"Plzeň Is Not for Sale": Reflections on Gentrification, Life, & Education
My brother recently called me the best story-teller in the family. By that I think he means he's never quite sure where the story will end. I'm ok with that. I like to think I'm trying to find connections that help me better understand who I am and what I value.
I had planned to tell some story about my summer study abroad experience in Rome. Having taken a class called Cross-Cultural Leadership, there was plenty to choose from. But I quickly got side-tracked by, of all things, by my childhood. I had known very little about Rome before going there, other than what a devoted Mexican catholic might know (this is a reference to my mother, not me), that the Pope lives there. But who wouldn’t be excited to study here?
However, it turned out to be an instructive experience in ways that went beyond the academic. Yes, there were reading and work assignments involved in this class; a large amount to be done before we even stepped foot on Italian soil. So I dutifully read and reflected on the themes of the course: leadership, power, and social justice.
I spend a lot of time in my old Chicago neighborhood, Pilsen, so I thought focusing the photo elicitation project on this area would be different and interesting. More specifically I focused on the activism of my childhood community and what that activism looks like today, in a gentrifying city. I started with pictures of my old middle school. This is just a small example of the many murals that cover Pilsen.
They are literally everywhere. I appreciate this deep and rich history and am grateful for the opportunity to have my own kids experience this community. Though initially, I think my children loved the food most. As they get older they are beginning to enjoy the museum and art scattered over the streets as much as I do, maybe even more. They are a bit in awe of the rebellious nature of painting on buildings. I think I had started to take that for granted. Seeing it through their eyes gives me a new perspective and appreciation for this activist art.
But here’s what is happening to these beautiful murals.
And here is how Pilsen is responding:
In case you missed it, written on the the face are the words: me cago en tu dinero (I shit on your money) and on the tongue it says: clandestino (clandestine). The other picture is quite common in Pilsen and the message is clear.
For a number of reasons my trip to Rome became a reflection on how gentrification in Pilsen might be a cross-cultural leadership opportunity for me. How could I become involved, potentially as a translator, a job I’ve had my whole life, in slowing or changing this process. How might I participate both as an insider and (now) as an outsider in this conversation. You see my dad, his brothers and sisters, and my mother’s siblings all still own apartment buildings there - on the same streets I grew up on but no longer call home.
So what could they, as property owners, do and what might my role be in supporting them? For my dad and many other relatives this property represents their life-savings, meaning that one day they will have to sell these buildings in order to cash in their retirement. They will have no other source for funds at that point in their life. Who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to tell him who he can or should not sell to? I can’t pay for this building or fund his retirement, which right now is one in the same. I see what is happening to my neighborhood and it makes me sad but it makes me sadder to think about how hard my parents struggled to build their home and raise their kids only to find themselves at the age of 65 without a pension or a 401K.
Rome was significant for me when considering Pilsen. In Rome I lived in a brick and mortar place that had seen multiple gentrifications. In so many places there were remnants of the old, the older, and the ancient. Below is a great example. Every time I saw this I was reminded of the focus of my photo elicitation project: my gentrifying neighborhood. Could the old and new peacefully and respectfully coexist in other contexts?
I saw first hand the ways in which Romans live within these changes and make meaning of their history. One of my favorite was the Basilica di San Clemente, where a 12th century church had been built atop a 4th century church, which in turn had been built over a 1st century pagan temple. It’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, but I was more impressed with acceptance and recognition of the oppressive quality of this history. Let me also acknowledge that I can accept that not all of Italy or Italians might consistently reflect these observations, but these were celebrated and honored in their permanent structures. This is probably developmental. The US by comparison is much less experienced in this regard. Hopefully, we don’t need to wait as long.
Sitting in this basilica was especially impactful for me. I thought about a history of my home that I had learned long ago but was often hesitant to bring up. When there is a conversation about the destructive and hateful nature of gentrification it’s hard to be the person that points out (not that I’ve been the first, but I mean in a general conversation) that Pilsen is named for Plzen, the fourth largest Czech city. And that it was once a Czech neighborhood, with Czech stores and Czech catholic mass and Czech people living in it. Communities change. I’d had always known that but Rome really drove that home for me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Rome also taught me that Italians have come to understand how to remember and memorialize their history, the good and the bad. Below is a picture of stumbling stones taken outside what was once the home of these Roman Jews.
Maybe this is confirmation bias? Maybe I am looking for a way to feel less guilty about the way my dad will earn his retirement. Maybe. But I do think we have a lot to learn from those who have been around longer. As my mother used to say: mas sabe el diablo por viejo, que por diablo (the devil knows more because he is old, not because he is the devil). If buildings have to be sold and new people move in, how do we do it in a way that honors those who lived and struggled there before them? That’s the new conversation I want to have. And all I see is the complexity of this idea and these exchanges. How difficult will these ideas be to express and to be heard? How will they be heard? How will I be perceived by people, who like me, simply want our history preserved?
I chose this story because it’s new and still working itself out in my mind, but also because, here’s another mom saying, all interactions are diverse. None of us are the same, even if we look the same. I believe these conversations have become harder because people feel more threatened these days. So when I think about how to discuss what I consider more “loaded” issues with someone who is more different than similar, it’s hard to fathom. It’s hard to know what that looks like these days. For so many the answer is avoidance right now, but I hope that this blog and research teaches us something about engaging across all differences. It may sound naively optimistic but today I need to feel hopeful.