Residents Want to Ensure the Paseo Trail Won’t Be a Route to Gentrification

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe right-of-way near 30th and Kedzie. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Last Wednesday, as I Divvied southwest along a disused Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor in Little Village, I caught the delicious aroma of fresh corn tortillas from the nearby El Milagro plant. I rolled past the razor wire-topped walls of the Cook County jail, then stopped to check out La Villita Park, a green space on a former brownfield site. The corridor continued southwest past the Semillas de Justicia (“Seeds of Justice”) Community Garden, various industrial businesses, and a few colorful murals, ending near the Paul Simon Job Corps Center.

This street-level right-of-way, a mix of asphalt, rutted gravel roads and weed-strewn lots, winds from 26th and Rockwell to 32nd and Central Park. Since early 2015, the city has been doing community outreach for its plan to turn the stretch of land into a paved 1.3-mile multi-use trail called the Little Village Paseo (“Promenade”), with attractive landscaping, gathering places, and public art.

On Sunday, Mayor Emanuel upped the ante with a surprise announcement that the plan has been expanded to include another 2.7 miles of largely abandoned BNSF right-of-way. The resulting four-mile trail, now simply called the Paseo, will go all the way northeast to 16th and Sangamon in Pilsen, and feature artwork that celebrates Latino culture.

The first trail section, along Sangamon between 21st and 16th, will start out as a simple paved path that will be built this summer [as part of a BNSF and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead abatement project]. There’s no timeframe or cost estimate yet for the rest of the trail.

While the 606—the 2.7-mile, $95 million trail that debuted on the northwest side last June—is an elevated, car-free greenway, the south-side facility will be a cheaper, simpler, at-grade trail with street crossings. But renderings suggest its aesthetics and amenities will be several notches above a garden-variety bike path.

The four-mile Paseo route will use mostly abandoned BNSF right-of-way. Image: Steven Vance

Neighbors previously voiced apprehension that, like the 606, the Little Village Paseo would lead to higher property values, property taxes, and rents, eventually pricing out longtime locals. The mayor’s announcement that the trail will now reach Pilsen brings that concern to the forefront.

Unlike Little Village, Pilsen has seen rapid gentrification in recent years, including a wave of upscale retail and housing, so the Paseo’s potential to fuel displacement will be an especially pressing issue there. (The median home sale price in Pilsen is $241,000, according to Zillow. Little Village is cheap by comparison, with a median home sale price of just $129,000.)

I heard concerns over displacement last Wednesday, when the Chicago Department of Transportation unveiled the results of a feasibility study for the Little Village portion of the Paseo during a community meeting at Kanoon elementary.

Elva Rodriguez Ochoa, a local who works at the nonprofit Openlands, said she’s excited to have a place to run nearby instead of having to schlep to the lakefront. “But it’s important for our community to be proactive and work with the city to find ways to keep the areas near the trail affordable,” she said.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization has also been involved with discussions about the trail. They spearheaded successful campaigns to shut down the nearby Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants and transform a pair of brownfields into the park and community garden.

“Folks who fought for these things should be able to stay in the neighborhood and enjoy them,” said organizing and strategy director Kim Wasserman-Nieto, a lifelong Little Village resident. “[LVEJO has] made it clear to the city that, unless they do this project in a holistic manner, we may find ourselves on opposite sides of the issue.”

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.


  • Chicagoan

    Pilsen is gentrifying right now, even as Alderman Solis tries to place a stranglehold on development in the neighborhood, it’s but a matter of time until Little Village/South Lawndale starts to see it as well.

  • Don’t make public infrastructure improvements because surrounding property values might increase…?

  • There’s a difference between “property values increase some” and “predatory developers swoop in, yank properties out from under people at a fraction of what they could get, and put up luxury townhomes.”

    I know because I grew up at North and Clybourn in the 80s, and holy hell did we get the second one. My mom was literally the last old-time resident to finally sell and move away, we saw the entire neighborhood’s community and spirit murdered for profit.

