What’s the Matter with Pilsen?: The Chicago Arts District falls on hard times as artists head south to Bridgeport

Halsted Street in Pilsen (Mehves Konuk)

Halsted Street in Pilsen (Mehves Konuk)

Bursting with art studios and galleries a few years ago, Pilsen’s stretch of South Halsted Street now features flyers advertising the potential of empty storefronts. Crowds continue to pack the street on the district’s monthly Second Friday event, but they find fewer open galleries and openings than in past months. A good portion of the studios in the Podmajersky artists loft complex were vacant as of mid-November, and even fewer opened to the public on Second Friday. Although some galleries continue to put out new monthly exhibitions, the vacancies signal a shift in Pilsen’s once-thriving art district.

A few miles south, Bridgeport’s former industrial district has become the quiet home of an underground art scene. Over the past three years, the area has seen the opening and expansion of studios, artist-run project spaces, and exhibition megacenters. Shan Zuo and Da Huang Zhou, China-born artists now internationally recognized for their collaborative paintings and sculpture work, moved to Bridgeport in 1986 and transformed an abandoned 85,000-square-foot warehouse on 35th Street into an exhibition, event, and studio space in 2004. Named the Zhou B Art Center, the brothers’ space is currently filled to capacity, and according to center director Oskar Friedl, it may soon expand into another warehouse space the brothers recently purchased.

Ed Marszewski, director and founder of alternative art collective Lumpen, purchased an abandoned warehouse on Morgan Street in Bridgeport in 2006 when rent rose at the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park. At the same time, many artist spaces along Milwaukee Avenue were relocating or closing. The former warehouse, dubbed the Co-Prosperity Sphere, functions as a community center and exhibition space. Another warehouse, East Bank Storage at Racine and 35th Street, has been partly transformed into an artist community housing over twenty studios.

These new spaces have brought a diverse range of artists and art practice to historically blue-collar Bridgeport. The range in size and cost of spaces in the Zhou B Art Center allow new MFA recipients’ start-up studios to operate beside well-established galleries. And the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s program of countercultural video installations and non-traditional work provides an alternative to the more mainstream, commercial spaces in the Zhou B Art Center.

Although Bridgeport has been scattered with studio and gallery space since the mid-’90s, events put on by its up-and-coming formal art communities are drawing a wide range of visitors to the area for the first time. In addition to regular exhibitions, the Co-Prosperity Sphere hosts two yearly multi-day festivals that draw dozens of local and international artists to the area. The artists of East Bank host regular events and semi-annual open gallery nights, and the Zhou B Art Center’s monthly open studio night alone includes more artists than those on Pilsen’s Second Friday gallery crawl.

In light of the increasing number of vacancies on Pilsen’s gallery strip, the success of these new developments leads one to ask: is Bridgeport becoming the new Pilsen? And is Bridgeport’s development complicit in Pilsen’s decline?

Brazilian painter Dagmar Bruehmueller moved into a small studio in the Zhou B Art Center in November after two years of operating a large, street-front gallery in Pilsen. Pilsen, Bruehmueller says, “has changed. So many galleries closed, and people don’t pay attention anymore.”

“It’s a 360-degree turn around,” says Robin Monique Rios, a digital photography artist who moved her gallery, 4Art, from Pilsen into the Zhou B Art Center in September. Rios describes her experience operating in Pilsen as a constant struggle, and was on the verge of closing her studio after six years in Pilsen when she was invited to rent space in the Zhou brothers’ new center.

Marco Logsdon, founder and director of Logsdon 1909 Gallery in Pilsen, believes most of Pilsen’s innovative, successful galleries continue to thrive, and says that Second Friday events are as well-attended as ever. He attributes the recent increase in vacancies to the changes introduced when John Podmajersky III, son of the couple who initiated the neighborhood’s transformation, took over business management in 2003.

The Podmajersky family, art collectors and residents of Pilsen since 1914, began purchasing warehouses and stores on Halsted between 16th and Canalport in the ’60s, converting them into art spaces, and renting them to local artists, and effectively transformed East Pilsen’s full-fledged art district by the late ’90s. Podmajersky currently owns hundreds of apartments and 250,000 square feet of studio and gallery space in Pilsen.

“The parents are the one who really set up the area. Particularly the mother, who collected ceramics, was very into the arts,” Logsdon says. Art lovers, the Podmajerskys kept rental rates far below market price and did everything they could to keep artists in the district. “Sometimes [Podmajersky II’s wife] would let them trade works for rent, and was just very supportive. The son is not in the same. He doesn’t have the same mentality. He’s a businessman,” Logsdon says.

