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Nuestro Retrato: Pilsen

Principle: Triangulate

By Brendan Crain

December, 2009

The first of the 11 Principles of Placemaking states that the community is the expert when it comes to creating successful public spaces.  When Placemaking Chicago's “What Makes Your Place Great?” competition inspired students from the Poder Learning Center's English as a Second Language classes to write essays about their favorite places in Chicago, we saw a unique opportunity to learn about how members of the city's immigrant community use of public space around town, and how their insights illustrate the Placemaking Principles.  The following is the first in a series of articles based on these student essays.

When Angelica Colin first moved to Chicago from a town in Veracruz, Mexico, in 2001, she started off living in Little Village, on the city's southwest side.  After a year there, however, she moved to Pilsen, a neighborhood she still calls home today.  "I got used to the neighborhood very quickly," she explained in a recent interview.  "It was easy because there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in Pilsen, and it is safer.  [In Little Village,] gangs were a problem; but here, no."

For Angelica, there is no singular spot in Pilsen that qualifies as her "favorite place" – the neighborhood itself fills that category.  After moving to a new apartment in the neighborhood to live closer to her job (in fact, she notes with a wide smile, she lives right above the shop where she works), Angelica soon found that Pilsen is the kind of place where everything is within walking distance. 

Packed into about one square mile just south of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, this densely populated corner of the city is the embodiment of the popular buzzword "walkable," and it offers a fine illustration of the Placemaking principle of Triangulation, or the idea that having a variety of elements next to each other fosters activity. In Pilsen, many destinations grocery stores, bars, parks, schools are located in close proximity to each other.  The mix of uses creates a neighborhood where people are always out and about, using public spaces as varied as parks, front stoops, and street corners.  For Angelica, living close to work and public transportation frees up time for her side project, creating handmade jewelry. She even buys supplies from a neighborhood store.  And with so many people around, it's no wonder Pilsen feels safer to its residents.

Of course, high-traffic areas present their own challenges.  While she loves her neighborhood, Angelica admits litter is a persistent problem.  "When I see someone throw their garbage on the street, I always stop and say something," she explains.  “Sometimes I argue with people.  I don't want to make trouble, but I try to prevent [littering]." 

Angelica's effort to call out litterbugs may seem like a small thing, but it proves that, even when dealing with an entire neighborhood, anyone can play an active role in keeping Chicago's public spaces clean, safe and enjoyable.  All it takes is a watchful eye and a vested interest.

"I came here to start a new life," Angelica explains.  For her, keeping the streets clean is a way of showing respect to the neighborhood where she has found so much opportunity.