CHICAGO — In Pilsen, Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Art’s recent exhibition, Peeling Off the Grey, presents a small but biting counterpoint to the narrative of “gentrification as development,” which, in a predominately Chicanx neighborhood like Pilsen, proves actively xenophobic. But on display here are works that exhume the histories present in Pilsen, those new and those old. Curator Teresa Magaña firmly announces that here, in the Heart of Chicago, art and activism are necessarily interwoven.
On a November 2017 live edition of NPR’s Code Switch, Chicago journalist and author Natalie Y. Moore described how such white perversions led to this corrosive displacement in Pilsen: “There was a study that was done that compared Pilsen to Bronzeville. Why did Pilsen gentrify and Bronzeville did not? Well, white people’s perceptions of Bronzeville was Black crime, poverty, violent, poor. Pilsen — Cinco de Mayo, tacos, and happy margaritas — so it was more ethnically palatable for Pilsen than it was for Bronzeville.” This, to me, is emblematic of the neo-colonial situation Pilsen residents have been besieged with, coupled with the troubling and inescapable undertone of anti-Blackness.
A homegrown Pilsen resident and visual journalist, Sebastián Hidalgo condemns the material and cultural occupation of his community. His black and white photographs document the affective experiences of gentrification’s toll.
“Smells Like Mexico,” the last in his series on display, fronts a large statue of a crucified Jesus. The cross foregrounds the varying layers of shadows, which drape around a woman arranging goods in a stall of religious wares, silhouetted to the point of unrecognition. All of this is backdropped by brick apartments, which stand in the far distance, appearing both connected and emotionally distant from the subjects closest to the viewer. It is unclear from the photograph whether anyone engaging with this stall lives in those buildings, which hang above and between, but the question itself moves the viewer to that state of confusion, now quotidian to inhabitants of Pilsen. The title itself suggests the ephemeral, “Smells Like,” as is the state of flux rendered by the shadows, monuments, and cultural signifiers at play in the photo. Though these aspects of life in Pilsen seem artificially preserved by photograph, we are reminded that they too can be blown out just like a prayer candle or the warmth of a home.
The only other work in Peeling Off the Grey to utilize photography is that of Rebel Betty, a self-identified “AfroBoricua visual artist, educator and organizer from Chicago.” The mixed media work on wood panel, titled “Summer of Joyful Resistance,” collages images taken from newspapers and other printouts, placing them next to photos of famous Pilsen locations and moments of protest between 2017 and 2018. The piece quotes articles surrounding resistance to Pilsen’s gentrification, compiling a textual, photographic, and aesthetic landscape for an entire year of a community’s life. Featured prominently is the facade of the infamous Thalia Hall, as well as the interior of some of Pilsen gallery spaces.
The gallery space has become a key signifier of hipster decadence in neighborhoods with an influx of gentrifiers. The systematized aestheticization of a poverty-stricken neighborhood (in this case, Pilsen) by wealthy implants, raises all costs, from rent hikes to shifting demographics. Recently, a notice was posted on the local Belli’s Juice Bar explaining the Pilsen business’s displacement at the hands of their landlords, Thalia Hall owners Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden. The pair were also responsible for the firing of Eliseo Real, a first-generation Mexican employee of theirs, for participating in the Day Without Immigrants. The flyer has been widely circulated by Pilsen community organizers who refuse to accept the increasingly obvious expulsion of local businesses by external investors.
Sam Kirk’s painting, “All we fought for, all we built,” visualizes Pilsen as a space in which bodies are being, and have been, erased. From Hidalgo’s silhouetted shopkeeper to Kirk’s grey phasing of Pilsen residents, the absence or fading of community members becomes a formal unifier in the exhibit. An active take on the exhibition title Peeling off the Grey, Kirk grounds his work in figuration and the individual effects experienced by community members so actively affected by the “greyings” of gentrification.
A collaboration between Sarita Garcia and Joseph Josué Mora makes visible the markers of gentrification, as consolidated into a brief but loud button meant to be worn by gallery patrons. The installation, “Dispenser 1, 2, 3, 4: Pilsen 2018,” offers a tactile expression of how visible gentrification makes one’s history in relation to space. The station features a small sign tucked beneath the center of the four aligned dispensers, requesting patrons take the pin they most identify with and begin a conversation about their relationship to Pilsen and its gentrification. The four options denote “Raised Here,” “Not From Here,” “Displaced From Here,” and “New Here.” As one thinks through these signifiers and one’s direct relationship to their real-world implications, their reality becomes haunting. There is a specific violence in living parallel to one’s colonizer while being expected to be grateful for their “renewing” presence. I say “colonizer” here to evoke anti-gentrification community organizing, which has reframed urban development through the lens of colonization given the many economic and cultural similarities between the two extractive practices.
We are reminded that we bear the weight of our histories’ guilt, and we wear it on our sleeves. It is easy to identify when someone is not from the neighborhood; anyone familiar with Pilsen at all can tell. What requires a more learned eye is to distinguish those who are new, whether a native returning or not. The wearability of this interactive installation highlights how clothing, demeanor, and gait shape one’s relationship with the community. The installation, having encountered enough visitors to dry up the four dispensers, proves harrowingly empty. The image rings out an echo of the silence that the grey apartments, now a trademark of Pilsen’s gentrification, bring to an otherwise boisterous community.
If you read mainstream Chicago newspapers discussing the gentrification of Pilsen, you’ll still find words like “exotic” used to describe fellow city residents and their day-to-day lives. The underlying dehumanization is left to be subtly embroidered upon the lapel of an appeal for Pilsen residents to “leverage [their] past into a lively future.”
This vital and deeply reflective exhibition reminds us: as anyone who’s from Pilsen knows, neither Pilsen’s past nor Pilsen’s future is for leverage or for sale.
Peeling Off the Grey is on exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, Chicago now through October 7.