Pilsen is 4.5 miles from downtown Chicago on the city’s lower west side. Nestled along the busy railroad lines that run along 16th street, Pilsen has long been a first-stop neighborhood for many immigrants.
First, Bohemians were drawn to the neighborhood in the 1800s in part by a construction project to build what is now Ogden Avenue. Then, Mexican immigrants began to settle there starting in the 1950s. Today, those working class roots are still a big part of this busy neighborhood that now also includes a very vibrant cultural scene focused on Mexican-American art, food, traditions and more.
The minute the train pulls into the Pink Line’s 18th Street “L” stop, you get the sense of what Pilsen is all about.
The station boasts colorful, Mexican-themed murals — creative collaborations between artist Francisco Mendoza and students from Gallery 37 and the Mexican Museum of National Art. The explosion of color and art is a jolt of energy especially during colder, gray days. (We have a lot of those here.)
Mendoza, who passed away in 2012, was one of the most prolific artists to leave his mark on his beloved neighborhood. A former teacher at what is now called Orozco Elementary, his legacy lives on, not only in his public artwork but in his influence, imprinted on his students who have grown up and continued his work in the arts.
Vibrant is the first word that comes to mind when describing the neighborhood of Pilsen.
There is the feast for the eyes that starts at the CTA station and continues along 16th Street and various parts of the neighborhood to the brightly painted doors along 18th Street and beyond. Not only a visual feast, there are the sounds, smells and tastes that contribute to the rhythm of bustling daily life. The result is an almost palpable heart beat of Pilsen.
The vibrancy isn’t just painted on the surface but runs deep, down to the roots of what gives Pilsen its identity. Geographically, Pilsen isn’t as large as many Chicago neighborhoods, but it’s densely packed with restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops — the majority, mom and pop establishments and multi-generational.
While Pilsen is currently known for its Latin-American — specifically Mexican-American — culture, but it didn’t start that way.
The history of Pilsen
Pilsen was initially settled by German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, followed by a large influx of Czechs fleeing the oppression of the Austrian empire. The Czech settlers gave the neighborhood its name. Plzen or Pilsen is a city in western Bohemia in the Czech Republic and the story goes that a Bohemian owned a restaurant/tavern by the name of “City of Plzn” which became how people began to refer to the neighborhood. (Maybe this will come to mind the next time you’re ordering a Pilsner Urquell beer at the bar.)
While Pilsen mostly survived the 1871 Great Fire intact, it wasn’t a great place to live, with its low grounds, poor plumbing and tendency to flood. Due to Pilsen’s supply of cheap immigrant labor and the oppressive, dangerous working conditions, labor unions grew rapidly, eventually sparking demonstrations and strikes. Pilsen was one of the hot beds for the nationwide movement for workers’ rights (like the eight-hour work day) that would eventually lead to the May riots and the Haymarket Affair in 1886.
Many of the blue collar jobs began to leave the area after the Great Depression and second and third generation Czech and Eastern European immigrant children were able to pursue lives outside of factory jobs, many moving to the suburbs, all of which resulted in a decline in industry and Pilsen’s population.
Starting in the late 1950s, there was an influx of Latino residents to Pilsen after many were displaced by construction of the Eisenhower Expressway. (Today, Pilsen is 80% Latino, the 2nd largest Latino population in the city. Little Village is first.) The demographic shift happened quickly to majority Mexican, but for a time the two groups shared the neighborhood. In 1962, a fair on West 19th Street celebrated both cultures, serving Mexican pancakes and Czech pastries. The two groups formed a united front when expansion of the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus threatened the neighborhood again in the 1960s.
Learning about the struggles of the Pilsen immigrants and the physically demanding, back breaking blue-collar work, the legacy of community activism and love of the arts helped me understand the foundation for Pilsen’s identity, resiliency and grassroots organizations.
Historian Peter Alter from the Chicago History Museum summed up this parallel, “Many Czech immigrants and Mexican immigrants faced similar struggles in the workplace related to poor working conditions, long hours, and low pay. Both immigrant groups had similar responses relying on family and community while staunchly supporting labor organizing and political solutions.”
