In 1971, Rita Ortiz arrived in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, an entry point for many other Mexican immigrants. The population of the once predominately white community on the city’s lower West Side had just shifted toward a Latino majority.
Twenty years later, Ortiz settled near Gage Park, a Southwest Side community approaching a similar change. Another Mexican immigrant who had just moved to the area hired Ortiz to manage his auto glass business. Back then, she said, most business owners in the neighborhood were white.
But today, the influx of Mexicans is reflected along the neighborhood’s 59th Street commercial corridor. Taquerias, supermercados, auto body shops and other businesses owned by Mexican immigrants thrive on a stretch of the street that decades ago was dominated by bakeries, taverns and mom and pop grocery stores owned by Eastern Europeans.
“Anybody can see it just by walking or driving, they can see the difference,” Ortiz said.
As Chicago’s old white ethnic enclaves dwindle, Latino immigrants have eased the blow of their decline. Many of the new residents buy homes and open businesses, bolstering communities like Chicago Lawn and Gage Park, which are divided by 59th Street.
These positive effects of immigration can be seen across the country.
National research shows that cities that thrive have healthy immigrant communities while places where immigration is scarce have lagged in growth. Immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to start their own businesses and tend to form enclaves within cities. When you combine these two factors and other immigration effects, you create the potential that births places like 26th Street in Little Village, the second highest-grossing shopping district in the city, trailing the Magnificent Mile.
The economic collapse hit the city’s Southwest Side hard – the area has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the city – rolling back a lot of progress. But there are signs of improvement and hope that efforts by residents and the city can still harvest the unique potential embedded in immigrant communities.
There are more immediate downsides to immigration such as increases in poverty rates, educational levels and overcrowded housing, all of which are visible in Gage Park. But in the long term, immigration can be a boon — not the burden characterized by anti-immigrant rhetoric, according to researchers.
“It’s helped breathe new life into these neighborhoods,” said Robert J. Sampson, a social science professor at Harvard whose research areas include urban inequality and neighborhood effects.
The changing face of immigration
Ortiz’s arrival in Chicago mirrors an increase in the number of Mexican immigrants in the city that has changed Chicago’s complexion. In 1990, Gage Park’s foreign-born population was growing at one of the fastest rates in the city. By the 2010 Census, about 44 percent of Gage Park residents were foreign born, and 87 percent were Latino.
Paral, a writer and analyst who focuses on community development, human services and immigrant integration, said much of the white population on the Southwest Side has grown old and either moved away or passed away. And their children settled elsewhere. Many of the Latino immigrants who repopulated the area and continue to move there are likely Mexicans who moved from South Lawndale and gentrifying communities like Pilsen that were once points of entry for the immigrants, according to Paral.
“It’s not just a story of new immigrants coming in and changing an area in a huge way,” Paral said. “It’s as much the children of immigrants who are moving into these areas and still want access to their cultural food and stores.”
Jim Capraro grew up in Gage Park.
“This immigrant population has come with an entrepreneurial culture, settled into less than vibrant commercial areas and revitalized them,” said Capraro, 65. “And 26th Street is not the only example of this in Chicago. Gage Park’s 59th Street can actually have a brighter future than its past.”
Capraro spent more than half his life spearheading economic development efforts in the Gage Park area as founding director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation. Now a semi-retired community development consultant, Capraro likes to say that “neighborhoods have jobs; they were built for a purpose, they were built for a market.”
He said that’s important context when it comes to Gage Park, which he contends still retains its character as a working-class “move-up” community for new Americans looking for affordable, quality housing and middle-class quiet.
From German settlers to King’s march for fair housing
The latest population shift isn’t the first time immigrants have reshaped Gage Park.
In the 1840s, German farmers settled what had been prairie land before the area was annexed by Chicago about 50 years later. The Chicago Historical Society says the community had 30 wood frame cottages, no paved streets or public transportation — but the extension of an electric trolley line to the area between 1900 and 1910 sparked a building boom. Capraro said convenience stores, bakers, grocery stores and taverns lined 59th Street, one of the neighborhood’s busiest commercial areas. A lot of the businesses were housed on residential blocks in two-flats with stores on the first level and living space on the top for owners.
