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East Pilsen's Makeover

With the influx of University Village gentrifiers and the aggressive marketing of John Podmajersky III, the neighborhood will have a whole new look for this year's Winter Festival of Art.

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It's true, all true. Those rumbles and rumors about what John Podmajersky III is up to in what some used to call East Pilsen--the area along and around Halsted between 16th Street and Canalport, where his family is said to own about a hundred buildings--are pretty much right on. Just ask him. Is he now calling the neighborhood the Chicago Arts District--without any official sanction from the city? Yes. Has he removed longtime resident artists from first-floor spaces along Halsted? Yes. Replaced them with commercial tenants? Yes. Ordered those tenants to keep their lights on at least till midnight? Yes. Stripped the blinds off their windows? Dictated "attractive window displays"? Instituted uniform painting and signage? Yes, yes, and yes.

Did he also double the rents? No, says Podmajersky, but "we're in the process of reevaluating all our rents. A lot of people here haven't had rent increases for five or six years. Our rents remain the most affordable in the city for artists."

Podmajersky's father, John II, who was born and grew up in Pilsen when it was largely an eastern European neighborhood, began to acquire his real estate holdings more than 40 years ago. The area and buildings were in decline, but John II, who worked as a structural engineer for the city, recognized early on that large lofts and cheap rents would draw a tenant base of artists who could stabilize--and glamorize--the neighborhood. Rehabbing one building at a time, he developed a shabby-chic artists' community, dotted with hidden alley gardens, that spread over 12 square blocks and gained cachet by word of mouth. John III, a graduate of Francis Parker School and the University of Chicago, eventually joined him in the business. Over the last couple of years John III has taken over much of the property marketing and management, a changing of the guard that's been a source of worry for tenants who see the elder Podmajersky as paternalistic--even idealistic--and his son as a businessman.

They should also have been looking to the north. The biggest change was coming not from the Pods but from an even larger landowner--the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose University Village development on the site of the old Maxwell Street market, just north of Podville on Halsted, burst into the neighborhood, changing its character in one fell swoop. The university and its partners are nearing completion on 930 redbrick apartments, condominiums, and townhomes selling for up to $700,000 each. Thousands of upscale new residents are beginning to populate the streets, and the Caribou Coffee, Cold Stone Creamery, and Jamba Juice shops are already in place and humming. The city's streetscaping improvements zipped through University Village into Podville, and so has a new wave of gentrification.

You could say the younger Podmajersky's vision for his empire differs from his father's by degree. Where pop wanted artists as tenants (and turned the neighborhood's back to the street), junior is looking for "artist-entrepreneurs"--especially for those high-visibility first-floor spots. "These retail spaces deserve somebody who's going to take full advantage of them," he says. His brochures announce that "The Chicago Arts District is ready and waiting for your creative business," and his two newest renters on Halsted are handsome examples of what he's after. Fleur Gallery, at 1833 S. Halsted, exhibits established as well as new artists and is owned by Christy MacLear and Ali Walsh, who also run Fleur Fine Art--an art-shopping firm for buildings, corporations, and individuals--out of the same space. The 4Art gallery, at 1932 S. Halsted, run by Robin Monique Rios and Jerod Schmidt, also offers framing, graphic design, and art classes.

Podmajersky says what he's doing is like "cleaning house," creating "an attractive consistency" that makes the street more appealing and will help bring back commerce. He's begun with the 1800 block of Halsted, and anticipates that the change will eventually "encompass most if not all of the ground-floor spaces we have here, from 16th Street to Cermak." He says he's been able to relocate artists who just want studio space: "We never say to anybody, 'You've got to get out.' We have other spaces where people can live and do their art and continue to exist in much the same way that things have been going for a long time here. [But] we want our storefronts to be vital commercial spaces in the context of an art community. Say you're an artist-entrepreneur and you've got a great idea--you want to open a gallery, do something viable with your work in a commercial setting? Well then, come on down, because we want you here and we're going to work with you.

"If the artists are successful, we're successful," Podmajersky says. His services include a Web site showcasing tenant artwork, a soon-to-be-launched newsletter, and the marketing help of event coordinator Cynthia West, who put together this weekend's Winter Festival of Art--an open house and sale in about 25 spaces. For the old thrill of navigating mean streets in search of art you might have to follow the Podville tenants who've opted out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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