Currently, as Pilsen undergoes more growth and non-Latinos move into the neighborhood (attracted by its quality of life and amenities), debate and discussions around development, affordable housing and gentrification continue among its citizens.
The desire to balance growth without pricing out (through rising property taxes and increasing rent) the people that made Pilsen so special and culturally vibrant is a frequent topic of conversation and concern. Some of the community groups focused on these issues today include: The Pilsen Alliance, Frida K Community Organization, The Resurrection Project and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.
Adding to that conversation is National Museum of Mexican Art President, Carlos Tortolero, who immigrated when he was three years old and grew up about a mile and half from where the museum now stands.
- Dvorak Park is named after the Czech composer Anton Dvorak and designed by renown landscaper Jens Jensen in 1905. It is now home to many community events including the Fiesta Del Sol.
- Pilsen was thought to have the most taverns in the city in the early 19th century.
- The National Register of Historic Places says the Bohemians were the builders of Pilsen, but the Mexicans were its preservationists. When the neighborhood became majority-Mexican, the community put a great deal of effort in renovating old buildings and fighting urban development, ensuring the neighborhood kept its historic character.
- The 2005 application to the U.S. Department of the Interior to make Pilsen a designated “historic place” is worth the read for all history & preservation buffs. Read it here.
- Casa Aztlán, the famous large, three-story community center was given its name in 1970. Before it became a cultural, educational and community center for Mexican immigrants in the neighborhood, it served a similar purpose to the Bohemians. It offered art, dance and language classes as well as low-cost healthcare. The murals were notoriously painted over in June 2017 — an act met with neighborhood fury. A new mural took its place as a result of the outcry. (See photo of the destroyed mural in our slideshow).
- The obelisk in Plaza Tenochtitlan at Loomis & 18th was a gift in 1997 from the then mayor of Mexico City. The Mexican Golden Eagle atop the obelisk is also on the Mexican flag. (Tenochtitlan is the name of ancient the Aztec city that Mexico City is built upon.)
“Things change in life, and life’s about change. But what happens when gentrification happens … the most important group in the community is the community,” said Tortolero, “And they should be part of the process, but they’re never part of the process, so that’s the problem. If it’s going to be done right, everyone should be at the table and everyone should say what should happen, in some manner it has to be good for the people already there.”
To get a sense of the beautiful culture that is the foundation of Pilsen, I highly recommend any day trip include a visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art. It’s not just Mexican art but Mexican-American art and no matter your background, you’ll find the exhibits compelling.
In addition to its 10,000-piece permanent collection, there is also a variety of programming from workshops for children, to symposiums and programs on dance, theater, music and literature. Also, no legitimate excuses can be claimed, because it is free admission every day of the year!
“I think it’s important that Chicago have a home for this fantastic culture … to preserve, conserve, and present this culture for our own community; at the same time we want to share it with everybody” said Tortolero. “You know everybody had said to us ‘you can’t put an art museum in a working class neighborhood, and it can’t be free,’ and they were wrong.”
While the museum is the anchor of Pilsen’s art scene, public displays of free art are all around the neighborhood.
Murals on private homes, businesses along 18th Street, alleyways and brightly painted doors are abundant. Each is a colorful and thought-provoking surprise around many turns on a walk. Each tells a story, and there are a multitude of artists. An entire day can be spent walking through Pilsen observing murals spanning different decades, political climates and viewpoints.
There is also a dynamic artist studio and gallery presence in Pilsen, and the arts district is comprised of galleries along South Halsted Streets (beginning at 1711 and ending at 2005). The Chicago Arts District holds an art walk on the second Friday of each month where studios and galleries hold open houses for visitors. You can pick up a map of “2nd Fridays Gallery Night” at the information center located at 1945 South Halsted Street.
Festivals and special events
It’s also home to many of the city’s best festivals including Pilsen Fest (in partnership with digital magazine El BeiSMan) August 18 -19, 2018. There’s also El Corn Fest, The Battle (a singing and DJ talent contest) and a Cantina Crawl.
Fiesta del Sol is an annual fundraising event focused on family fun. It’s free and organized by the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council. It’s a four-day event that spans eight blocks on Cermak Road boasting more than 100 booths and a carnival.
