PILSEN: MEXICAN-AMERICAN STYLE
Luxury townhomes and condos are being built around the perimeter of Pilsen, the center of the Windy City's Mexican-American community. But Pilsen still has plenty of taquerias, retail shops, bogedas, and colorful murals reflecting the Mexican-American style. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM) serves as the anchor to the community.
Juana Guzman, associate executive director of MFACM, sums up the balance required to turn culture into a profit stream. "You can't go into Pilsen without talking about the neighborhood, talking about the people, how they live," notes Ms. Guzman. "You have to do it in a respectful manner. You can't do it like 'these poor people,' and you can't treat them like exotica. And that's the danger of cultural tourism, or tourism in general – that it's going to stereotype a cultural group."
The solution, according to Ms. Guzman, is to make sure cultural tourism is controlled by people from the neighborhood. "The best way to ensure that it's going to be done in a sensitive manner is when you hire people who live and work here," she says. "Mexican Americans are hard-working people. …They have lost their lives in U.S. wars. They pick the grapes and the food that you put on your table. They have a culturally rich history. That's the story that I want to present."
Recently the MFACM held a large exhibit featuring works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other Mexican artists. The MFACM, which normally attracts 200,000 visitors a year, will get more than $100,000 in additional admissions from that exhibit alone. Ms. Guzman estimates the gift shop will bring in around $600,000, doubling its regular take. The museum has launched a marketing blitz with fliers to guide tourists to area restaurants and murals peppered throughout the neighborhood. "In this economy, our neighborhoods are struggling just to make ends meet," says Ms. Guzman. "And if cultural institutions like the museum can generate the kind of business that we're talking about, that means jobs. That means money for our neighborhood."
The establishment of bus routes is one means of driving foot traffic to ethnic neighborhoods. Last year, more than 300 people paid $30 to $50 each for a bus tour of Pilsen. Ms. Guzman also helped develop a trolley system running between Pilsen and Chicago's Chinatown as a way of giving people from both neighborhoods, and tourists from around the city, a chance to sample two different ethnic communities on one ride. Between May and September, more than 24,000 people rode the free trolley, and the success of the system encouraged a continuation of funding for this year. The $150,000 tab to run the trolley will be picked up by local merchants and national sponsors.
The success of that project gives those on Paseo Boricua hope they can duplicate it. Beautification projects include a special street-cleaning crew and sidewalk planters painted with flags from throughout Puerto Rico. The redevelopment plans call for a Paseo Boricua facelift with a rebate program for business owners who incorporate architectural elements resembling Old San Juan into their building façades. Companies undertaking the construction projects, which run from $15,000 to $30,000, are eligible for a rebate of up to 50 percent.
Alberto Vazquez personifies the optimistic vision found among the shops of Paseo Boricua. He relocated his YGO Salon to the neighborhood two years ago. "I wanted to be part of what was happening. We Puerto Ricans need to unite, and we need to have a community, a space that we can call our own. Little Italy, the Mexicans – all cultures had one except for us," says Mr. Vazquez. "What we're trying to attract is business – new business in the community, so we can stay here permanently."
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