocalli and Diana Kirk,
told me that Aimee had contacted them directly to encourage them to contribute. While the 16th
street murals features work by several local artists and community youth-based arts organizations
alongside the out-of-state talent, Amanda sees this integration as a strategy to appease the public
and promote an aura of inclusivity: “It's not that she didn't very carefully and strategically pick
Chema and Ricardo and Yollocalli to be in there mixed in with the others. She's very strategic.
She's a shark, you gotta watch her.” Because the application is inaccessible to those not in direct
contact with Aimee, local artists who are not seen as favorable to her are “walled off,” as Oscar
told me, from the initiative. From their perspective, Aimee has erected only a façade of
The way in which Aimee selected contributors to paint murals on 16th
Street rests on her
understanding of who is significant and valuable in the art world. Aimee later articulated,
although indirectly, her top-down selection procedure. When I asked her about the associated
curatorial partners – Chicago Urban Art Society and Pawn Works – she told me, “CUAS is
involved to the extent that I am CUAS, right? And the network and my relationships that I bring
to the table. So I know my local artists, mid career, established, what we consider to be really
important and relevant and famous artists, so we could bring those people to the table.”
Embedded within this answer is the elite ways in which she defines “important,” “relevant,” and
“famous artists,” eschewing the value of those artists who were not selected as part of the
process. Oscar Martín, a generally respected and well-known muralist in the community, told me
that he and other artists in the community were not contacted to participate, and again
acknowledged the lack of community-based marketing for the initiative and the application
Aimee, Alderman Solis, and Matt believe that the out-of-state talent serves two functions:
1- it stimulates national and international press attention; and 2- it helps to separate the space
from other mural sites. Artists were selected for their international reputation and recognition, or,
their ability to stimulate the press. I argue that they were selected because of the cultural capital
associated with their name. Indeed, the wide cache behind several of these artists has catalyzed
the exponential spread of awareness of the Pilsen-based project, as it has been written up in New
York based blogs and on the websites of these artists. The initiative has been featured in various
other mainstream media outlets, such as TimeOut Chicago and Chicago Sun Times, and
nontraditional cultural media outlets, such as street art blogs and Chicago’s free paper, Redeye.
Indeed, generating media hype and press is a key component of the initiative; it helps
facilitate the branding of Pilsen as a “trendy, sexy” place (to use Aimee’s descriptors) to visit and
it attracts the attention of the “new elitists” that Kahn terms “cultural omnivores” (2012).
Conclusively, one of Aimee’s goals for AiPP is to “beef up Pilsen’s cache as being a cool, artsy
community as well, an inviting community.” Ironically, the venues through which AiPP is
marketed and written about seem to elide the “inviting community” to which it hopes to attract
visitors. The media overwhelmingly emphasizes the out-of-state talent recruited to contribute to
AiPP. Like major celebrities, musicians, and architects, these high profile out-of-state artists’
names represent brands in the international economy. Their presence or involvement in a project
attracts attention to that particular place, and AiPP strategically leverage the cultural capital
instilled in their name to attract cultural consumers. Natalia saw Belgian-based artist ROA’s
involvement in the initiative as a way to lure in culture-savvy consumers: “That’s for the tourists,
that’s to try to attract people that will go ‘ooh, they have a ROA. Let’s go see it.’” The strategic
selection of the artists and their corresponding art styles falls in line with consumer-driven
market trends: the urge to consume authenticity, which I will discuss later.
Contesting the “Community” in “AIPP: A 25th
Ward Community Process”
AiPP is not only named as, but also strategically marketed as, a “community initiative,”
although several local artists contest the existence of community involvement in the initiative’s
process. Many of my informants criticized the “parachuting in” of non-local artists, who have
little knowledge of the community in which they were painting. Rather than encouraging artists
to work together and with the community to create something that resonates with locals, like
Judy Baca’s murals in Los Angeles or Mary Jane Jacobs’ public art project in Chicago, the AiPP
initiative promotes middle class/neoliberal ideologies of individual self-expression and
competition without community-based oversight. Thus, most of the art on 16th
street is divorced
from the social, historical, and cultural context in which it was produced. For example, one
Brooklyn-based street artist painted a large naked green giant with Chicago Cubs-themed
rollerblades because he had a dream that he was naked and rollerblading in the park (see
Appendix A). While the Cubs logo on the rollerblades may have been an attempt to localize his
work in some way, Diana, a local artist who is contributing to AiPP but criticized the process,
thought that this piece not only failed to reflect the local community, but also symbolized the
way the initiative was rapidly curated and the artwork was selected in a way that did not reflect
the community and local culture:
“Maybe it’s cause I’m a Southsider,20
but I really hate that they put that piece up with the
Cubs on it… I just don’t think people are wisely putting things together. They’re in a
rush to make sure Chicago doesn’t fall off the map, that Chicago isn’t forgotten
about…and to try to be like ‘oh yeah, we did that, we can do this, we can do that.’”