    When a neighborhood’s existing residents can reap some of the benefit of the raise in prices/value, that’s different than the predatory end of gentrification that views the existing residents as vermin to be removed from the path of profit.

  • Property value increases trigger property tax increases, which sooner or later usually then trigger rent increases.

    It’s a bit of catch-22 for the City, to be sure. The fundamental problem here IMO is Chicago relies on property taxes too heavily. A better model would be a municipal income tax, which instead of taxing unrealized gains would tax actual wealth. A home is fundamentally shelter, not just an investment.

  • BlueFairlane

    People have been saying “Pilsen is gentrifying” for at least 15 years. At some point, you’d expect that to shift to “Pilsen has gentrified.”

  • Chicagoan

    Just b/c some people are saying that doesn’t mean it’s true. I know some young urban professionals that moved into East Garfield Park. Nice access to the Green Line, close to the West Loop and the Loop, so they’re saying it’s gentrifying.

    Would you consider East Garfield Park a gentrifying neighborhood?

    I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

  • BlueFairlane

    Just b/c some people are saying that doesn’t mean it’s true

    Which makes saying “Neighborhood X is gentrifying” kind of a pointless statement.

  • Roland Solinski

    Pilsen is a cohesive neighborhood. It doesn’t have acres of vacant lots or auto-oriented development like EGP or Bronzeville. It’s also very close to downtown, comparable to Wicker Park or Lincoln Park, with good rail and bus access and a thriving local-business scene.

    Anecdotes about Pilsen gentrifying are worthless. Real estate prices are what tell the tale, and those are rising quickly.

  • Chicagoan

    I figured the comment section was where people could state their opinion.

    Here, I’ll try and be more specific:

    Pilsen is gentrifying b/c CEDARst Companies just invested in the neighborhood, Furious Spoon is opening a restaurant there, and I know of over 25 people who’ve moved there from places like Edgewater, Hyde Park, and Lakeview. My post was but an observation of mine.

    I also grew up in South Lawndale and worked around 18th & Racine for a bunch of years.

    Most gentrification has happened in the last five years I think.

  • Chicagoan

    If prices are rising (I haven’t looked), Alderman Solis is somewhat to blame, he’s been one of the more anti-development alderman in the City Council.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s more like, plan public infrastructure improvements in a holistic way that considers the effect on housing affordability and other issues. If possible, take proactive steps to mitigate any potential negative impacts, such as displacement of longtime residents.

  • Well, now you are all talking about developing a comprehensive plan for the City. Which is a great thing that a major City should do. I’m all for that!

  • Chicagoan

    How might planners do this is a more holistic manner?

    Appealing infrastructure projects make a neighborhood more appealing.

    I think the area just north of Humboldt Park is a great example. Say, Armitage & North to the N/S, California and Kedzie to the E/W. Before, the appeal was that you were kind of/sort of/not really close to the Logan Square scene, and you had Humboldt Park itself to the south. Even though a bunch of people are still scared to go for a run in Humboldt Park, so it wasn’t too large of an amenity.

    Now, The 606 slices right through the middle of this area. Suddenly, every apartment is marketed as being “___ blocks from The 606!” and rents are going up.

    Not questioning your points, I just can’t think of a great way to plan one of these projects in a holistic manner.

  • Roland Solinski

    Nobody’s to blame. It’s a free country. Willing buyers are selling real estate to willing purchasers. The increasing prices reflect the increasing demand to live in Pilsen, based on the neighborhood’s strong fundamentals.

    Could the Alderman ease the rise of property values by enabling more new construction? Certainly he could do more to enable development, but I doubt it would stop the rise of property values.

  • Chicagoan

    The alderman does have the tools to help, he is able to support development, which helps to stem the tide of rent increase.

    Alderman Solis doesn’t do this.

  • tooch

    Is there anyway to know how many miles of abandoned rail exists in Chicago? Would be great to see more converted into usable space.

