How Latinx Chicagoans Remake Public Space

A bench  and flowers placed in front of a house in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez
A bench and flowers placed in front of a house in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of “Latino Urbanism,” a term coined by planner James Rojas that is supposed to describe the many ways that immigrants from Latin America are remaking cities to feel more like the places from which they came. In a recent interview in Streetsblog USA, Rojas talked about the key principles of this phenomenon, which can include front-yard features like tables and chairs, fountains and statues of the Virgin Mary, and tile or concrete flooring:

Latinos have different cultural perceptions about space both public and private. They bring that to the U.S. and they retrofit that space to those needs.

They will retrofit their front yard into a plaza. We don’t have that tradition in America. But they change that into a place to meet their friends and neighbors.

He also mentions what may be the driving force for the way many people of color orient the space outside their homes. “I think a lot of people of color … these neighborhoods are more about social cohesion. Your family and neighbors are what you’re really concerned about.”

A patio in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez
A patio in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Walking around Chicago’s Little Village community, where I live I sometimes try to find words for the nostalgia and comfort I experience. Having recently visited my family in Jalisco and Michoacán for the first time in many years, I find common reminders of home in Little Village. In my grandma’s town in Michoacán, I would pass the days sitting on a chair alongside her in front of our home, talking to everyone that would come by. The purpose of the home seemed to be to ensure as much connection with neighbors and family as possible. Walking with my aunt in her town in Jalisco, we rarely went a block without encountering someone she knew sitting in front of their home. While it’s hard to romanticize my family’s towns, it’s also difficult to experience that sort of spontaneous human connection in many Chicago neighborhoods.

Little Village, and other majority-Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago, offer a glimpse of what like is like the Mexican towns where my family members live. I see corners and stoops become gathering spaces for people, particularly when there are few formal gathering spaces like plazas or parks in the neighborhood. In 2014, after years of lobbying by residents, Little Village got a new green space called La Villita Park, directly across the street from Cook County Jail.

A painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe on the side of a home in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez
A painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe on the side of a home in Pilsen. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Last year, some residents started a petition after noticing that benches on Marshall Boulevard were removed, raising fears that the sidewalk would be privatized to create outdoor seating for customers of the café Sip 22. Residents know the importance of preserving public space and continuing to remake space for their purposes. I’ve gotten used to local street corners that serve as places for vendors to sell merchandise or food, or public space for people to hang out.

I know that when residents congregate on street corners, some people see it as a comforting sign of community, while it makes others uneasy. Large groups of people of color hanging out are often viewed as a negative thing, particularly in working-class communities. Granted, there are public safety challenges some communities face that may make certain groups vulnerable to violence. That may encourage some residents to stay indoors. I don’t dismiss that at all. It’s a reality our communities of color face. However, when friends and family members gather outside in highly visible ways, it’s an encouraging sign of resilience.

A chair set next to a tree on a parkway in Little Village. Photo: Lynda Lopez
A chair set next to a tree on a parkway in Little Village. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Walking around Little Village, I see signs of community residents taking ownership of their space and making their mark. It could be the ubiquitous image of La Virgen de Guadalupe throughout the neighborhood or the occasional furniture you see on the grass or dirt (my personal favorite is a chair near a tree trunk near my house.) There isn’t uniformity in the way residents in my community to utilize space and there is comfort in that freedom, particularly because uniformity is sometimes expected on our streets. I think spontaneity and surprise should be a core part of how we interact with people in our cities. If more Chicagoans oriented their spaces for interaction with others, I believe it could could help foster more of a sense of community in our neighborhoods.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Hands down the best thing about living on the vibrant southwest side is the “sidewalk ballet” that is fostered through the full use of outdoor space, both public & private-. Anyone can walk down the street and talk to eachother- it would make Jane Jacobs so proud!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    One of Jane Jacobs’ main ideas was the notion that when residents hang out in front of their homes, providing “Eyes on the Street,” it makes the community safer and more neighborly, which seems totally in line with the concept of Latino Urbanism.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    For the urban pockets that survived the “renewal” period, their facilities tended to be disinvested by government. The community was/is left to create spaces for gathering that other areas take for granted because those other are well served by public and private institutions. The spacial creativity that emerges can be inspirational, but the question arises- as so many other areas lose this sense of urbanity and culture, it becomes a premium commodity. I get a sense that some community improvements such as pocket parks are viewed as fomenting gentrification. Is it a double-edged sword?

  • paulrandall

    In Latino and other cultures where the front yard is used as a social space there is typically a wall that protects the front yard from the street that creates a private courtyard related to the house, not the street. Using the front yard as a semi private/public space has been a fixture in American Urbanism in the form of front porches as has been sitting on front stoops. The abandonment of the front yard as a social space, either public or private, has more to do with the advent of suburban living and the general privatizing of American culture than the influence of any specific ethnic culture.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’ll go you one further re: Chicago, the decline of stoop culture is pretty much 100% correlated with new construction design that prioritizes movement between your garage and your house. Some of these new box-style “smart homes” don’t have any front porch at all, which I think is just abhorrent due to how that kills any sense of neighborhood and community.

  • paulrandall

    The zoning code encourages stoops because basement square footage is not calculated against FAR. The building code encourages stoops because of how stories are determined relative to exiting standards and types of construction. The accessibility / ADL codes require a no step entry and that is why stoops & front porches are not included in many new structures, not attached garages.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Interesting. I’m not up to speed on new construction and ADA guidelines, but I can certainly see that good old fashioned law of unintended consequences coming into play. I agree with you in the bigger picture about consumer preferences, I guess to me the take home lesson is we need to do a better job of preserving existing building stock. Back to the article, I don’t see these kinds of socializing spaces anywhere but attached to older buildings.

  • planetshwoop

    As an extension of this, having more public plazas — especially outside the Loop — would also really enhance our city. A central square with public spaces and possibly businesses like cafes would make the city more livable. I think modelling a space to imitate a town square like in Mexico or Colombia would also help create a feeling of home.

    More ciclovias would help too!

  • paulrandall

    With multifamily the landlord or condo association is unlikely to allow it unless it is designed that way. It’s normal for senior housing to have a front porch or social space in the front on the street. What is being reported here are mostly single family houses in cities or first ring pre-war suburbs abandoned by the (white) middle class in the 1950’s where front porches were the norm.

    I think the distinction is less “latino” and more class and money. Rich people keep their life private, in the back yard. Poor people may not have a back yard so they use whatever space they have.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Just to clarify, I was really just referring to SFH and 2 – 3 flats, larger housing developments are a different ballgame for sure,

    My experience growing up is also probably completely irrelevant in the day and age of central air, the Internet, Netflix and arcade quality home video game systems. For those of us that had no AC or maybe small units you were only allowed to use to get to sleep, you went outdoors as a matter of surviving the heat. So in that sense the stoop was actually a great social equalizer, as really almost nobody had central air back in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid. My Lake View blocks had plenty of Mexican and Puerto Rican residents, but they were primarily renters back then and wouldn’t have had the ability to change a front yard the way my Latin homeowner neighbors in Avondale and Logan Square can now.

    Thanks for the zoning/building code info btw, I appreciate it.

  • Suburban living has indeed hurt the front yard as a social space, but even cities and streetcar suburbs have suffered just from the rise of the automobile. I’ve generally lived in older housing stock with stoops or front porches, built before cars and much more sociable then. But now it’s too noisy or too fast out front.

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