The Story of Pilsen
Pilsen’s story has always been one of immigrants. Located on the Southwest Side, the neighborhood, which falls in the Lower West Side community area, was first home to German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s. More arrived from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, and other European countries, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. A popular restaurant called “At the City of Plzeň,” named in honor of a Czech city, gave Pilsen its name. As a community with industry, sweatshops, and lumbermills, Pilsen had employment opportunities for many of the residents after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Pilsen has a legacy as a strong working-class community. Its residents set up civic organizations that fought for workers’ rights, education, immigrant rights, and more. By the mid-twentieth century, Mexican immigrants settled in Pilsen, giving it the cultural identity that it has today. The combination of the community’s history of activism and Mexican artistic heritage has given Pilsen its signature style of colorful murals and mosaics starting in the late 1960s and ’70s; the majority of Pilsen’s population by then were people of Mexican descent.
Pilsen is also a neighborhood well-known for its arts scene, having served as an artist colony for decades. In 2002, John Podmajersky Jr., a lifelong resident, started the Chicago Arts District in the community, renting out studio spaces to hundreds of artists. Those artists have created a trendy enclave in East Pilsen.
Today, as popular restaurants, bars, and arts venues draw in people and developers from all over the city, Pilsen’s residents are now fighting gentrification. The Pink Line stops at 18th street and Damen, just near the heart of Pilsen.
You can read more about the community on WTTW’s site, My Neighborhood: Pilsen.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Thalia Hall
Built in 1892, Thalia Hall provides a great number of options for all who love art and entertainment. This historic Pilsen landmark hosts regular performances and offers visitors a full-scale experience that includes a vintage store, two bars, and a restaurant.
According to its website, Thalia Hall was founded by John Dusek, a tavern owner and arts enthusiast, as an ornate public hall for the neighborhood. The idea was to provide entertainment and a community center for the many immigrants from Bohemia. According to Thalia Hall’s website, the hall was used to draft a bill that paved the way for the birth of Czechoslovakia in 1918.
The hall closed to the public in the 1960s. Work began in 2013 to restore the hall to its original style under new owners Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, who also own other popular Chicago bars and restaurants, such as Longman & Eagle and Beauty Bar.
Things to Do
Start the day at Cafe Jumping Bean and then make your way to the National Museum of Mexican Art. With a collection that includes 1,000 permanent pieces, the museum also serves as a resource for youth through after-school classes, summer camps, and teen mentorships.