Natalia also criticized Belgian-based street artist ROA for insensitively painting a mural on 16th
Street that did not reflect well on the community. His illustration (see Appendix B) – a 50-ft
possum with an enormous chunk missing from the middle of its body as if chewed out by
another animal, with its innards on display – has stimulated the most media attention, but it has
also offended many residents:
Natalia: It went up at a time that we were getting reports of a spike in the rats that we
were having, I was like eh, not good timing. You didn't look into where you were going,
you just wanted to be hip and put a ROA up…And that to me is like lazy art. It's also
very ivory tower. You've got your little idea and nothing's going to change you off that
little idea. And it shows that you're not very much about the community, which goes
against what murals are about. Murals are about community.
Diana: I love ROA’s work but…in a neighborhood like Pilsen, it’s like ok Danny Solis,
did you talk to him about what he was going to put up on the walls? Do you think it’s
actually ok that he put up a giant rat with his entire stomach gone? What does that say to
the people here? And that can go all kinds of ways…but understanding some of the
people who live here that are of a lower income and have grown up in this neighborhood
when it was poor and gang ridden, what does something like that say to those people?
Natalia dismissed the majority of the AiPP pieces as murals, addressing them as simply large-
scale paintings because of their dislocation from (and in this case, the disrespect for) the
community in which they were produced. Public Art in Pilsen, as I mentioned before, predates
this initiative and has always vested importance on sensitively reflecting, standing for, and
contributing to the community. A thriving network of local artists in Pilsen not only operate
The Cubs and the White Sox are the two American League Professional Baseball Teams in Chicago. The Cubs
are generally supported by Northsiders and the White Sox by Southsiders. Pilsen technically falls within White Sox
studios out of their homes, but also teach art classes in local schools, paint murals, and
collaborate amongst each other; deeply entrenched and interconnected, they are the ones who
form the heart of the arts in Pilsen. Natalia continues:
That's what happens when you get someone who's not from the community who doesn't
know murals, doesn't know the history or aesthetic of those things, you know, doesn't. I
mean, they're thinking like the Caves of Lascaux, let's just put handprints up here and
‘ooh ah, we're cool and hip.’ And it's like no, that's not at all what the history of a mural
This speaks to the artistic and cultural aspirations of the local government: “The
supposed universal appeal and applicability of art prevails over its ever present ethnic, cultural,
and social content and significance” (Dávila 2004: 201). In fact, Natalia is alluding to a long
history of locally-produced public art in the neighborhood. For decades Pilsen’s Latino residents,
business owners, artists and cultural organizations have been inscribing their memories, histories,
and sentiments upon public and private walls in the neighborhood through murals; they have
done so as part of a process of community identification, legitimization and representation, and
oftentimes to advocate for social rights and push grassroots local agendas. The Pilsen mural
movement was born out of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and Casa Aztlan, a
social service agency and community center in the neighborhood, is well known as the center of
In the face of proposed harmful urban renewal projects such as the Chicago 21
Plan, murals were leveraged as a form of community building and resistance by simultaneously
constructing local cultural identity and territorially legitimizing Pilsen as a Mexican
neighborhood under the motto “we shall not be moved” (Betancur 2005: 23; LaWare 1998).
One of the oldest social service agencies in Pilsen, it was founded in 1970 to serve the immigrant Mexican
families that began arriving in great numbers two decades earlier. Providing advocacy, counseling, and other
services, including after school programs, it was a focal point for the community, providing a variety of services
needed to adapt to life in a new urban environment while preserving their culture and maintaining their values. The
building is currently slated for closure.
