Hermalinda Raygoza, who ran Lili’s Gift Shop with her husband in Pilsen for almost 20 years, stands outside the now-shuttered store in the 1700 block of West 18th Street, Tuesday morning, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Death of a Pilsen gift shop

Hermalinda Raygoza and her husband, Edelio, ran Lili’s Gift Shop on 18th Street in Pilsen for almost 20 years.

Business was never booming, but the neighborhood kept the store afloat.

“We sold everything — flowers, blankets, stuffed animals, gifts for Mother’s Day and Valentine’s. You name it, we had it,” Raygoza said in Spanish.

Lili’s was open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week except on holidays. When the weather got rough, the Raygozas would often sleep in the store on an inflatable mattress.

“We made sure to open on time every day. My customers were always my main priority,” Raygoza said.

Then, on the morning of Nov. 12, she turned over the keys to the shop.

The building’s landlords, developers Michael and Ronald Fox from Oak Park, decided to tear it down.

In its place will stand a four-story building with three ground-level storefronts and nine apartments above, according to a $1.5 million new construction permit issued to Michael Fox on Nov. 20.

Lili’s Gift Shop in the 1700 block of West 18th Street, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lili’s Gift Shop in the 1700 block of West 18th Street, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Raygoza said the building needed major repair work for years. The roof was split, the basement kept flooding and the pipes were leaking, she said.

“Every year it kept getting worse,” she said. “In the end, they said it’d cost them more to fix it than to tear it down.”

It’s a familiar story in Pilsen: As property values in the neighborhood skyrocket, developers are razing instead of fixing old buildings in the pursuit of new tenants with deeper pockets.

“Gentrification is said to make a neighborhood look better. But before it makes them look better, it often makes them look worse,” said Winifred Curran, a geographer at DePaul University whose research focuses on gentrification.

“It’s more profitable to let buildings decay in gentrifying neighborhoods like Pilsen to then have the justification to tear them down.”

County records show the Foxes bought the 112-year-old building in 2016 for $950,000 from Baum Revision, a development company. Baum paid $575,000 for it in 2014. Forest Park real estate agent Ronald Ohr bought it for $390,000 in 2013.

Ohr purchased the building from developer Tommy Milutinovic who owned it since 2000, the same year the Raygozas opened Lili’s.

Hermalinda Raygoza stands near the 18th Street Pink Line L stop. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Hermalinda Raygoza stands near the 18th Street Pink Line L stop. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Transit-oriented displacement

Immigrant businesses and families have made a home out of the two-story building at 1730-1734 W. 18th St. for decades.

Its three storefronts had most recently been occupied by a used furniture store, a Mexican dulcería (a candy store) and Lili’s. The four upstairs apartments housed working-class families who, for the most part, didn’t sign leases and paid their rent in cash.

The property is steps from the 18th Street Pink Line L stop, making the Foxes’ new four-story building a transit-oriented development. That allows the Foxes to provide fewer parking spots to accommodate the new units.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said these kinds of developments would “spur economic development in our neighborhoods” and “benefit residents and small business owners alike.”

But Curran said transit-oriented developments have often had the opposite effect — especially in gentrifying areas.

“The idea was if you allow developers to build less parking and more units, then they would provide more units at an affordable rate. But what we’re seeing is that they’re aiming to attract tenants at the higher end of the market,” she said.

It’s unclear how much the Foxes plan on charging for rent in the new building. Neither responded to interview requests.

The Foxes own several properties in Pilsen, including a converted luxury apartment building across from Benito Juarez Community Academy where two-bedroom units rent for up to $2,495 a month.

Privately financed transit-oriented residential buildings with up to nine units are exempt from the city’s affordable housing requirements. So the Foxes do not have to offer an affordable unit in their new building or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Peter Mayer, the building’s architect, said each unit will have three bedrooms and two bathrooms in about 1,300 square feet. Similar apartments in Pilsen rent for just over $2,000 a month on average, according to real estate listings reviewed by the Sun-Times.

The three storefronts will be between 1,110 square feet and 1,257 square feet, Mayer said. Commercial storefronts listed for rent along West 18th Street cost between $29 and $34 per square foot a month.

Throughout their 20-year stay, the Raygozas paid $1,300 a month to rent the building’s center storefront. They couldn’t find a similar deal anywhere in Pilsen.

“We looked around the neighborhood for another storefront, but they’re charging $3,000 to $4,000 in rent for places that are much smaller. We can’t afford that,” Raygoza said.

Hermalinda Raygoza ran Lili’s Gift Shop in Pilsen for 20 years. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Hermalinda Raygoza ran Lili’s Gift Shop in Pilsen for 20 years. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“I keep dreaming about 18th Street”

In March 2018, the Foxes gave tenants six months to leave the building. The Raygozas were eventually allowed to stay until the second week of November.

When the day finally came, Hermalinda Raygoza found it hard to believe her time in Pilsen was up.

“For the first two nights I could hardly sleep knowing I wouldn’t be opening the store in the morning,” she said.

Four months later, Raygoza said she’s now getting too much sleep.

“This winter’s been rough. I’m cooped up in the house all day. I’m depressed — all I want to do is sleep,” she said in a recent interview.

On the weekends, Raygoza sets up shop at a flea market in the Back of the Yards neighborhood to sell off her leftover merchandise.

“We mostly sell string and blankets. Some days are good, but most days are slow,” she said.

Raygoza still makes her way down to la dieciocho a few times a month. She makes an effort to pass by Lili’s, even if it hurts.

“I keep dreaming about being back on 18th Street,” she said. “I even dreamt there was a new flower shop opening where I used to be. I drove by to check, but there’s still nothing there.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.

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