Chicago’s working-class Pilsen neighborhood is named after the city of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. Historically, the area was inhabited by Czech immigrants in the 19th century along with small groups of other Eastern European nationalities who joined them. They replaced German and Irish immigrants who came in the mid-19th century.
Today, Pilsen is the center of Mexican life in Chicago. In the 1960s, many Mexican immigrants and citizens of Mexican descent were displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Near West Side. Several chose Pilsen as their new home, altering the face of the neighborhood forever.
The neighborhood is still evolving and has even changed dramatically in recent years. Artists began to flock to the area and several art galleries opened up around 18th and Halsted. Hipsters began to move in shortly after. Pilsen is literally an artist’s canvas and features some incredible murals, graffiti, and other street art.
Pilsen is one of the best places to come for Mexican food in Chicago. Many of the restaurants are located along 18th Street, including favorites such as Café Jumping Bean.
Another good option is Cantón Regio, which was opened by the owners of another favorite no longer around, Nuevo León. It’s a Mexican steakhouse in a rustic setting. Food is great, service is good, and prices are fair.
National Museum of Mexican Art
The star attraction of Pilsen is the National Museum of Mexican Art. Its galleries feature works of art by Mexican and Mexican-American artists. Sculptures, paintings, posters, and more can be found throughout the museum, ranging from religious and more serious to abstract and satyrical. An interesting artifact on display is a shirt and sweater vest worn by activist César Chávez on his final visit to the museum in 1993.
I enjoyed the museum very much. Many of the pieces I found were quite moving and powerful. I spent about 45 minutes going through the galleries and was very impressed. The most interesting work in my opinion is Sun-Mad by Ester Hernández. From three different points of view, you see three different images on three different sets of panels. Admission to the museum is free and it’s open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
Pilsen has been heavily Catholic throughout its history. There is no shortage of beautiful Catholic churches. Unfortunately, dwindling membership numbers and lack of funds have forced closures of some of the historic parishes.
One of those churches is St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church. This historic church was built in 1912 by Polish immigrants and has hosted services in English, Spanish, and Polish. Unfortunately, the church was controversially scheduled to close on July 1, 2016. The parishioners desperately tried to save it but over US$3 million were needed for repairs, especially the 185ft. towers. Now, their goal is to make sure St. Adalbert’s isn’t demolished. St. Vitus was the other historic church that closed in 1990. It was built in 1897 and is now the Guadalupano Family Center.
Of the churches that still operate, St. Pius V Roman Catholic Church is located on Ashland and 19th. It’s open daily from 7am to 8pm. The church was completed in 1892 and founded by Irish immigrants.
The others are St. Procopius on 18th Street, founded in 1875 by Czech immigrants and completed in 1883. St. Paul, further south at Hoyne and 22nd Place, was founded by German immigrants in 1876 and built between 1886 and 1898 as the first Gothic church in America.
Finally, there’s Thalia Hall. It sits across the street from St. Procopius. Built in 1892 by Czech immigrant John Dusek, the hall was modeled after the Prague Opera House. It was a very important community center and theatre for over 70 years before being closed from the 1960s to 2013. It has been reopened as a concert and private event venue.
Pilsen is best accessed with the Pink Line. There are stops at 18th Street and Damen Ave.