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Pilsen 18th Street Holiday Celebration

On a frosty Sunday afternoon in Pilsen, shoppers warmed themselves on simmering cups of Mexican spiced fruit punch offered up by merchants along the 18th Street commercial corridor.

Twenty small businesses participated in the recent Posades en Pilsen celebration, intended to promote the neighborhood’s unique restaurants, shops and art galleries. Shoppers who made the rounds earned gift bags of coupons and candies, and their children, a chance to swing at a Christmas piñata.

A crowd outside the Community Bank in Pilsen shouts encouragement to Luvy Torres, 5, as she takes aim at a Christmas pinata during the Posades en Pilsen holiday celebration along 18th Street, the first event sponsored by the Pilsen Commerce Roundtable to promote local businesses.

Eric Young Smith

The festival was the first event organized by the newly formed Pilsen Commerce Roundtable. Launched in October with support from The Resurrection Project and Eighteenth Street Development Corp., the Roundtable intends to draw on strategies for promoting business growth in Pilsen that were identified in a LISC MetroEdge study. The study is the eighth completed by MetroEdge, the market research firm, for an NCP neighborhood.

For Pilsen merchants, MetroEdge suggested a number of strategies, including a stronger effort to market both the neighborhood’s Mexican heritage and its reputation as a destination for dining and the arts.

“We are such a rich neighborhood – rich in color, in food, in diversity — and we’re not taking full advantage of it,” said Norma Alanis, owner of Chocolate for Your Body Spa, who helped organize the Posadas.

While Pilsen has a number of business associations, none has yet mounted a sustained, coordinated effort to promote the neighborhood, said David Betlejewski, executive director of the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. The new association aims to fill that gap, he said.

Marcela Gallo, owner of the Tonantzin Cultural Gallery in Pilsen holds out a cup of traditional Mexican Christmas punch, a hot spiced beverage that she and business partner Carlos Bueno (right) served to customers during the Dec. 12 celebration, made with fruits like Tamarind, Guava and the crab apple-like Tejocote.

Eric Young Smith

Pilsen’s business community is currently at a crossroads, according to Helen Dunlap, who co-authored the study for MetroEdge. The number of middle-income families in Pilsen has doubled since 1990 and private investment is growing. (Plans are already underway for a new Costco store at 14th Street and Ashland Avenue.)

Without leadership, the community could lose an opportunity to drive commercial development in a way that best serves local residents and existing businesses, she explained.

MetroEdge identified a number of areas where local demand for goods outstripped supply, including electronics, clothing, building supplies and general merchandise. However, it advised that local merchants steer generic stores away from 18th Street to preserve its eclectic, Mexican flavor. Instead, they should attempt to fill vacant storefronts with businesses that add to the district’s appeal as a unique destination.

Founded by Bohemian immigrants from the 1870 through the early 1900s, Pilsen retains much of the striking architecture of the period with its long arched windows, bracketed cornices and carved stone edifices.

Artists from The Beer Run Gallery in Pilsen pose with their nativity scene, set in modern day Chicago. A nativity scene competition was part of Posadas en Pilsen, held on the same date as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of Mexico. The day-long celebration began with 5 a.m. mass at neighboring churches.

Eric Young Smith

Mexican immigrants settled in Pilsen beginning in the 1950s, and the area, along with neighboring Little Village, is now home to Chicago’s largest Mexican American community as well as ethnic restaurants, Mexican art studios and the renowned National Museum of Mexican Art.

Building on that heritage, by restoring historic façades and retaining Latino businesses, is good for residents and a smart marketing strategy, Dunlap observed.

At the same time, MetroEdge advised merchants to focus on what Dunlap calls the basics—“safety, security and cleanliness” — which include keeping sidewalks well-lit and clear of debris, and improving aesthetic appeal with planters, benches and the like, she said. “Nobody is going to build retail until there’s a sign of investment in the basics.”

Small business owners from the Roundtable said they found the MetroEdge study on target and expressed excitement about working together to solve common problems.

The parking scarcity on 18th Street has frustrated merchants for some time, said César Piñeda, owner of Ciao Amore Ristorante. He’s eager to join with other businesses to lease parking space from local schools.

The economic slump has made a dent in profits, but Roundtable restaurant owners are now organizing to make joint purchases from wholesalers to drive down their costs, said Carlos Chavarria, owner of Kristoffer’s Café.

At the Fogata Village Restaurant in Pilsen, musician Benjamin Anaya entertains customers with traditional Mexican songs, “serenades my father sang to my mother.”

Eric Young Smith

Norma Alanis, of Chocolate for Your Body Spa, foresees Pilsen merchants borrowing from the marketing playbooks of highly effective commerce chambers in Chinatown and Lincoln Square.

She lists strategies ranging from collaborating on coupon books, to raising funds for a landmark archway over the street to serve as a neighborhood entryway. “Business owners can pool resources,” she said, “and that’s how we’re going to get ahead.”

As the Roundtable expands and helps small business owners increase their own profits, the group thinks they’ll be able to invest more in the neighborhood, such as pooling resources to supply school scholarships or meals for needy families. “That’s giving back to the community,” Chavarria said. “That’s creating loyalty.”

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