Most Pilsen residents know the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, or ESDC, as the people who throw one of the best street parties of the year, replete with lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, dozens of musical performances, and, of course, a legendary mole cook-off.
“It’s Mexican and it’s Pilsen,” explains Jaime Garza, who has worked at ESDC for 18 years.
Last year’s Mole de Mayo attracted 65,000 people, and organizers are expecting an even bigger crowd this year.
But that’s just one of the many events they coordinate every year. Many more of them are much smaller and less spectacular affairs: workshops on creating your own website, working for Uber, or doing your taxes.
The Development Corporation is the closest thing Pilsen has to a chamber of commerce – but they are much scrappier than that. The founders of the ESDC were community activists who wanted to better prepare people for good-paying jobs, so they partnered with the bricklaying and carpentry unions to create a program where high school students could learn the basics and explore whether they’d want to transition into an apprenticeship upon graduation.
Today, the organization is run by a new generation of local activists who offer a range of services to support small businesses and help residents find jobs in the larger companies in Pilsen’s industrial corridor and the nearby medical district.
Even as national chains and big-box stores, from McDonald’s to Costco, move into the Pilsen neighborhood, small businesses continue to be the economic backbone of the community. ESDC is one of several Pilsen organizations that support these small business owners. Others include: Mujeres Latinas en Acción, which offers Spanish-language educational training designed for female entrepreneurs; The Resurrection Project, which offers small business loans and assists business owners in finding local commercial properties; and the Greater Pilsen Economic Development Association, a coalition of small business owners who promote and advocate for business owners.
ESDC Executive Director Alex Esparza says the organization continually surveys local businesses and residents on what they need to improve their economic outlook and responds accordingly.
Recently, that meant creating a business incubator program. They opened a storefront space where budding entrepreneurs can test out their ideas and learn the ropes in a temporary, pop-up environment. They also helped one woman – a former tamale street vendor – become an established restaurant owner.
Esparza says walking through the process of opening a business from start to finish was even more tedious than he imagined.
“And I’m an individual who knows the ins and outs of the city, and it was even headaches for me,” he said. “I can just imagine what a person by themselves goes through when they don’t have that moral support or someone nearby with that ‘I got your back’ mentality.”
Today, in Pilsen, no one has to go it alone. The Pilsen community has created a robust support system for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners and Esparza said he only expects to see that system grow in coming years.
– Jessica Pupovac