Murals are still central to the neighborhood today: they adorn school buildings and businesses in
the neighborhood, and several cultural institutions in the neighborhood teach mural painting to
local youth (see Appendix C for examples of such murals). Artists have mostly been local
residents and, occasionally, outside artists working on a pro bono basis to help the community
give voice to resident sentiments (Sternberg 2012: 65).
Unlike the art works and artists that are rooted in the community, the AiPP process is one
that is fundamentally not inclusive of the community in which it is entrenched. Young (2000)
provides a succinct definition of inclusion as “a democratic decision (being) normatively
legitimate only if all those affected by it are included in the process of discussion and decision
making” (22; cited in Sharp 2005: 1017). Her emphasis is on the processes through which
collective decisions are made. Critical here is that the processes by which artwork is selected
should involve those who are part and parcel of the community, and that the process affords
equal status to everyone. In the case of the AiPP initiative, rather than involving the varying
voices of community members, local artists, and residents, their opinions and desires appear to
have been muted:
“My concern is…it's the manner in which she's going about this. It's the approach she's
taking. And it's the fact that it's not a community process…Can you imagine walking out
of your house and seeing those murals, that rat, and no one asked you about it? Like,
baloney! Community artists aren’t like that. They’re either from there and they know
everybody who…what would you consider them, your constituency? Like, you’d be
consulting them!” (Amanda).
The lack of community involvement and control fundamentally contradicts the ways
murals have been painted in Pilsen before AiPP. Amanda, who had spoken with muralist Oscar
Martín earlier in the week regarding her own grassroots cultural project, relayed to me that, for
reasons mentioned above, Oscar had declared this initiative the decisive termination of the mural
movement in Pilsen:
“He says the mural movement started in the 70s, and it started in Casa Aztlan.22
over now, because Aimee is doing that on 16th
street. It was deep when he said that, that
the mural movement has ended officially now that we have, you know, a puppet for the
man, deciding what is visible and invisible.”
Furthermore, AiPP diminishes the contributions of local artists and residents’ efforts to
beautify the neighborhood for the community. Natalia pointed out how Aimee’s mentality of
“bringing culture into Pilsen” resonated with that of imperialists:
And it's also offensive because at the same time it's like, you're back to treating us like
we're a bunch of philistines around here, and we're not. We've had arts and culture in this
community since back in the days of the Czechs and the Bohemians, that didn't stop with
the Mexicans moving in. As a matter of fact, we have lots of arts and artists, arts based
organizations, cultural events that happen in this community, without having put this
giant rodent on the wall. This giant rodent did not add to our cultural history, it did not
add to anything that we were already doing. As a matter of fact it was kind of like a
backhand to what we were doing. That's how a lot of people took it. This was a backhand
of all the work we've put into trying to improve Harrison Park, trying to improve Dvorak
Park, putting muralism in different parts of the community that were lead by youth that
were very much about their experience of this community and trying to uplift the
community and change the image of this community as being you know violent and not a
safe place to be. You know. So it was really irritating for those reasons.
The AiPP treatment of culture represents a direct challenge to the dominant definitions and uses
of culture in Pilsen, where cultural initiatives have been recurrent resources for struggles over
rights, representations, and identity. AiPP’s façade of inclusivity not only stealthily cloaks the
underlying growth goal of the initiative, but it also devalues “homegrown” artists who are
overlooked and excluded from AiPP.
Casa Aztlan is well known as the center of this mural movement in Pilsen and is regarded as an important
neighborhood landmark vested with many use values. However, it is currently slated for closure. One of the oldest
social service agencies in Pilsen, it was founded in 1970 to serve the immigrant Mexican families that began arriving
in great numbers two decades earlier. Providing advocacy, counseling, and other services, including after school
programs, it was a focal point for the community, providing a variety of services needed to adapt to life in a new
urban environment while preserving their culture and maintaining their values. The building is currently slated for
Aesthetics and the Manufacturing of Authenticity: Power and Representations in Public
Some of the artists that were being brought into that 16th St. initiative fit into that other kind of
public art idea, which is that we drop a something on an area and declare it public art and
everyone should go ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ I've heard people calling it the ‘turd’ variety of public art,
which you just drop something there and people are just supposed to like it whether the
community had anything to do with it or not. So it fits much more into that idea of what public
art is -- we're going to bring something and not really care what your community thinks, says,
feels about it, and you're just supposed to like it because it's public art. It's been declared good
by the tastemakers.
