Each spring, the students in Geography 133 investigate gentrification in the Pilsen neighborhood by collecting data—property by property, building by building—on housing sales, building permits, taxes, zoning laws, rentals and construction.
What emerges is a detailed picture, in maps and words, of a world that’s vulnerable to a boom-and-bust cycle of development. At this point, the class has accumulated 10 years of data on more than 5,000 lots.
Once a year, Euan Hague, a professor and chair of the geography department, and Winifred Curran, an associate professor in geography, give a status quo report to the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization advocating for affordable housing and a healthy community. Formed 15 years ago in response to gentrification, the Pilsen Alliance promotes direct action and leadership development, giving a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves, says Nelson Soza, the executive director.
“Our purpose is to be part of decisions made about the neighborhood. With DePaul’s help, we have a more scientific and defensible understanding of gentrification and what it means to our community. We use the reports to try to influence city policies and programs and to promote more careful planning.”
The findings for 2013 showed a few really interesting things, according to Hague:
“First, we’ve traced a blight that’s grown over the last four or five years as developers abandoned half-finished projects after the collapse in the housing market. They came into the neighborhood, bought houses, tore them down, poured foundations and then disappeared. So, all over the Pilsen, we find empty lots.
"Second, many condos that were actually built have never been occupied. Empty buildings stand on lots that once held family homes.
"Third, we’ve identified a brisk trade in vacant lots being sold for cash, a trend we’re assuming is more speculation among developers waiting for the market to pick up. Some of this might make sense economically, but all of it harms the community.”
Graduate student Erin McConnaughhay (MA ’15) says her undergraduate experience in Geography 133 combined her two interests, real estate and GIS mapping, and ultimately led to her enrollment in DePaul’s MA program in sustainable urban development. “The research being done by students in Pilsen is part of a bigger idea that’s gaining momentum—the idea that urban environments need to be concerned about social sustainability and about risks to fundamental infrastructures," she says. "We’re helping identify trends and solve real problems.”
While Geography 133 is the lynchpin of DePaul’s relationship with the Pilsen Alliance, it’s not the only connection. In two classes—Geography 333 (Urban Planning and Problems) and Geography 205 (Justice, Inequity and the Urban Environment)—Curran leads students in identifying strategies to fight gentrification and to preserve Pilsen as a neighborhood where the immigrant working class can find affordable housing.
“The residents of Pilsen are fighting every day, for every lot and every building, and we’re helping to change what the fight looks like,” she says. ”For example, this year we’ve been exploring options for the redesign and reuse of a decommissioned power plant in the neighborhood.”
While DePaul students are contributing resources to the alliance, they’re also getting tangible, valuable skills doing on-the-ground research, skills that are important to them personally and professionally, Curran says. “Our work in Pilsen is a perfect example of an intentional connection among teaching, research and social activism—the kind of connection that happens rarely. It’s just so unusual to have institutional support for this kind of model.”
DePaul’s relationship with the Pilsen Alliance is supported by the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Learning and Community Service Studies. Not only do the students earn credit for service learning, but in 2013 Hague and Curran were named faculty fellows, an award that includes funding for their work and for a research assistant.
“Our role at DePaul is to connect faculty and students to community groups,” says Howard Rosing, the center’s executive director. “We want to make sure that the relationship between the geography department and the Pilsen Alliance is sustained because it’s so valuable to everyone—the students, the faculty and the neighborhood.”
In 2008, in collaboration with the Pilsen Alliance, Hague and Curran published “Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification,” a bilingual illustration of the ways citizens can shape what their cities look like. For a free download, go to lulu.com.
Learn more about Professor Euan Hague