NEWS

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May 22, 2001

Community leaders convene for panel on gentrification

"I remember my tio saying, 'I can't wait until the white man invents polyester,'" Jesus 'Chuy' Negrete sang at Hutch. Negrete sang as part of "The Hood Under Attack: The Effects of Gentrification in Chicago Communities," an event sponsored by Movemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan's (MEChA)

Negrete, a musicologist and Professor of Latin American studies at the University of Houston, delivered a multimedia performance that incorporated folk music with slides illustrating the Chicano migrants history in the United States. Negrete traced the migrants across the Midwest. He said that Chicanos faced racist socialization as they looked for work and as their children assimilated into American culture through institutions like schools.

"I went to Catholic School, we called it: 'Our Lady of Perpetual Racism,'" Negrete sang. "Y aqui en la Universidad de Chicago, aprenden a luchar. [Here in the University of Chicago, learn to fight] Learn to struggle because struggling is learning and learning is struggling."

The idea that one socioeconomic group can impose itself over another carries great significance for minority groups today, especially for new immigrants and their families. When Europeans first landed in North America, they claimed all of it by right of eminent domain. Some scholars argue that this concept of eminent domain was ingrained into American institutions.

Today, the many of the immigrants who settled in Chicago are faced with a different struggle: to protect their communities against the commercial invasion of a process known as gentrification.

Following Negrete's performance, a panel of community leaders and scholars discussed the gentrification phenomenon and its implication for the South Side.

"Within communities you have elements who see a future without the poor, without working families -- one that is homogenous," said Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, a panelist at the discussion.

According to MEChA co-chairs Monica Martinez and Rosendo Garza, the panel was organized to expose University students to the greater community.

"We want to bring awareness to campus," Garza said. "We need to make MEChA a presence in the University."

"We wanted to discuss something that affects the Chicago community as well as the University," Martinez said.

Moderator David Hayes, coordinator of the University Community Service Center, gave a technical definition of gentrification: to convert an aging area to a more affluent neighborhood by raising property values and displacing the poor. Sometimes well-organized communities like Pilsen, a tight-knit, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood located between 16th and 31st Streets, try to resist development and fight a losing battle.

According to Pilsen Neighbors organizer Rey Lopes Calderon, the gentrification process imposes legal complications that can divide communities. "Pilsen has active citizens, but what happens when the rules get changed?" Calderon said. "These people are not worried about market forces, they want to pay their bills."

Under these circumstances, developers may try to overtake the neighborhood by buying houses for half of what they are worth to residents that are unfamiliar with the broader economic situation.

According to Carmen Velasquez, executive director of Alivio Medical Center, a non-profit community health center in Pilsen, her neighborhood is fighting a gentrification trend. "Gentrification to me means losing your identity," Velasquez said. "It means losing friends and family to the temptation of someone saying 'I'll buy your house for $80,000 cash when you can't buy another house for that much in 2001.'"

In Pilsen, a key facilitator of gentrification is the Tax-Increment Financing (TIF), a program that struggling communities can use to reappropriate tax dollars. In a TIF district, property taxes are frozen at their base values for a period of 23 years. While the taxes accumulate, the money goes directly to the community instead of the city, and can be used to fund improvements to the community. The change in property values encourages residential and commercial development.

"TIFs are an almost empty legal structure with fiscal implications," said panelist and sociology professor Terry Clark. "What gives them interest is how they are used."

Community leaders in Pilsen are worried that these TIFs are being used to encourage gentrification and commercial development without respect for the current community, which loses resources to intrusive and unwelcome development. "At some point the development is supposed to level off, but it never does," Mellis said. "The government has to develop a long-range plan for the community."

Pilsen residents say that the TIF was imposed with little thought as to how it would affect their neighborhood. "We're a perfect example of a community that has ganas, a desire to do more," said panelist Teresa Fraga, a Pilsen community activist. "A plan would have been perfect. It's dangerous to have no plan, it puts too much power on the other side."

Fraga said that developments since the TIF was imposed have confirmed their fears. "We see development all around us, there are still many broken sidewalks and broken alleys," she said. "We have to pay half the cost to get them fixed."

Fraga also said that Pilsen residents were promised jobs when factories relocated to their neighborhood, but residents have not seen them.

"Our complaints fell on deaf ears," Fraga said.

"City Hall does have a game plan," Velasquez said. "The housing is developed for who? Us? No, for students."

Gentrification is tied up with race, particularly with immigrants who report feeling an "illusion of inclusion" and then are driven from their communities by prosperous whites.

Preckwinkle noted that the changes occurring in Hyde Park are not racial, but socioeconomic. While the income of families moving into Hyde Park has changed, 2000 census data indicated that Hyde Park is becoming more integrated and is attracting more minorities.

Some feel that TIFs are overused, and that the city becomes overenthusiastic in declaring an area "blighted." There are currently three TIFs in the Fourth Ward, covering a large section of Hyde Park-Kenwood, including 53rd Street.

In order to qualify as a TIF conservation district, 50 percent of buildings must be over 35 years old, and the area must have three conditions out of a list of 13. In Hyde Park these conditions include what legally qualifies as deleterious land use because retail space is not being fully utilized. Also, property values of commercial property are rising at a slower rate than nearby residential property.

Preckwinkle disagrees with the notion that the TIFs will endanger Hyde Park. "What I see happening in our communities is a struggle to rebuild them in a balanced way," she said. "Not all communities are intact like Pilsen. On the North side we are seeing dissolution, dishevelment, and abandonment. On the South Side, our communities look like they've been bombed."

Last year, Preckwinkle's office estimated that TIFs would raise more than $20 million for the community, half of which would go to the construction of a parking garage. "TIFs are developmental tools," Preckwinkle said.

For more information about MEChA, visit their website at mecha.uchicago.edu.