Steans Center > About > News > Pilsen and Gentrification Service Learning Project Targets Neighborhood Change

Pilsen and Gentrification: Service Learning Project Targets Neighborhood Change


Victoria Romero stands in front of her house on South Bishop Street in Chicago’s Pilsen community, a largely Mexican-American, working class community that is located just a few miles from downtown. ​

A few doors south of her house stands a building that houses a fitness center and new condominiums —- homes that are almost certainly too expensive for the vast majority of longtime residents of Pilsen. Across the street is a mural that proudly celebrates the Mexican and Mexican- American heritage of Romero and other longtime residents of Pilsen. What is happening on this street in Pilsen – and many other communities in Chicago and around the country – is the process of gentrification. For DePaul urban geography professors Euan Hague and Winifred Curran and a growing number of DePaul students, Pilsen has become the subject of continuing study and a service learning project for which students have studied firsthand the impact of gentrification on this neighborhood. ​


Last June, Hague, Curran and students showcased their work at “Contested Chicago: Pilsen and Gentrification,” an exhibition held by DePaul University and the neighborhood organization Pilsen Alliance at “Mess Hall,” an experimental cultural center in the Rogers Park community on Chicago’s north side. In September, “Contested Chicago” traveled to Toronto and was featured as part of the “CondoBoom!” exhibit. By November, Café Mestizo, in Pilsen, hosted the exhibit. Most recently, the Building Inventory Project and ”Contested Chicago” won the Pilsen Alliance’s Community Collaborators of the Year Award.​

“This project is not about accepting how things are in a community – it is about understanding how development is impacting people who live there.”​

The idea behind the exhibition is to show how neighborhoods develop and how gentrification works – not only in a neighborhood or block, but from one building to the next. Walking through the exhibition, one could learn about the story of neighborhood development in a way that is unlikely to be told in textbooks alone. Maps of the Pilsen community, photos of buildings, posters from community meetings and a range of other key documents filled the exhibition, sharing a story of neighborhood change and preservation in Pilsen. What the project does – for students and community members – is capture specific changes in a neighborhood – and even a city block or property – in a way that enhances understanding and leads to discussion. Every student involved in the project, in fact, was assigned to a block in the community and studied the history of its properties, including when they were constructed, bought and sold. “Each student becomes an expert in one block,” says Hague, whose work has emphasized cultural, political and urban geography. “They learn about the community and key issues like zoning, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and property taxes and put what they learn in the context of the larger community.” Students, Curran adds, have an opportunity to learn about a community in ways they might not have thought about before. “Why is it,” she asks, “that one two-bedroom apartment costs $1200 a month, while another two bedroom apartment on the same block costs only $500? Studying the gentrification of this community has raised important questions for students about how neighborhood space, class and race are so inextricably bound in the American system.


“Most students who take this class have not been on the losing end of this process – and are surprised by what they see,” adds Curran, who studied the link between gentrification and industrial displacement in a Brooklyn neighborhood before coming to DePaul. “It’s a great opportunity for teaching – and learning.”

Thus far, more than 200 students have taken the service learning class on this subject and participated in this project, which has been taught a total of ten times by Hague and Curran. Through this effort, DePaul faculty and staff have also presented information on this subject at community meetings and workshops.


The partnership between the Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning and Pilsen Alliance has been key to the development of this service learning class and project. Steans has developed a strong relationship with Pilsen Alliance over the years, as it has with a wide range of community-based organizations in Chicago. Alejandra Ibanez, Executive Director of Pilsen Alliance says research conducted for this project has made a difference to the Alliance and community members it serves. “Before we established this partnership with Steans, residents were sharing anecdotes about how their rent or property taxes was going up,” Ibanez says.
“What these classes have done is provide us was actual factual data and research that backed up what we were seeing.” There were, of course, boundaries for students – and members of the community – to cross as they learned about each other. Ibanez says that at first, “a lot of Pilsen residents wondered who these students were. Are they speculators or city inspectors? Ultimately, it was great for people in our community to see college students out here helping the neighborhood and for the students to be engaged in community work. Students learned about the historical context and cultural history of this issue.” Not only that, Ibanez says, they also “learn to see the neighborhood through the eyes of residents.”

Students gain experience

DePaul students who have worked on the project say it has opened their eyes about this community – and the value of service learning. “I think the work we are doing is having an effect in the real world,” says Andrea Craft, a senior who is majoring in geography. Craft studied the Pilsen neighborhood through an urban geography class last spring and helped install the exhibition in Rogers Park in June. “This has been a great experience, because learning about the community in this way is an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have otherwise had.” Harpreet Gill, who graduated from DePaul last year with a degree in geography and also took the urban geography class, says the experience “taught me about the planning process for a community. I also learned that the more you get involved in a community, the better it will be. This project is not about accepting how things are in a community – it is about understanding how development is impacting people who live there.” Gill, who made all of the maps for the exhibition, worked as a student and research assistant on the project. Ibanez said she was “blown away by the quality and artistry” of the maps Gill helped create.

Meanwhile, Victoria Romero, who is a board member of Pilsen Alliance, says this service learning project is having specific benefits for the Pilsen community. As she walks down the street where she grew up and now owns a home, Romero points to the buildings Curran referred to. One of them is owned by a member of her family; another, by a developer. One difference, she says, is that the developer is charging twice as much for a two-bedroom apartment as her family member is. It is that kind of difference, Romero adds, that can help lead to rent increases and higher assessments. Romero says that the impact of gentrification on her community is profound. Pilsen Alliance, she said, is using data collected by students to inform residents about what this means — and the prospect of more development that could lead to further change in their community. “People who have lived in this neighborhood for years often don’t want to have to leave.” Romero says. “This project makes important information about our community user-friendly for people who live here.” ​​