In addition to organizing the district’s publicity efforts, Podmajersky III began standardizing rent rates in 2003, raising prices for many long-time occupants. Part of what Podmajersky III called a “cleaning house” in a December 2003 interview with the Chicago Reader included rent hikes and required open exhibition hours, which pressured artists who underutilized storefront spaces to move out. (Chicago Weekly was not able to reach Podmajersky by press time.)

Although a number of artists have relocated from Pilsen to Bridgeport, it would be inaccurate to say that gallery and studio closings in Pilsen are fueling Bridgeport’s growth. Rather, according to a Reader article published last summer, most closures are the result of galleries moving to long-established art districts on Chicago’s North Side or simply shutting down. And Bridgeport’s studio complexes are filling with artists from across the city and nation.
What can be said, however, is that differences in location, physical amenities, leadership, community structure and organization, and economic trends have shaped the divergent paths of the two neighborhoods.

Pilsen’s Halsted Street is primarily composed of low-rise store-fronts and apartment buildings. Close to the South Loop and only a half-mile north of the Orange Line Halsted stop, Pilsen is a prime candidate for the type of residential gentrification that has inflated rental prices and pushed artists out of Wicker Park during the past decade.

Recent development efforts, including the $700-million University Village project just north of the Chicago Arts District, have pushed up real estate values in the area. Rent in Pilsen is still lower than in North Side art districts, but Podmajersky tenants do face yearly increases. Unlike Pilsen, parts of Bridgeport are far from the Loop and the nearest El line, lack amenities, and are full of highly industrial structures that don’t fit well into the yuppie low-rise brick apartment aesthetic. But the abandoned industrial complexes that detract from Bridgeport’s real estate development appeal are ideal spaces for large-scale studio and exhibition complexes.

Prior to becoming director of the Zhou B Art Center, Oskar Friedl ran galleries in the River North district and the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park, in studio art complexes that stood at the center of each neighborhood’s art communities. Alternative art districts in the ’80s and ’90s, “both areas went bust or they gentrified too rapidly to really allow for a development of the arts,” Friedl says. Friedl believes that the “possibilities [in Bridgeport] are tenfold what they were in River North…You can create ten times more with ten percent of the effort,” offering artists and art developers spaces where they can “operate almost on the museum level.” Bridgeport, Friedl says, “feels like it’s the most authentic of any of the communities that I’ve worked in and lived in.”

The type of project spaces and mega-centers opening up in Bridgeport create a professional, high-level version of the art school studio complex, especially appealing to artists who crave interaction with other artists and want to cut costs on gallery operation in light of the current economy. Furthermore, Bridgeport’s development is artist-driven, while Pilsen’s arts district is primarily the creation of a real estate developer. Podmajersky under John Podmajersky III maintains strict control of gallery promotion efforts and operation practice. Pilsen’s leadership structure, Rios believes, restricts and leads to the constant “roadblocking [of] people wanting to bring new ideas to the district.”

In contrast, the new art centers surfacing in Bridgeport are owned and managed by artists or individuals active in the art community. Already involved in art, individuals like Marszewski and the Zhou brothers have a greater stake in Bridgeport’s prosperity and are better able to attract artists and draw crowds to the neighborhood. East Bank Storage, like Pilsen’s gallery district, is not artist-owned. But the center’s corporate managers’ hands-off policy differs from Podmajersky’s approach and leaves space for tenant activity. Artists of the East Bank, a community of studio occupants, manages promotion for and organization of semi-annual gallery events and more regular exhibition activity.

In comparison to Pilsen, Rios says the Zhou B Art Center sees many more “international visitors, a more high-end clientele…I think the majority is because the brothers are so famous.” On the other end of the spectrum, Marszewski’s Lumpen Magazine and the long-running Version and Select Media festivals he runs have established an alternative following for events put on by the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

All this said, Logsdon does not see Bridgeport’s development as a threat to Pilsen. The two art districts are “different–they’re just different,” he says. Bridgeport’s isolated, one-stop art centers may supplant Podmajersky’s studio loft complexes, but are incomparable and will never compete with Pilsen’s dense storefront gallery district, Logsdon says. “The thing that’s nice about Pilsen is that they’re very inviting spaces, and they’re unique, they’re not the cookie-cutter renovation. A lot of times people enjoy seeing the spaces as much as seeing the art,” Logsdon says. “The areas that I’ve been to [in Bridgeport]–nothing is as unique as the Pilsen spaces.”

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