Another non-profit organization Eighteenth Street Development Corporation organizes Mole de Mayo festival along Ashland and 18th Street. Focused on providing needs for small businesses, Eighteenth Street provides help with programs, resources and even workshops for Pilsen’s business community.
The Chicago Urban Arts Society puts on the Slow & Low Festival in the Cermak Road Industrial Corridor section of Pilsen.
There is also Ruido Fest, a multi-day Latin American music festival that happens in July. It’s in nearby Little Italy but worth a mention. Of course, July 4 celebrations are also a fun time in Pilsen – especially if you enjoy watching fireworks.
In addition to festivals, Pilsen also celebrates the Easter season with an re-enactment on Good Friday each year of Via Crucis, the stations of the cross. For the past 41 years, hundreds of people have lined 18th Street to watch the dramatic procession to Harrison Park.
An important mention is the Pilsen Community Bookstore. The bookstore sells new and used books but has a mission to give high quality, high interest books to every student in Pilsen. The program is called “Pilsen Reads!” and the bookstore allows teachers to hand select books for their classrooms.
Another bookstore is operated by the non-profit organization Open Books. Pilsen is one of two locations (the other is in the West Loop) and in addition to used books donations, Open Books has a literacy program and a writing program that gives students the chance to become published authors.
At 18th and Allport is historic landmark Thalia Hall. In 1892, A Czech tavern owner John Dusek commissioned architects Frederick Faber and William Pagels to build Thalia Hall in the likes of the opulent opera house in Prague. It was a beacon of fine art including opera, but also a community gathering place.
In 2013, owners Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden (partners in the restaurant Longman & Eagle) undertook the project of painstakingly preserving and restoring the hall after more than 50 years of neglect. The main hall is a venue for music and comedy shows, the restaurant Dusek’s Board and Beer serves brunch and has a late night menu and two bars – Tack Room and Punch House.
Coffee shops and bakeries
A thriving community of “free thinkers” and community activists need gathering spaces, and coffee shops are the perfect arena for the meeting of great minds. It’s no wonder they are abundant in Pilsen!
La Catrina Cafe is owned by Diana Galicia Corona and her husband, Salvador. There’s plenty of space to spread out and work or study. There is also a space perfect for large gatherings. The Coronas care deeply about their community and know a thing or two about activism.
There’s a shrine dedicated to her son, Gabriel Cisneros, who passed away in 2016 at age 22 from a drug overdose. Cisneros was a gifted artist, and the family continues to be vocal about the dangers of addiction. The cafe displays art collections, art classes, open mics for poetry readings and young authors. It’s an incredibly warm environment, and they often offer “free hugs.”
The landmark coffee establishment in Pilsen is Cafe Jumping Bean which opened in 1994. The sandwiches and desserts still bring in a diverse and bustling crowd and owner Eleazar Delgado gives back to the community by donating a percentage of sales to worthy causes.
Frida Room serves full breakfast and burgers – if you’re looking for more than coffee. There’s also Juice House for smoothies and Kristoffer’s Cafe for tres leches and cake. Cà Phê Dá (cafe to Hais Sous restaurant) has Vietnamese coffee and banh mi sandwiches, and Chocolat Uzma has delicious homemade small batch chocolates and hot chocolate.
Brew Brew Coffee also has a great selection of teas. Its main location is in Avondale, and Brew Brew Coffee brings in donuts from Gurnee Donuts which has a cult following. Spoke & Bird Bakehouse is the coffee and pastry sister location to its main cafe in the South Loop.
Special mention has to be made of Panaderia Nuevo Leon, which has been serving Mexican sweets to the neighborhood since 1973. From conchas to bolillos to even vegan sweets and breads, this bakery has you covered! Its cafe Creperia Nuevo Leon features a savory and sweet fusion of Mexican flavors inside the classic crepe.
Where to eat in Pilsen
Everyone is going to have their favorite Mexican or Latin restaurant in Pilsen. For Bianca Ruvalcaba, it was not only a matter of taste buds but sentiment that draws her to the Mexican steakhouse Canton Regio restaurant. It’s owned by the Gutierrez family that lost Nuevo Leon – a 53-year-old staple on 18th Street. The grilled meat is served skewered hanging from a metal tree stand.
