Experience Pilsen, Chicago’s lively Latino neighborhood
The authentic Mexican cuisine, colorful outdoor murals, turn-of-the-century architecture and thriving art scene make Pilsen one of Chicago’s most festive neighborhoods. Although it can seem a world away, Pilsen is just three miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop.
Discover what many Chicago-area visitors already have enjoyed on your next getaway to the city by enjoying Pilsen’s art and sampling some great food. Along the way, you might run into crews filming episodes for TV shows such as “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.”
Before Pilsen grew into one of the city’s largest Mexican neighborhoods, it was home to German and Irish railroad workers who settled this part of Chicago in the mid-19th century. Later, it became the “port of entry” for Czech and Polish immigrants. The Czechs also named the neighborhood Plzen, after the fourth largest city in what is now the Czech Republic.
Since the 1960s, Pilsen’s population has become predominantly Mexican. Although it’s still a working-class area, the neighborhood is showing shows signs of diversity and gentrification. Artists and students have moved in, attracted by the cheap rents for the apartments in combination retail-residential buildings, cottages and three-flats. Artisan shops, trendy coffee shops and bakeries are now scattered along the main commercial street, 18th Street, tucked in among the traditional restaurants, taquerias and botanicas. Art lovers, hipsters and foodies from throughout the Chicago area have discovered it.
The heart of the art scene is the National Museum of Mexican Art, at 1852 W. 19th St., in Harrison Park. In 1982 it was founded by Carlos Tortolero and other Chicago Public School teachers as a free museum. “From our local Midwest talent, to present-day Mexican-American history, to international influences in Mexico’s past, these presentations captivate our visitors and offer an understanding of our culture, like no other museum on either side of the border,” said Tortolero, the museum’s president and CEO.
Current exhibitions include Galeria Sin Fronteras, through Aug. 7, featuring Chicano artwork; and As Cosmopolitans & Strangers, through Aug. 3, showcasing works by Mexican artists of Jewish heritage.
The museum’s most popular event is the annual Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead exhibition which begins Sept. 17 and runs into mid-December. The nation’s largest Day of the Dead exhibition features ofrendas, or altars, and other installations. It’s popular with children, because of the connection to Halloween and the chance to sample traditional Mexican treats such as sugar skulls.
Efrain Loza, the owner of Artisanias D’Mexico, a small shop on 18th Street that’s filled with handmade Mexican folk art and crafts, credits the museum for its positive influence on the neighborhood. “Here we have more culture,” he said, “with a long corridor of artists.”
At the other end of the corridor, at Halsted and 18th Street, the Chicago Arts District is home to more than 30 studios, lofts and galleries. The district’s 2nd Fridays Gallery Night features a free monthly reception that encourages visitors to stroll from one gallery to another from 6 to 10 p.m.
A walking tour is also the best way to enjoy the neighborhood’s outdoor art and architecture. Outdoor murals decorate much of the neighborhood, with some of the best along Wood Street on a two-block stretch between 18th Street and 19th Street, just west of Ashland Avenue. These include both graffiti-inspired murals and traditional murals of Mexican musicians and movie stars such as singer-songwriter Joan Sebastian and Dolores del Rio.
Also look for murals at the Cooper Dual Language Academy, at 1645 W. 18th Pl., where the facade has been transformed with mosaic mural panels depicting figures of Mexican art, music and literature.
Pilsen also has some architectural gems that should be part of your tour. Soaring over the neighborhood are the 185-foot towers of St. Adalbert Catholic Church, at 1650 W. 17th St., constructed in 1914 for its Polish congregation in an Italian Renaissance design. St. Pius V Catholic Church, at 1901 S. Ashland, was built in the Romanesque style between 1885 and 1892.
Coming later this year, the upstairs theater space at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St., will enjoy a second life as a music venue and theater for films and other performances. The downstairs already has a restaurant and a bar in this historic building that’s 120 years old.
The other main attractions in Pilsen are its restaurants. From small taquerias to neighborhood institutions, you have excellent choices. At Nuevo Leon at 1515 W. 18th St., you can savor homemade flour tortillas and enjoy specialties such as chicken enchiladas with mole sauce and menudo (tripe soup) that you can’t find on many menus.
Several coffee shops and bakeries in the neighborhood attract locals and foodies, among them Bombon and Café Jumping Bean, both on 18th Street, and Kristoffer’s Café & Bakery on Halsted. Tres leches cakes, flans and other pastries are some of the tempting treats. And, you might just need to pick one up to go as a souvenir.
Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and a former Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, Galligan also worked for Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers in Decatur as an editorial writer. Mary first visited Pilsen when she and her family discovered the Day of the Dead exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Since then they’ve been back for the art, the food and the chance for Mary to practice her Spanish skills.
How to get there
From downtown Chicago, take I-90/I-94-East south to 18th Street, then take the jog at Halsted and go west on 18th. It’s also an easy train ride from the Loop to the art museum or 18th Street, on the CTA’s Pink Line. Take the Pink Line to the 18th Street station, and it’s just a short walk to the museum.