For us, it’s all about getting work on as many walls as possible and boosting Chicago’s position
in the international [street-art] scene.
-Pawn Works cofounder Matt Martins, discussing AiPP goals with TimeOut Chicago
While AiPP gives off an aura of inclusivity, closer scrutiny exposes the ‘imposed’ nature
and centralization of the initiative. As Zukin argues, the intervention of elites in the cultivation
of top-down representations of the city has significant implications as to what – and who – is
visible in the city based on images, memories, and “uses of aesthetic power” delineated by
people with economic and political power (1995:145). This vision has guided and continues to
guide urban development projects that seek to eliminate black, brown, and impoverished people
from the central city as a way to package places as safe, entertaining, and attractive to consumers
(Judd and Fainstein 1999; Zukin 1995; Mele 2000). People with this representational power can
influence the look and feel of anything from the city’s public art to a restaurant staff’s visible
division of social and ethnic labor, manifested in the spatial arrangement of employees in New
York City restaurants – those who embody more cultural capital for consuming elites work in the
“front” of restaurants while immigrants and marginalized peoples labor in the “back” (Zukin
This representational power is paralleled in the Art in Public Places initiative. Aimee,
and by proxy the local government’s, favoring of particular aesthetics or visual cultures and the
repudiating of others creates and perpetuates new forms of urban inequality – cultural and
symbolic injustices (Fraser 1995; cited in Sharp 2005). Amanda took offense to the imperial,
selective nature of the initiative:
You know, gentrification has brought about this state where the Alderman's office hand
picks people from the neighborhood and out-of-towners and friends of theirs through
CUAS where she works, and there's this way they go about deciding who's in and who's
out. That's not that different from Podmajersky, who rents out these spaces and if you're a
first floor artist, it's because he picked you! You don’t want a realtor, a developer,
curating our art! You know, fuck that! It's totally offensive.
The hand-picked nature of the initiative prompts us to ask – how do they go about “deciding
who’s in and who’s out?” As Dávila (2004) points out, “as pivotal as culture may be for urban
economic development initiatives, not all types and manifestations of ‘culture’ are profitably or
economically viable” (211). What is it about this particular form of culture, its particular
aesthetic, and the cultural capital it beholds that makes it so desirable? And how is this art and
culture – now embedded into the built environment for everyone to see – restructuring urban
To attract economic investment, cities must be sold like any other consumer product, and
the stakeholders of the gentrification process are at the core of the marketing and branding of
cities (Fainstein and Judd 1999). The agency of places in this process is echoed by Logan and
Molotch (1987) who explain: “[p]laces are not simply affected by the institutional maneuvers
surrounding them. Places are those machinations” (43). Consequently, representations of place,
place-making and place promotion are essential parts of the urban development process. A
community must be perceived as “up and coming,” “exciting,” or “trendy” in order for
investment to enter; in turn, the presence of gentrifying activity sets off a process of
representation that opens the door for further development (Betancur 2005: 19). As such,
stakeholders in the gentrification process play a role in how a community is perceived in order to
attract new kinds of consumption.
This initiative can be seen as part of the culture and arts industry that is being developed
to turn the city center into a landscape of consumption. Many scholars (Goode 2001; Dávila
2004, Zukin , Sassen 2001) point out that these kinds of cultural initiatives seek to attract the
commerce of the overconsuming ‘haves’: suburbanites and urban gentry (Goode 2001: 375;
Sassen 2001). As Goode points out, “for these diversity-seeking populations, such events fill the
same desire for authenticity and exotica as does the proliferation of international travel, new
restaurant cuisines, and shopping venues such as the retail chain Anthropologie. They allow the
new professional and managerial class to become cosmopolitan participants in the new global
world scene, liberated from the soulless modernity of bureaucratic work as well as from racism
and fear of otherness” (Goode 2001:375).