By the 1960s, Gage Park had long been a predominately white ethnic enclave. In the summer of 1966, some residents of Gage Park met the prospect of integration with racial epithets and violence. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march through the community to protest housing discrimination and segregation. He was met by an angry white mob and later struck with a rock.
“This is a terrible thing,” King said reflecting on his visit to Gage Park. “I have been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen even in Mississippi and Alabama mobs as hostile and as hate filled as I’ve seen today.”
White parents boycotted the integration of Gage Park High School in 1972. But in the ’70s and ’80s, several community groups stepped up to improve race relations in the community, maintain middle-class housing, which was threatened by white flight, and revitalize commercial areas that had been in decline since the 1950s as the automobile made more shoppers less neighborhood-centric. They were able to maintain Gage Park’s middle- class character. But by the 1990s 59th Street had started to see many vacancies and was underutilized, according to Capraro.
Daiva Kamberos, a 53-year-old Lithuanian business owner, has operated Kamberos Insurance at 59th Street and Kedzie Avenue since 1990. She remembers 59th Street in the early 1990s as a bland commercial strip where old mom and pop businesses were closing as their owners left the area and were replaced by Mexicans.
“It’s changing slow and steady — there are a lot of new businesses,” Kamberos said of Gage Park. “Now we have more Latino owners, Spanish- speaking owners. Without them, I think we would have a deserted area.”
The economic benefits of immigrant enclaves
Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, said immigrant enclaves have many benefits.
“What you see happen in a lot of immigrant communities is this recycling of money,” she said. “A lot of the business owners live in the neighborhood, they buy in the neighborhood, and they hire in the neighborhood. So when people come to spend their local dollars, they go back to the neighborhood.”
Puente noted that the challenge in some high-poverty communities, especially in black neighborhoods, is that not enough business owners and landlords come from the community.
“So the money doesn’t work the same way,” she said.
Immigrants also tend to have higher marriage rates and live in extended households in denser areas. That means immigrant enclaves pack more consumer spending power than people might think, and consumers can support a high concentration of businesses.
But, Capraro said, “There’s a struggle right now for the neighborhood. And sometimes there are really positive signs like businesses around 59th and Kedzie, and sometimes there are negative signs like gang violence and foreclosures.”
The neighborhood is fragile and at a tipping point, Capraro added. “It could continue to be a place for people to move for a bigger house and a better life, or it could become a poorer neighborhood,” he said. “It’s kind of in the middle of this tension, and the jury is out right now.”
Gage Park’s 59th Street might never rival Little Village’s 26th Street.
But with enough investment, support and planning Ortiz said the community can reclaim the trajectory it appeared on before the Great Recession derailed it. Gage Park still has the potential to harness the tools that have helped revitalize other inner-city neighborhoods in and around immigrant enclaves.
The neighborhood has its own special tax district, known as a special service area, that uses a portion of local property taxes to invest in commercial districts. The SSA has paid for new signs for businesses in an effort to spruce up the area, brought more police and private security to patrol 59th Street, and helped educate business owners and lure businesses to the area.
The Greater Southwest Development Corporation manages the service area through a contract with the city.
Ortiz, business owners and SSA officials say the changes have made the 59th Street corridor more pleasing to the eye and safer since the tax district was founded in 2012. But they emphasized that the city and community need to do more.
Ortiz suggested that the city help subsidize home improvements and home ownership, as it has done in Woodlawn, a high-poverty black community where home assistance has been one of the few obvious benefits of a little-used tax increment finance district.
Nick Kollias, commercial director at the Greater Southwest Development Corporation, said Gage Park will continue to be a major port of entry for immigrants, especially because of affordable homes and commercial rents compared to Pilsen and Little Village, for example.
“You can see how it’s a great motivator to stay in the community,” Kollias said.
While poverty has increased in the area compared to when it was predominately white, Ortiz believes the demographic change “can be a positive shift” in the long term.
“If Mexican people and other immigrants continue to move around here, it will continue to get better,” she said. “We just need more support.”