A PILSEN HUB FALLS BY THE WAY­SIDE

Chicago Sun-Times - - NEWS - MARLEN GAR­CIA Mar­len­gar­cia777@gmail.com

The col­or­ful mul­ti­story build­ing at 1831 S. Racine, once a Hull House set­tle­ment home, has housed dance troupes, artists, com­mu­nity ac­tivists, cit­i­zen­ship classes and, more re­cently, a com­puter lab.

Its ex­te­rior walls and parts of the in­te­rior are cov­ered by mu­rals and por­traits of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures such as Pan­cho Villa and Emil­iano Za­p­ata.

In the early 1900s, long be­fore Pilsen’s Mex­i­can mu­ral­ist move­ment, the build­ing was named How­ell Neigh­bor­hood House. It served Eastern Euro­pean im­mi­grants, the neigh­bor­hood’s ma­jor­ity back then.

Amid an in­flux of Mex­i­can res­i­dents more than 40 years ago, the build­ing was re­named Casa Azt­lan and for decades it thrived as a com­mu­nity cen­ter.

“It was the nerve cen­ter for ac­tiv­ity,” says Omar Lopez, 68, who at­tended and led func­tions at Casa Azt­lan many years ago and wants to bring it back to life.

The build­ing is a shell of its glory days. It fell into fore­clo­sure last sum­mer with Casa Azt­lan’s board of di­rec­tors ow­ing about $115,500 to MB Fi­nan­cial Bank. Last month it sold at a ju­di­cial auc­tion for $293,000 to a de­vel­oper.

De­cayed and tagged with code vi­o­la­tions, the build­ing was nearly empty when I vis­ited last week ex­cept for a vol­un­teer as­sist­ing res­i­dents with ap­pli­ca­tions for mod­i­fied util­ity bills.

Lopez has ral­lied some res­i­dents in a last­ditch ef­fort to stop the sale from be­ing fi­nal­ized based on le­gal tech­ni­cal­i­ties tied to the cen­ter’s bank­ruptcy fil­ing. A court hear­ing on the fore­clo­sure is sched­uled for to­day.

“I’mvery wor­ried,” Casa Azt­lan Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Car­los Arango said. “We have a small win­dow.”

Most of the fin­ger point­ing for the cen­ter’s down­fall is aimed at Arango. “We ran into so many ob­sta­cles,” said long­time Pilsen res­i­dent Juan Cabr­era, a mem­ber of Lopez’s com­mit­tee to save the build­ing. Cabr­era’s brother Martin was a prom­i­nent fig­ure at Azt­lan be­fore he died.

Among the prob­lems, Cabr­era said there was no trans­parency on fi­nances.

“Ap­par­ently it’s mis­man­age­ment,” said Raul Ray­mundo, CEO of the Res­ur­rec­tion Project, a non­profit in Pilsen. “It was a pil­lar in­sti­tu­tion. How did it get to this point? I can only blame it on poor man­age­ment.”

Ray­mundo said his or­ga­ni­za­tion and other non­prof­its might have helped if only they had been asked.

Arango said of his crit­ics: “The lynch­ing doesn’t help.”

Many were un­aware of the group’s fi­nan­cial trou­bles un­til news of the fore­clo­sure came. Ear­lier this year, Arango told renters, in­clud­ing the Pilsen Al­liance so­cial jus­tice group, to va­cate amid con­tentious deal­ings with the group.

The Al­liance moved to 18th Street, and there is sad­ness and some relief for board mem­ber Ros­alie Mancera be­cause she no longer has to wit­ness the build­ing’s con­tin­ued demise. “Not be­ing there is a breath of fresh air,” she said.

The pre­vail­ing thought is that the cen­ter will be torn down and con­do­mini­ums will go up.

In that vein, the loss of Casa Azt­lan epit­o­mizes a strug­gle with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in Pilsen. Lati­nos in­creas­ingly are be­ing priced out, Lopez said, and the pos­si­bil­ity of strik­ing a bal­ance cul­tur­ally and so­cioe­co­nom­i­cally grows more re­mote.

“Once Azt­lan is gone, the Mex­i­can com­mu­nity will con­tinue to be pushed west,” he said. “Pilsen could be a model of di­ver­sity, but there has to be a bal­ance.”

In Pilsen, “when you say Casa Azt­lan it’s like say­ing Pepsi Cola,” Lopez said. “Peo­ple have a sense of what it is.”

These days there is a sense of what it was.

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