Not only does the conversion of graffiti and gang-ridden streets to beautiful street art
symbolize a turn towards a safer, more tourist-friendly space, but the aesthetics of it also attracts
a certain type of consumer. Zukin (2010) argues that, because authenticity begins as an aesthetic
category, it appeals to cultural consumers, especially young people today. But it also has a lot to
do with economics and power. To paint a certain aesthetic into the built landscape for the
purpose of stimulating local economy suggests that the power-wielding group knows how to best
curate a profitable visual representation of the neighborhood, as the art signifies the kind of
neighborhood that one is entering (Mele 2000; Zukin 1995). “Their ability to represent the
streets gives them a right to claim power over them,” Zukin (2010) argues (244). She continues,
“A group that imposes its own tastes on urban space – on the look of a street, or the feeling of a
neighborhood – can make a claim to space that displaces longtime residents” (2010: 4). This
particular power is cultural power. “New tastes displace those of longtime residents because
they reinforce the image in politicians’ rhetoric of growth.” (2010:4). Thus, the development of
AiPP is one example of the ways in which cities leverage symbolic culture to anchor places to
profit. This has particular consequences for whoever has a right to this space.
Zukin argues that we cannot consider power to control urban spaces without considering
the cultural power of the media, which capitalizes upon and spreads the allure of newly hip
neighborhoods (2010). The way AiPP is depicted in articles celebrates the initiative, the art, and
the transformations occurring in the neighborhood. One article that features AiPP and an
interview with Aimee, titled “The Pilsen Renaissance,” proclaims: “Thanks mainly to the
foresight and ingenuity of Chicago Urban Art Society, Pawn Works, and Alderman Danny Solis,
Pilsen has undergone some long overdue street art transformation. The art mindstate has been
experiencing a real renaissance of late.” It continues, celebrating the “rebirth of sorts” and the
cache the initiative instills in Pilsen and Chicago: “The streets are… making Chicago (and Pilsen
in particular) a destination for appreciators of art and international artists alike. Chicago has now
become a major player, and we’ve truly taken it to the next level. The time is now and our shine
has been birthed for the world to enjoy” (Carlton 2012).23
Articles also help circulate the façade
of community involvement, empowerment, and betterment that Aimee circulates, purporting that
the “result [of AiPP] will be a colorful, vibrant wall along the neighborhood’s north border,
enticing artists to contribute constructively to the community while also deterring negative gang
graffiti” (Meyerson 2012). The result is the valorization of both the initiative and the local
government, in addition to the exponential increase in awareness of AiPP, its contributing artists,
This mirrors what others have written about the “New Harlem Renaissance” (see Zukin 2010; Schafer and Smith
and its aesthetics.
The inclusion of “community” in the initiative’s name also projects an aura of
authenticity, suggesting that AiPP’s roots are embedded in the neighborhood in which it is
entrenched. Zukin claims that authenticity has two diverging definitions: on the one hand, being
“primal, historically first, or true to a tradition vision,” and on the other, “being unique,
historically new, innovative, and creative” (Zukin 2010: xi). AiPP straddles both definitions, by
claiming the second definition of authenticity and leveraging the first to enhance its stance as a
community initiative. Zukin claims that “authenticity is nearly always used as a lever of cultural
power for a group to claim space and take it away from others without direct confrontation, with
the help of the state and elected officials and the persuasion of the media and consumer culture”
(2010: 246). Although the images and themes in the AiPP murals may be regarded as less
“Mexican” or “Latino,” within the highly charged context of gentrification they are
unequivocally seen and consumed as authentic by many locals and outsiders alike.
Conclusion: The Future of Pilsen
“I think that doing murals there and promoting this art district, culture… you know, it’s
positive, but again I think its very much functional with this idea of the city becoming just
like some kind of fake, shallow, pseudo-Mexican place. You know what I’m saying? I
think that those things, nobody’s going to be against them. And I mean I think that those
things are good and they’re happening, they’re not controversial and that’s great – we
all agree with them. But I think that some of the same zeal or energy should be placed on
policies that will create opportunities for people to stay and enjoy those things. I don’t
care about a mural that I wont be able to admire because I’m going to have to go live
somewhere else, some backwoods or something. You know what I’m saying? Am I too
negative? How do these things become not like a double-edged sword? I think we all
need to be concerned about what happens the day after.