  • We always hear complaints about how much money is spent downtown but when it’s finally spent on neighborhood improvements, everyone cries “gentrification.”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    An African-American bike advocate from South Shore posted an interesting comment on an article I wrote about local opposition to installing protected bike lanes on Stony Island Avenue: “Do we have to wait until the neighborhood gentrifies before we can get bike lanes?”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I think the turning point for Pilsen gentrification was when they opened up a hipster barbecue joint on 18th Street called Honky Tonk BBQ. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place with good food and live music, but the name is pretty ironic.

  • Or alternatively, make a lot of these improvements over a large area as quickly as possible. The laws of economics dictate that as long as these improvements remain few and far-between, they will attract a higher premium than if they are commonplace and fighting them only perpetuates the problem.

  • Not all improvements are as likely to lead to sudden predatory developer behavior. There are a lot of improvements residents want that the city doesn’t see the point of installing, because they don’t lead to skyrocketing property taxes.

  • dr

    Rising property values are not some universal negative. It’s almost always a negative for renters, but advocating against quality of life improvements is not only prima facie wrong, it’s doubly-damaging to minority property owners – gentrification has many negatives, but it does positively effect wealth inequality for a large subset of minority communities undergoing gentrification. It’s pretty unconscionable for activists to turn a blind eye to these effects, and the short term positives of mixed income communities. I realize the position being taken here is more nuanced then that, but is the outcome more nuanced? It’s hard not to see this as counter-productive advocacy.

    I have to imagine there are ways to discourage renter displacement and mitigate negative effects of gentrification that don’t involve lowering quality of live to depress demand. This self-destructive lack of imagination is disheartening and can’t help but leave me the impression that the unacknowledged underlying motivation is the decreased political power that comes from community fragmentation.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I don’t think anyone is arguing against building the Paseo. Rather, they’re asking for some safeguard to help ensure the trail’s construction creates the most positive outcomes possible for longtime residents.

  • People interested in Pilsen and gentrification would love the book Street Signs Chicago, by Charles Bowden and Lew Kreinberg. Copyright 1981, it includes Pilsen as a neighborhood struggling with gentrification pressures.

    Studs Terkel’s quote on the cover is says it all:

    “This book has the eloquence of a fine hot-to-the-touch novel. It has the power of a good heavyweight’s wallop. It knocked me out.”

  • rohmen

    If you had asked me in 2001 up to about 2007 or so, I would have said the same about Logan Square. The reason I think Logan finally did explode, and Pilsen hasn’t, is home ownership and the quality of the housing stock to begin with. Pilsen has a lot more SFH with people that actually own, and a lot less dense apartment developments that can be quickly flipped into condos.

    And not to offend anyone who lives in Pilsen, but many of the SFH and three flats in the area seem nowhere near as well constructed as what you see in Logan (or even Humboldt). We looked at places in Pilsen a few years ago, and most were in pretty rough shape. That can be true in Logan, though they’ll try to market that the “bones” of the house are solid. Pilsen has seemingly a lot more stock that’s going to have to be straight out leveled.

  • The Assessor’s office also proactively chooses REALLY EXPENSIVE “comparables” in mixed neighborhoods. My mother had to spend several hours every two years showing a huge stack of paperwork to the office to ‘appeal’ her comparable OUT of being a newly-remodeled luxury-fittings yuppie thing into being good basic housing with some work done on it but no luxuries (which was what our house actually was).

    Many of our neighbors couldn’t afford the time and bureaucratic wrangling to actually get their assessment back to normal EVERY TWO YEARS and then had to sell their owned-outright houses due to being unable to afford the property tax.

  • BlueFairlane

    I feel like Logan Square is hit and miss with this sort of thing, though, and a lot of what I see happening now around me is the same kind of straight-out leveling you say (likely accurately) will have to happen in Pilsen. If you take my two-block stretch between Fullerton and the Boulevard, for instance, you see that eight properties have been demolished and replaced in the last two years. I’ve got two going in beside me, and another behind me. This far exceeds the number of rehabs I’ve seen. (I can only actually think of one on my street. Took’em forever.)

