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Pilsen dances to its plan

It’s a beautiful thing when neighbors get together, set aside their differences and decide as a group what their community is going to become.

It’s even more beautiful when they actually get it done.  

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Pilsen's quality-of-life plan focused on how to preserve the neighborhood's heritage as a center of Mexican culture and keep it affordable for blue-collar Latinos despite gentrification pressure from nearby downtown.

So there were lots of satisfied smiles – even some “We did it!” wonderment – as neighbors gathered on the evening of May 29 to celebrate the accomplishments of the Pilsen Planning Committee.

Not that every last goal has been checked off on the ambitious list in the committee’s 2007 quality-of-life plan. After all, there was the not-so-little matter of a Great Recession that descended on the nation’s economy shortly after the ink dried.

Considering the headwinds, however, Pilsen’s execution of the NCP surely ranks among the most successful of the 16 neighborhoods that set out to plan and to do using best practices of comprehensive community development.

Goal #1: Unity
In Pilsen, the biggest achievement likely occurred at the outset: the bringing together of groups and leaders who were often previously at odds over how best to keep the neighborhood affordable for blue-collar Latinos in the face of gentrification pressure from nearby downtown.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

The quality-of-life plan helped to spur the 45-unit Casa Morelos Apartments, which sits on previously vacant land at 2015 S. Morgan St. that contributed nothing in the way of taxes or services and had become a source of blight.

But there on the stage stood Raul Raymundo and Teresa Fraga, co-chairs of the Pilsen Planning Committee, and on this night co-emcees of the celebration held in the auditorium of Benito Juarez Community Academy on Cermak Road. 

Before uniting to coordinate the plan, Raymundo focused on housing development as executive director of The Resurrection Project, while Fraga, as former head of Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, led marches against development of upscale housing.

Together, and with big help from Ald. Danny Solis (25th), they led the committee and crafted a workable plan to keep Latino families in, not wealthier families out.

“The Pilsen community plan has taken on a life of its own,” Fraga told the gathering of about 200, first in Spanish then in English. “Some plans stay on the shelf and collect dust. For the Pilsen quality-of-life plan, that’s not the case.”

She and Raymundo ticked off several impressive numbers: more than $120 million invested in Pilsen – from all sources, public and private – over the past five years that advance various goals of the plan; $859,743 in grants from LISC Chicago and other sources; overall crime down 4 percent; high school graduation rates and middle school achievement test scores up 16 and 7 percent respectively.

Close partners
Later in the celebration, Raymundo called to the stage Susana Vasquez, now executive director of LISC Chicago and previously director of its NCP citywide.

The quality-of-life plan has helped lead to more than $120 million invested in Pilsen over the past five years, with $859,743 in grants from LISC Chicago and other sources.

“She has been our partner from the get-go,” Raymundo said, “and tonight she’s representing not just LISC but all our funders.”

“You came together, and with some LISC support, you organized and implemented a quality-of-life plan,” said Vasquez. She credited Pilsen and TRP with teaching her a few “basics” of community organizing when she lived and worked there for six years more than a decade ago.

“But more importantly, you raised resources on your own to improve your schools, connect residents to technology, help local businesses grow, build housing for families and, yes, support arts and culture. We’ll continue to support your quality-of-life plan into the future,” she promised.

Not done yet
“We’re not done,” Raymundo responded. “There are still a lot of projects in formation,” he said, such as the La Casa housing for college students on Paulina Street near TRP’s headquarters. 

Photo: John McCarron

LISC Chicago executive director Susana Vasquez, who previously led NCP, recalled that she learned the "basics" of community organizing while living in Pilsen and working at The Resurrection Project.

Also called to the stage for kudos were Solis and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who knows well the NCP story having directed the program in nearby Little Village as head of Enlace Chicago.  

Ulises Zatarain, TRP’s NCP director, outlined some of Pilsen’s plans for the future … but not before crediting his predecessors, Guacolda Reyes and Alvaro Obregon, for advancing the plan during prior service as NCP director and organizer.

“We will have a strong focus on education,” Zatarain said, “but we will continue to grow comprehensively, and to take ownership of our future – a future that is very bright.”  

Following a rousing display of musicianship and dancing by the Orozco Academy Mariachi Band and Baile Folklorico, co-emcee Raymundo declared, “As you can see, our future is in good hands. … Here, among these talented youngsters, are our next alderman, our next county commissioner, our next CEO of The Resurrection Project.

Photo: Gordon Walek/LISC Chicago file photo

Ulises Zatarain, NCP director for The Resurrection Project, said the agency would continue forward with comprehensive vision of community development and with an especially strong focus on education.

“With these future leaders and with the support of our public officials, we will continue to make our community the best that it can be … and the best it can possibly become.” 

The assembly ended with neighborhood and church leaders crowding onto the stage to the Getting Strong Now theme from the movie Rocky.

It was a beautiful thing.

To see the plan:

More information: Ulises Zatarain

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