Ethnic Neighborhoods and Engagement – The Case of Latino Neighborhoods in Chicago

Chicago, Illinois is not just known as the Windy City, but also as the City of Neighborhoods. During the 10 months I spent living in the midwestern metropolis, I realized how fitting both of these nicknames are. From the many cuisines and sense of close-knit community of my neighborhood of Andersonville over the vibrant queer scene of Boystown to the fast-paced capitalist lifestyle synonymous with the city center, the Loop – there seems to be a suitable neighborhood for everyone in Chicago. The city’s common identity as the City of Neighborhoods is more than a mere marketing strategy, but is rooted in a long history of social and political engagement. To this day, the city council includes 50 aldermen, each being responsible for their respective neighborhoods, so-called wards [1]. However, American cities are particularly vulnerable to residential segregation, which occurs when people of the same ethnicity move to the same neighborhood, as other ethnicities do the same in other neighborhoods [2]. Such ethnically distinct neighborhoods are not inherently problematic, but they can be, for example, if they reinforce structural inequalities.

Why is civic engagement important?

Despite the US being incredibly diverse, as traditional ‘minorities’ will soon outnumber the (non-Hispanic) white population, these groups are still subjected to discrimination. Latinos are the largest ethnic minority group and directly experience the impact of residential segregation. Many low-income Latino neighborhoods have formed over time and the inhabitants are less likely to have a job, have lower education, and have worse health resources like doctors. This prevents many residents from having good health and well-being, additionally, it leads to a higher chance of death from lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity [3]. All of these factors influence the neighborhood’s inhabitants well-being and engagement, both in their community and in greater society. This kind of engagement is called civic engagement, also known as place relationship, which is a process occurring during or aiming towards the transformation of a specific place. In this case, that place is the neighborhood – a place of participation, belonging, and belief [1]. 

Next to the obvious benefit of being able to participate in the transformation of society, engagement helps to educate the public about their neighborhood and encourages its residents to network, learn new skills, and be active as community leaders, which increases efficacy, confidence, and further incentivizes engagement [3].

“American cities are particularly vulnerable to residential segregation” 

There are many possible reasons why a particular neighborhood’s engagement is low: the previously mentioned structural inequalities, differences between cultures, and discrimination, for example, based on ethnicity. These factors apply to Latino neighborhoods to a certain extent, but that is not all; undocumented immigrants engage less in and are less trusting of civil society, and fear authority that extends through their networks [3]. Based on these findings, it is easy to assume that Latino engagement is uniformly low and extremely hard to control. However, there is a neighborhood that begs to differ – Pilsen, Chicago.

The interesting case of Pilsen

The historical neighborhood, just southwest of the Loop, has a long history of immigration, receiving its name from the Czech city of Pilsen. Its former European residents were replaced by Mexican-born Latinos in the 20th century, peaking at 89% in 1990. Since then, their Latino population has steadily declined and low-income families have been replaced by richer single renters, who sought out this neighborhood due to its central location [4]. This process is called gentrification, which actively transforms neighborhoods to the disadvantage of its long-term inhabitants. To prevent this vicious cycle, the residents’ civic engagement is required.

Pilsen’s unique history and challenges are obvious, but how is Pilsen doing compared to other Latino neighborhoods in terms of engagement? There are several mechanisms behind engagement, for example, sociability and trust, which both make up social capital, a concept symbolizing knowledge on how to navigate society as a kind of currency. The first factor can be measured by how many contacts the residents have with their neighbors – other studies found that Latinos have less frequent, but more occasional contact compared to the general US population. However, no such difference was observed in Pilsen [1]. 

A similar result was found for trust, where it was expected that Latinos trust far less, in line with the factors we discussed earlier. That was not the case though, as Pilsen and all other observed neighborhoods do not have any more or less trust than other US Americans. It is also worth noting that Pilsen’s residents were more trusting if they owned a house, were citizens, and had a high level of education – all norms which apply to the general population, but not to the other Latino neighborhoods studied. As both high sociability and trust usually mean a person is more engaged, the researchers assumed that civic engagement in Pilsen is high[1]. Their expectations were exceeded: in fact, Pilsen’s level of civic engagement is similar to the national average, and at least in terms of signing petitions, even exceeds it. Unsurprisingly, the study also was not able to recreate the previous findings on Latino engagement, as all observed neighborhoods did not meet the benchmarks [1]. 

Cause for methodological debate

How can established studies be so fundamentally wrong? Usually, engagement is easily measured by social capital and socioeconomic status, meaning how well-off a person is in terms of education and finances, but these factors seem to be irrelevant here. However, there were profound differences between individual neighborhoods, so the place seems to be the most important predictor of civic engagement [1]. 

Pilsen’s high engagement is not random – its high-density urban architecture fosters interaction and engagement, as its residents are simply physically closer to each other, compared to a more suburban single-family neighborhood. Chicago, specifically Pilsen, has a long history of political engagement and resistance, which has long become part of the community’s self-understanding [1]. 

The case of Pilsen opens up a methodological debate: there have been many points of criticism towards research on Latino populations. There are two dominant schools of thought, that at best don’t apply to these communities and at worst are racist. The ethnicity paradigm supposes that Latinos are merely on a path of assimilation, meaning all differences to other ethnicities are only temporary until Latinos have reached the same level as the baseline, which is often (non-Hispanic) whites [1]; this approach disregards any kind of cultural differences and portrays its baseline as the most desirable outcome, which is normative. On the other hand, the race approach assumes that Latinos are similar to all other ethnic minorities, and in practice, many studies follow this approach [1]. Latino research is often viewed as an extension of research done about the black community, disregarding both groups’ unique struggles and cultures. In general, the American black community is much more unified through its history and recent movements such as Black Lives Matter, whereas the Latino community tends to be much more fragmented. 

There are two dominant schools of thought, that at best don’t apply to these communities and at worst are racist. 

How can we fix Latino studies?

Firstly, we need to move away from ignorant overarching conclusions about the community: both paradigms are simply outdated and in dire need of replacement, and so are traditional predictors of civic engagement. There is a promising new concept that is developed from and for Latinos: Latino cultural citizenship [1]. This theory establishes Latinos as a community with differences outside the black-white ethnic binary with unique characteristics and challenges. Pilsen is the perfect example of why we need this nuanced understanding of the Latino community, and Chicago, being the birthplace of many theories on urban living, is the perfect location to right the wrongs of Latino community studies. 


[1] Price, P. L., Lukinbeal, C., Gioioso, R. N., Arreola, D. D., Fernández, D. J., Ready, T. & de los Angeles Torres, M. (2011). Placing Latino Civic Engagement. Urban Geography, 32(2), 179-207, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.32.2.179 

[2] Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1988). The Dimensions of Residential Segregation. Social Forces, 67(2), 281. DOI: 10.2307/2579183 

[3] Fernandez, M. (2018). Increasing community engagement in Latino residents to improve health outcomes. Local Environment, 23(9), 920-933, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2018.1500530 

[4] Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement. (2016). The Trajectory and Impact of Ongoing Gentrification in Pilsen pact-of-Ongoing.pdf

Share This Post