Great Neighborhood Walks Of Chicago: Bienvenidos a Pilsen

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Chicago truly is a series of one fascinating neighborhood after another. If you’re armed with a camera and interested in seeing an especially colorful area, it’s hard to beat Pilsen.

Today I joined a dozen street photographers to absorb the sights, smells and sounds of the Pilsen neighborhood. We stuck mostly to the heart of the action along 18th Street, meandering down an alleyway here and there.

We viewed ornate old churches, turreted turn-of-the century brick structures, and off the main drag, many well-kept Chicago bungalows. What probably stands out in the neighborhood more than anything is the bright, vibrant colors everywhere, on storefronts, murals and signs. It truly feels like a little Mexican village.

Pilsen-1Highlights of the walk: The smells of enchiladas and barbacoa wafting out from the storefronts and street vendors; an impromptu performance by a strolling guitarist; and, of course, a walking, talking taco. The latter was a happy gent who admitted it was getting a little steamy inside his taco costume.

Pilsen was granted historic district status by the U.S. Department of the Interior in December, 2005. The district is defined by West 16th Street (home to blocks and blocks of colorful murals) on the north, West Cermak Road to the south, and bordered east and west by South Halsted Street and South Western Avenue.

You can credit the colorful modern embellishments and the ornate ones of the past to the two key ethnic groups who have called Pilsen home for the last century, Bohemian-Americans, followed by Mexican-Americans.

Pilsen-3The ethnicity of the Pilsen area has evolved over the years. Germans and Irish settled there in the mid-19th century. In the early 1960’s, the area saw a significant increase in Mexican Americans, and it still retains that flavor today.

Most of the buildings were erected between 1878 and 1910, and they bear the ornamentation common to design of that era. That also means there were lots of first-floor storefronts and apartments above them. The cottages dotting the streets of the district are generally small brick structures. Many include other doodads on the exterior like gables and patterns in the brickwork.

The architecture of Pilsen owes its design primarily to Bohemian-American influences. There were many small businesses popping up toward the end of the 1800’s and each tried to differentiate itself from the competition. Building design was one method to do it.

For example, some buildings used large, heavy cornices. They were very much like those you would have found in the small Bohemian villages from which the early Pilsenites came.

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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