“Have you been here before?” the waiter asked with a smile, dropping two menus on the table. My friend Alejandro stared blankly at the waiter, then turned to me.
“I’m not sure how to answer that. Have I been to Giordano’s before? Yeah, the one in Greektown where a Greek restaurant used to be. Have I been to this location? Certainly, my physical presence has occupied these geographic coordinates, but last time that happened this wasn’t a Giordano’s. It was a neighborhood youth radio station, an icon in the community.” His face started getting red. The waiter glanced back toward the kitchen, probably seeing if his manager was nearby. I smiled at the waiter.
“We’ll need just a minute to decide.” Alejandro looked pissed. He picked up his spoon and started fidgeting with it.
“Did you work at Radio Arte?”
“Yeah, for my last two years at UIC a few of us ran a program called Voces del Callejón. We interviewed residents of Pilsen and Little Village. All kinds of folks: community activists, gangbangers, the parish priest and the wino on the corner. One time the owner of the vintage clothing store asked us to interview him. He thought our program could be a free commercial for his business. I told him to fuck off and quit ruining our neighborhood. He called me a reverse racist and I laughed in his face. I said even if he were Mexican his business would still be contributing to gentrification here.” As he made his point, he pounded his fist on the table, knocking the salt and pepper shakers over, their contents spilling onto the table. I took a moment to look at the mixture before wiping them away with my napkin.
“Alex, slow down, man.” I loved seeing him get passionate about this neighborhood but people at other tables started to stare at us. “I’m with you a hundred percent on this. When I first set foot in this neighborhood in ‘99 it was like crossing the border, and that was before I had ever been to Mexico. And now we’re sitting in this hegemonic pizza chain. So why did you want to come here?”
“I don’t know, man. I just wanted to be back in this space I guess. But there’s not a single thing that looks the same. Every wall, every window, even the bathrooms and lights and doorknobs, they’re all new and clean. Sanitized. That table of white kids over there is where the broadcasters’ booth was. Friday was my day to host. I’d sit there with a cup of coffee while introducing each segment or doing live interviews. We brought original content from the streets of this neighborhood, stuff that mattered to the people here, that they could connect with and make them say ‘Hey, I’m going through the same shit,’ and it would get people talking to each other. And now all that’s gone. People sit here eating the exact same pizza they serve at the two dozen other locations. It’s the homogenization of our world, man, one ethnic neighborhood at a time. Or maybe all of them at once. Have you seen the new Starbucks in Chinatown?”
He took a deep breath and looked out onto at 18th Street. The July sun beat down on the pavement speckled with old gum. While I usually don’t like the intense summer heat, I never minded it in Pilsen. Something about it just felt right. We saw two paleteros going in opposite ways stop and chat, both giving the bells on their carts a light jingle whenever someone walked past. A mother walked with her two kids, pulling on the arm of the smaller one while he pointed to a picture of a mango popsicle on the side of the cart. Passing the next cart, the child again stopped and pointed, and the mother pulled harder, dragging him away as he cried. They crossed the street and entered the McDonald’s. Alejandro’s head slumped down, then he looked at me.
“So what does the white boy Mike Richardson make of all this?”
“I think it’s damn unfortunate.”
“That’s it? That is the entirety of your thinking on this?”
“It reminds me of what Vonnegut said about anti-war novels: you may as well make anti-iceberg novels. Neither one will achieve their aim. Except guess what. Looks like some people, genuine crackpots, actually are making anti-iceberg novels and the current people in power are taking interest in their messed-up ideas. So if they can do that, you can be pissed about what’s happening in Pilsen.”
“Great. Now that we’ve established a rational justification for my anger, back to my question. What does the white boy who moved to Pilsen almost two decades ago make of all this? Do you look at this like your people are conquering the barrio and bestowing it with the blessings of civilization, or are you upset like me?”
“Well, I’m not thrilled to see the place lose its character. There’s no doubt that Pilsen’s identity is under siege, but it’s hard to be angry at what I see as inevitable forces at work. And this isn’t the first time this neighborhood’s been through this. I’m with Vonnegut.”
“You’re hedging, and Vonnegut would not approve. Maybe he thought war was as inevitable as icebergs, but he still wrote the damn anti-war novel. Quit being a bystander and pick a side.”
The waiter came back.
“Have you guys decided?”
“Just a cup of coffee for me,” said Alejandro, without taking his eyes off me.
“I’ll take an individual pan pizza with everything,” I said, looking up at the waiter.
Somewhere in the distance, a twenty-something in a flannel shirt and trucker’s cap signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment.
Alex Wyman: lifelong Chicago resident and high school teacher in Pilsen.