To find the best taco, I asked my friend Blanca Rios, and she suggested Atotonilco Restaurant. A fast casual spot that makes its own tortillas (that are also sold and distributed to grocery stores). The original location is in Little Village (opened in 1972) but each location has a flavor of its own. This Pilsen location’s tortilla and carne asada and al pastor are spectacular!
5 Rabanitos by Chef Alfonso Sotelo – an alum of Rick Bayless’ restaurants – is another must visit restaurant in Pilsen. From the selection of soups to salads, ceviches, tacos and mole, you can’t make a mistake in ordering. This is definitely the spot to go to impress your foodie date.
Las Carnitas Uruapan has been in Pilsen since 1975 and exclusively makes carnitas fresh daily. For his entire life, Chef Inocencio Carbajal has been making carnitas the way he had them as a little boy. He hasn’t altered the recipe or followed any fads. He serves his soft carnitas simply with tortilla, salsa, refried beans, and chicharòn. And he has a cult following, except now it’s multi-generational. People rave and swear this is the best carnitas in town so definitely worth you making a stop.
Don’t feel like Mexican or Latin food? Hai Sous serves up modern interpretations of street and home-style Vietnamese dishes from Chef Thai Dang and cocktails from his wife Danielle. Pl-zen is a gastropub that serves tacos but is better known for its selection of burgers ranging from kobe beef to bison.
And if you’re looking for barbecue, there’s Honky Tonk.
What if you’re craving a savory meat pie? Well, Pilsen has that too at Pleasant House Pub’s Royal Pies. It has a variety of delicious British meat and veggie pies, fish and chips, scotch egg and curry chips just to name a few. In addition, the list of brews and cocktails will transport you to merry old England! Husband and wife owners Art and Chelsea Jackson are long time residents of Pilsen.
If you’re looking for an incredible dinner that may be outside the norm of the expected, I’d highly recommend S.K.Y. From hospitality to the food, it’s an exquisite dining experience. Chef Stephen Gillanders and General Manager Charles Ford have made sure the menu is accessible in price and offer a welcoming, casual atmosphere. They renovated a condemned building that had been vacant for four years and employ a hefty number of neighborhood locals. Chef Gillanders named the restaurant after the initials of his wife, so it’s a good thing the food is delicious.
For night owls, there’s plenty to do without having to leave the neighborhood. The Skylark is a no-frills neighborhood staple. Simone’s is another neighborhood favorite for the last eight years and features an incredible decor of reclaimed and recycled architectural features. Del Toro is also a restaurant that stays up very late and features the very best margaritas with homemade sour mixes and freshly-squeezed juices.
I almost forgot mention that Pilsen also has a brewery. Moody Tongue, not only has a tasting room but serves food as well. They serve two menu items of oysters served raw on the half shell and a decadent, unbelievable German chocolate cake. Pretty simple.
Where to shop in Pilsen
There’s so much more to explore in Pilsen; it truly is one neighborhood that overwhelms all your senses in the very best way. The energy, the burst of color, the incredible smells and mouth-watering food, it’s worth revisiting again and again – and I encourage you to do so with an open mind and awareness to honor the past and help preserve the future.
What Pilsen residents have to say
Vicki Romero, a lifelong Pilsen resident committed to keeping the neighborhood’s Mexican cultural identity alive, shared with us her five favorite things about the neighborhood:
- The history and tradition that Pilsen has, including being a port of entry for immigrants, and the place where important labor organizing movements took place.
- I absolutely love how my neighborhood feels like a small town. Neighbors know one another by name and look out for each other like family.
- The aromas that waft through the air on Sunday mornings. It’s a combination of fresh tortillas, carnitas, coffee and pan dulce. It’s a sensory overload in the best way ever!
- The sound of Pilsen always brings a smile to my face. I can close my eyes and hear the children’s laughter as they play in the streets, while the bells of a paleta vendor ring in the background, remixed with the sounds of everything from regional Mexican music to Chicago house music bumping out of cars passing by. The sounds that let you know that my community is alive and bustling.
- The art and murals that capture the images of what it means to be Mexican in the urban landscape of Chicago. The murals in Pilsen are the best in the city, hands down.