Gentrification in Little Village: Redevelopment and Displacement

Vladimir Guzman, Thomas Peters, and Jaylene Rodriguez

Photo/Jaylene Rodriguez

Little Village in the South Lawndale neighborhood is a dense community with over 70,000 residents. Over 80% of these residents are of Mexican descent, the neighborhood has long served as a port of entry for immigrants.

The neighborhood is culturally significant to the Mexican population that resides, authentic Mexican restaurants, clothing stores, and bodegas line Chicago’s historic 26th Street. Brightly colored murals bring life to the buildings, and Mexican independence flags strung across storefronts vocalize their pride for their culture and help enhance the sense of community.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are responsible for helping keep Little Village’s economy afloat, however, the neighborhood has recently been struggling with rising storefront vacancies. The biggest threat to the community is concerns of gentrification and displacement.

Many Chicago neighborhoods have experienced the struggles that accompany gentrification, including Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and now Portage Park and Little Village. Below is an interactive map of urban development projects in neighborhoods that have helped, or are currently helping to encourage gentrification.

Map/Vladimir Guzman, Thomas Peters, and Jaylene Rodriguez

Gentrification has been an issue in Little Village since 2016, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the plan to transform the abandoned BNSF railroad into a trail called El Paseo, stretching from the east side of Pilsen to South Lawndale.

Pilsen’s community has been widely affected by gentrification, many claiming they were forced to move out because they couldn’t afford the property taxes. Additionally, much of the neighborhood’s Latino youth have left the neighborhood to pursue education or a job elsewhere.

This year, Novak Construction, a developer widely known for converting properties into big-box stores like Costco, Target, and Aldi, purchased an expansive plaza for $17.5 million W 26th St, in Little Village. The sale of the property included the Discount Mall, a Walgreens, a storefront health clinic, a taqueria, a Mexican bakery, and a laundromat.

The Discount Mall is home to over 120 vendors and has been open for nearly three decades. Quinceanera dresses, religious artifacts, and traditional Mexican crafts are among the many culturally significant items for sale.

The location of the mall holds symbolic importance, it has a Mercado feel to it, similar to ones in Mexico. It has been dubbed Chicago’s “second Magnificent Mile” as it’s a two-mile strip along 26th Street with hundreds of vendors catering to Chicago’s Mexican community.

Photo/Jaylene Rodriguez

John Novak, president and founder of Novak Construction in a released statement recently commented about the plaza, stating that, “It might not be the best use of property”.

Julian Cortez, a 30-year-old native of Little Village who now works in the education system with youth outreach through New Life services, speaks up about strengthening community and gentrification.

As a youth leader, he feels a responsibility to his kids to teach them about the harsh realities minorities face, in a way that helps them realize what positive change they can bring instead of playing along with the negative narratives.

“There’s a really good community and we have a great street outreach program. People there work, trying to make sure that a lot of the kids get food every week, making sure families are not going hungry. There’s a lot of good stuff happening over here that a lot of people don’t really get to see, they just hear about the violence because that’s what the media puts out.”

Cortez goes on to argue that Little Village makes just as much money as The Magnificent Mile does and it’s mostly minority-owned small businesses on 26th Street. He understands why gentrification could seem like a positive thing from an outside perspective, however, he says it’s doing more harm than good.

He comments on the recent sale of the plaza, “it’s just sad, what people don’t get is that the money from the redevelopment is going to a huge corporate entity that’s taking away and kind of like pushing the small minority-owned businesses out of their own area. It bugs me, it’s upsetting to see hard-working people kind of get pushed out of the area.”

Photo/Creative Commons

Julio Anaya, an active worker for Little Village Local, migrated from Mexico with his family at the age of 10 to Little Village, his family felt comfortable moving to a neighborhood with family ties. Little Village Local, as Anaya describes, is an organization where kids in the neighborhood could come together and feel safe from any violence.

He said Novak Construction’s recent purchase “started as a rumor 4–5 years ago: and he thinks the alderman essentially blindsided the community.”

“Anaya detailed how vendors of the District Mall are being uprooted from the workplaces and livelihoods in favor of a more capitalistic environment. Anaya said he and his co-workers feel defeated to a certain extent, and how we see several cases across the city of Chicago of gentrification, from Pilsen to Logan Square.

Edith Tovar, a community organizer at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, is a life-long resident of Little Village, and she was apart of the first group of community residents who were concerned about the sale of the Discount Mall.

Tovar states how none of the vendors were made aware of the sale of the discount mall, and she then detailed how an aspect of her organization’s efforts involves spreading awareness to Little Village residents.

“People all over the country come to the discount mall due to its history and appeal, unfortunately, the management wasn’t able to afford the upkeep of the Discount Mall and they sold to a new developer,” she said.

The upsetting aspect is the vendors and how they will not be provided relief. Tovar says, “We are seeing the development without resident input, and the development causing fear of displacing 120 vendors from the mall and taking 400 people’s jobs away.”

The alderman’s approval of the sale has been alarming to community members due to the lack of empathy displayed in the process.
Below is the full interview with community organizer, Edith Tovar:

A common theme amongst most Little Village residents, community leaders, and activists is gentrification and capitalistic structures undervaluing the importance of small businesses and cultural importance in the neighborhood.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the fears of community displacement because of the lack of resources, including economic relief. Many of Little Village’s youth have protested the sale of the mall and other acts of gentrification. The community has riled together to stop the continuous process of displacing families and help the community heal from such processes.