    I think the real difference in Logan Square was that it was just the next stop up from Wicker Park/Buctown along Milwaukee and the Blue Line. You could almost watch the wave moving up Milwaukee in the first half of the 2000s, and it was primed to wash over the neighborhood’s east side when the 2008 bubble burst. As soon as the market recovered, it picked up where it left off and exploded. So I see what’s happened in Logan Square really as an extension of what started 20 years ago in Wicker Park. Pilsen’s problem is that there’s no place for a similar wave to spill over (I feel like the physical gap between Pilsen and South Loop is too significant, and there a university in the way), and there’s no logical path (like the Blue Line) for any such wave to follow.

    I think in ten years, we’ll be talking about the threat of gentrification to Avondale and Irving Park while Jefferson Park gets nervous, and Pilsen will be about to take off. For real. We’ll mean it this time.

  • BlueFairlane

    That 1981 copyright kind of illustrates the point about Pilsen I made above. This is an extremely slow-motion gentrification.

  • Roland Solinski

    It’s true that the Medical District/IMD/Canal St corridor create a perimeter between downtown and Pilsen… but it’s no different than the barrier that Cabrini posed. That didn’t stop Lincoln Park from gentrifying.

    The employment growth in West Loop (Google!) is a huge thing for gentrification in Pilsen. If you work at Google and don’t want to change trains, you can’t live on the North Side. Pilsen’s just a 5-minute ride away on the Pink Line.

  • Roland Solinski

    Depends on whether you’re talking about brick or frame structures. Many brick buildings are in great shape, and Pilsen has a ton of brick buildings unlike, say, Lakeview where German communities got exempted from the new building codes after the Great Fire. Sure, you’ll see sagging joists but that’s just a limitation of the materials available 100 years ago…

  • BlueFairlane

    I feel like Cabrini was less a full barrier than an offset peninsula, and that Lincoln Park gentrification worked its way around Cabrini to the east.

    West Loop employment growth has been going strong for a while now (thanks, Oprah), and the Pink Line’s been running for almost a decade, but the shift across the Eisenhower and the array of colleges/hospitals a lot of people have been looking for has yet to materialize. It might happen, but I just don’t see it.

  • rohmen

    I’m not a Pilsen expert, and my experience is all east of Ashland (and closer to Halsted), but it always seemed the problem was a lack of brick structures in that area at least. Everything seemed to be wood framed, and the SFH were mostly old worker cottages. West of Ashland, though, I’m sure that changes.

  • dr

    I’m not sure. “[LVEJO has] made it clear to the city that, unless they do this project in a holistic manner, we may find ourselves on opposite sides of the issue.” Hard to take that as anything other than a suggestion that LVEJO is going to withhold support for the paseo if it doesn’t come with affordable housing cash. That might be a productive strategy, but it’s pretty wacky right? This is hardly Pilsen specific either. The rejection of good transit policy appears to be an increasingly common strategy for activists (obviously it’s not new, you can look back to the opposition to bike lanes in Humboldt Park as a perfect example). See today’s NYTimes article on the red hook streetcar.

    It strikes me as doubly problematic when the opposition is newer transplants as many in the red hook article seem to be?

    That said, I don’t have a good alternate suggestion – what is the road forward for those of us who believe in breaking up concentrated poverty, maintaining affordable housing, and extending the active transport network? What is the coalition position?

  • Why do you leap from “must be holistic” to “requires affordable housing funding”? Those are not in any way identical.

  • dr

    “must be holistic” is euphemistic, but your correct I’m only guessing at the underlying goals in the statement.

    Later in the article:
    “But there needs to be a component to the Paseo plan to make sure people who live here are able to stay.” Gutierrez added. He recommended implementing a property tax freeze for homeowners near the future trail, and creating a program to offer assistance to long-time renters who want to buy a home.”

    That’s not the same speaker, but that’s a pretty direct ask for affordable housing funding – I don’t think it’s outlandish to assume Wasserman-Nieto would advocate for similar.