As I have argued in this thesis, culture is intrinsic to the entire process of urban
restructuring, specifically attracting new kinds of consumption at the expense of long time
community members. As my ethnography demonstrates, after closer inspection of the processes
behind the paint, the universal romantic view of public art as a positive community force does
not hold up in the case of AiPP. Behind the façade of inclusion and community that Aimee and
Alderman Solis constructed, there is a growth machine at play trying to anchor Pilsen to profit.
Gentrification in Pilsen is already underway, and the actors implementing the processes behind
AiPP can be seen as embracing and expediting the neighborhood’s transformations. While the
future is still unclear, one only needs to look at nearby Wicker Park and Humboldt Park to see
what happens when processes such as these are not stymied.
The favoring of and investing in particular cultural identities and consumers has
implications in the community fabric as well. Both Casa Aztlan and Yollocalli Arts Reach are
Pilsen landmarks and historical, important, and accessible community resource centers; however,
they will be closed and relocated, respectively, by the end of 2013. At the same time, the
cultural commodification team – Mayor Emanuel and DCASE – are ushering in and providing
over $100,000 funding for a large-scale spectacle and public art group, Redmoon Theater. The
move is touted as part of the Chicago Cultural Plan, and the growth coalition’s vision for Pilsen
is evident in this article about the move in the Chicago Sun Times:
Redmoon, the unique Chicago theater operation that specializes in grand-scale spectacles
staged both outdoors and on standard stages, is on the move. It is leaving its longtime
headquarters in the West Loop for a new 57,000-square-foot space at 2120 S. Jefferson in
Pilsen, with backing from 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, the Department of Cultural
Affairs and Special Events and the Mayor’s Office, all of whom want to make Pilsen
more of a vibrant cultural district (Weiss 2013).
Redmoon Theater will be involved in reshaping the riverfront area, Emanuel’s goal for 2014. In
an interview promoted in a press release on the City of Chicago’s website, the co-artistic director
at Redmoon said, “Together with the City of Chicago, we hope to create a unique event for
Chicagoans that captures the world’s imagination,” said Jim Lasko, Co-Artistic Director at
Redmoon. “Chicago is distinguished by the determination to innovate, to reinvent, to rise from
the ashes. From the earliest prairie fires off Wolf Point to the City’s rebirth following the Great
Chicago Fire, Chicago’s history is marked by episodes of destruction and renewal” (Press
Release b). Ironically enough, Redmoon’s emergence in Pilsen articulates this same process, as
more profitable and “valuable” art venues are ushered in at the expense of historically-
entrenched, community-based institutions.
However, what makes AiPP a particularly stealthy project of gentrification is the way in
which it manipulates a common, historically entrenched, and prevalent visual form in the
neighborhood – the mural – to attract outside consumption. Pilsen residents are known for their
ability to effectively mobilize against proposals and projects that possess the potential to harm
their neighborhood, but in this case, they have not yet stirred. Amanda encapsulated this tension
perfectly: “it’s complicated – people love public art, when they turn blight into something
beautiful.” However, they may be embracing art that will ultimately displace them. As Miguel
notes, “I don’t care about a mural that I wont be able to admire because I’m going to have to go
live somewhere else, some backwoods or something.”
The truth is that cultural initiatives such as AiPP are on the rise and are not about to fade,
as long as they are profitable, politically marketable, and practical (Dávila 2004). The
contemporary city thrives off the symbolic, particularly from culture and identity – often at the
detriment of vulnerable and objectified residents. However, through proper analysis, the
contradictions behind its visual and spatial veil can be displayed, allowing us to work towards
more just, democratic, and equitable cultural initiatives that buffer marginalized groups from
I know I owe thanks to many people who helped craft this project. Many thanks to Professor Ana
Aparicio, my principal advisor, for her continued support, guidance, and inspiration. I would also
like to thank Professor Jessica Winegar for her contributions to a smaller project that informed
this thesis. I am also indebted to Jesse Mumm, whose passion, patience, and knowledge of
Pilsen were an inspiration and fundamental to the development of this project. This project
would not have been possible without the financial support and generosity of the Office of the
Provost through their Academic Year Undergraduate Research Program.24
However, the conclusions, opinions, and other statements in this thesis are the author’s and not necessarily those
of the sponsoring institution.
Mural painted by Brooklyn-based GAIA
Mural painted by Belgian-based street-artist, ROA
Several examples of community-based murals in Pilsen; the first is of Mexican and Mexican
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