Monday, September 12, 2011

Western Avenue Series

Mile 13: 25th-16th Streets
This sketch is a part of my Western Avenue Series, through which I'll be making 24 watercolor paintings, one to document each mile of Western Avenue, in Chicago.  I started this project because while it is not considered to be among the most “beautiful” of Chicago’s streets, Western Avenue is a perfect place to document the humanness of Chicago, the positive and the negative. In the words of Stuart Dybek, "Western, with apologies to State Street, is a great street,  Unlike State, it is a street that goes to the interior, the heart of the city, as it glides and glows through a United Nations of neighborhoods."  Check back next Monday to see the painting completed based on this sketch.
This stretch of Western travels into the Pilsen neighborhood, a place that has long been home to immigrants. In the late 19th century Pilsen was inhabited by Czech immigrants (Plzeƈ is the fourth largest city in what is now the Czech Republic).  Later, the Czechs were replaced by the Germans, who had settled there first with the Irish in the mid-19th century. In the mid-late 20th centeury there was an increasing Mexican-American presence, in 1962-63 when there was a great spurt in the numbers of Mexican-Americans in Pilsen due to the destruction of the neighborhood west of Halsted between Roosevelt and Taylor Streets to create room for the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Latinos became the majority in 1970 when they surpassed the Slavic population.  Famed author Stuart Dybek hails from Pilsen. 
Many of the new residents to the neighborhood are not Hispanic and it is projected that the neighborhood will continue to become more diversified in the years ahead.   Some local advocacy groups have formed urging the neighborhood's alderman to curtail gentrification to preserve the Mexican-American cultural and demographic dominance. 
The neighborhood is home to one of Chicago's largest art districts, and the National Museum of Mexican Art. St Adalbert's is a dominate feature of Pilsen skyline, as well as the murals which are prominently featured in the neighborhood. The history of the murals is often misspoken of as a purely Mexican cultural type. The original murals in Pilsen along 16th Street started as a cooperative effort between Slavs and Mexicans when the neighborhood was undergoing change. If one looks closely one finds amongst the latter Mexican images the earlier ones which are decidedly non-Mexican and include storks, scenic European farms, and lipizzaner horses.
My personal favorites in Pilsen include the National Museum of Mexican Art (free and fantastic) and the Green BLT sandwich at the Honky Tonk Restaurant.  I'm also very fond of the modest but well proportioned wood frame homes of the neighborhood.  Many of these homes reveal the a bit of the city's history with exposed basements, which used to be first floor before the city raised the level of the houses in the 1860s and 1870s.

What do you love about the Pilsen Nieghborhood?
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