Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pilsen, Chicago

Neighborhoods of Chicago: Pilsen

One day, I came to the realization that the only part of Chicago I was really familiar with was the Gold Coast area and its Magnificent Mile of shopping.  Since I now live in Chicago (because I attend The University of Chicago), I decided it would be enriching to explore more of the city and get a better feel for the other neighborhoods.  Thus begins the Neighborhoods of Chicago series in my travel blog!

One interesting thing to note about Chicago is that it is segregated into communities of different groups of people.  For example, you have Pilsen, which is known as the Hispanic neighborhood, Greek Town, where you can sample lots of different Greek cuisines, Little Italy, which probably doesn't compare to the mouth-watering pizza in Rome, and many others.  Some neighborhoods are inhabited predominantly by young professionals, others are known as artist corners, and still others are for well-established people who are doing/have done quite well in their careers.  Right next door to these gorgeous condos, you sometimes see, well, let's call them "less than lovely" neighborhoods.  As much as I would like to explore every neighborhood of Chicago, it's important to remember that quite a few of these areas are ranked as some of the deadliest places in the USA.  Understandably, I will be skipping those.  If they change a lot, then someday I might give them a chance.  The point is that there is a huge variety in neighborhoods throughout Chicago.  

To begin my exploration of neighborhoods outside the Gold Coast, I chose a place with all the elements a suitable day trip should contain: Art tied to the culture, comida típica, another language, a religious structure, and some shopping. Welcome to Pilsen!

Pilsen is a predominantly and historically Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago since the 1960s.  According to Wikipedia, Pilsen was originally settled by Czech immigrants in the late 1800s, and it was not until the 1960s that the Hispanic proportion of the population became the majority.  Pilsen is next to Chinatown, southwest from the Loop, and northwest from Hyde Park.  You could take the L to get there, but that could be very inefficient depending where you're coming from.  We chose to drive.  Pilsen isn't that big, so you can walk between most of the major attractions if it's daytime and warm enough outside.  

When Marissa, Ben, and I arrived in Pilsen one evening, our first order of business was dinner.  We selected a popular Pilsen restaurant called Nuevo León, which is frequented by both local residents and Pilsen tourists.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant also serves you lots of free appetizers when you sit down.  Pilsen is famous for Mexican food, so I thought this would be a good time to try mole sauce.  For years in my Spanish classes, I have been learning about the chocolatey sauce with extra spices and secret ingredients, but I've never actually had the opportunity to taste it.  I ordered enchiladas with mole sauce and a side of rice and beans (right), and it was all delicious.  I would definitely eat here again, and you should too.

After dinner, the three of us ventured out into the streets of Pilsen, and headed toward the St. Adalbert Church on 17th street.  Along the way, we passed murals on nearly every wall and door.  These murals mainly contained figures in cultural attire and messages about community building and peace.  Some of the murals are memorials for victims of gun violence, and others make proclamations about immigration.   
Soon, we arrived at the St. Adalbert Church.  It's rather easy to find since it is much taller than everything around it.  Quietly walking in, I noticed that we were crashing a mass that was being presented in Spanish and Latin.  I was reminded of the time I crashed a mass in French and Latin at Notre Dame in Paris back in 2009.  A sign on the wall explained that services at this church were held in five different languages at different times of the day.  The decorations inside the building were typical of a church - artistic and luxurious.  What set this church apart was that it was less luxurious than many in Europe, brightly colored, and in Spanish.  The colorful decorating style actually reminded me of a church I toured that was built by a group of evangelists in Cai Be, Vietnam.  As people arrived fashionably late for their mass, some of them smiled and invited us to join them.  We thanked them and politely declined their offer since we had more sights on our list to see before while there was still a bit of daylight remaining.  Like most of the churches I've toured, this one had a gift shop.  In it, I was surprised to learn that you can buy holy water, and it only costs $2.  Who knew?  

Noticing that it was getting much darker than we anticipated, we decided to go back to the car.  On the way there, we passed what I'm pretty sure is a Mayan calendar inlaid into the sidewalk (left).  Actually these designs are all over Pilsen.  We found this calendar particularly amusing since our visit was just a couple days before what some people thought was supposed to be the end of the world, aka Mayan Apocalypse.  As expected, they were wrong, and we're all still here.  But the sidewalk decorations are nice.
About few days later, I returned to Pilsen with Mom, Dad, and Marissa to see more of the neighborhood.  We checked out a few thrift stores in the area before going to the National Museum of Mexican Art, our last stop of the day (right).  In the permanent collection, you can learn about Mexicanidad and the history of Mexican people living and creating art in Chicago (below).  The exhibit also emphasizes el Día de los Muertos and la Virgen de Guadalupe, which I'm pretty sure is a celebrated icon in Mexico and represents Mary. Many of the works feature women wearing traditional dresses and hats.  I enjoyed this museum very much because it was different from others that I have seen.  

I have yet to travel to Mexico, so this presented a nice opportunity for me to learn more about Mexican culture and art.  To be honest though, I had hoped to see some of Frida Kahlo's work there, but did not find any.  She is a huge part of Mexican Art, and I was looking forward to seeing some imaginatively odd paintings with veins and arteries being shared by multiple people, as is characteristic of some of her work.

You can see more art in East Pilsen during the Second Fridays Art Walk on the second Friday night of each month when galleries in the area stay open late.  While I would like to participate in this, I don't think Pilsen is very safe at night.  After we left the National Museum of Mexican Art and arrived back home, we turned on the news after dinner and were saddened to learn that someone had been shot about a block from the museum, just two short hours after we had left.  Do I recommend visiting Pilsen?  Sure, but only during the daytime or very early evening.  There's plenty there to be seen, and I think tourism would really pick up if the neighborhood were safer.   

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