In the past several decades, with the explosion of globalization and innovation, Mexican-American communities within growing cities have encountered a barrier that leaves an emotional mark on both the land and its individuals — the gentrification of neighbourhoods that were once called home.

We have to acknowledge that it is part of the natural cycle of life to evolve, move and change, and the same rules apply to city landscapes. However,  re-envisioning and developing neighbourhoods only to raise the cost of living and displace the previous communities is a matter not to be neglected. Fortunately, this issue is not overlooked in Chicago’s Pilsen and 606 trail areas.

In March 2021, the city council of Chicago passed a one-year pilot program that charged a fee of $15,000 per building (or $5,000 per unit) for any demolition permit in Pilsen and along the 606 trails — one of the city’s in-demand real estate areas. Recently, the permit was extended to April 1, 2024. Furthermore, the money from the fees will go to support affordable housing within these areas, entrusted to the Chicago Community Land Trust.

Pilsen by Sebastián Hidalgo. Image courtesy of Sebastián Hidalgo.

These permits will reduce the displacement of communities with low-to-moderate income and ensure that the neighbourhood maintains its character and affordability. Housing Commissioner Marissa Novara states that demolitions have in fact declined 88% along the 606 trail and 25% in Pilsen from pre-pandemic levels.

“I’m seeing more and more different buildings being torn down and built up as condos and being rented out by all these ‘happy’ Anglo families,” said Phrito Cruz, who was born and raised in Pilsen. “It’s not anything bad to see them happy. It’s the back-story that’s frustrating. Like, oh, they feel comfortable here, when I’m over there wondering where my neighbourhood went — I just don’t see it anymore.”

Sebastián Hidalgo, an independent visual journalist who was raised and later displaced from his Chicago neighbourhood Pilsen, embodies this battle by exploring concepts of belonging and home and giving a voice to people from marginalized communities affected by displacement and gentrification. Most of Hidalgo’s practice is rooted in bringing attention to these issues within communities, creating a counter-narrative away from the primary media focus on gang activity and violence.

Pilsen by Sebastián Hidalgo. Image courtesy of Sebastián Hidalgo.

“As a photographer, can the work really change things? [It] is a question we can always ask ourselves and answer honestly and with humility” Hidalgo says.

“We are not saviors; we are journalists committed to change work.”

In one of his recent projects for Catchlight entitled A sense of home, Hidalgo explores ideas of home, highlighting the significance that the concept has on families and upbringings. The project is focused on Salinas, California, an area where the overcrowded housing conditions are jeopardizing the social, political and cultural elements that maintain a sense of home.

“I will collaborate with community members, organizations and the Salinas Californian to build a more inclusive approach to my visual storytelling and create a toolkit for reporting engagement that will live beyond my time as a fellow,”Hidalgo states.

Salinas by Sebastián Hidalgo. Image courtesy of Sebastián Hidalgo.

In 2018, Hidalgo was named among 12 Emerging Photographers You Should Know by The New York Times. Hidalgo's approach to visual journalism also led to him becoming part of the permanent collection at The National Museum of Mexican Fine Art at Harvard University.

Hidalgo's philosophy of work and deep connection to his subject matter led him to become an educator and cohost of The Visual Desk, a bi-weekly editorial support for freelance visual journalists who work on social and humanitarian issues. The commitment of Hidalgo to share the stories of the members of these communities embodies the motivations behind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Decent Work and Economic Growth and Reduced Inequalities.

Salinas by Sebastián Hidalgo. Image courtesy of Sebastián Hidalgo.

“Just being part of a team [as a journalist of color] is extremely difficult.” Hidalgo explains. “There are often a lot of microaggressions that we have to deal with…. And it does affect you…. It’s extremely challenging to be diplomatic about it, or to not have those safe spaces within the industry itself.”

Displacement and gentrification have deep historic roots and are engulfed by many factors that spread beyond the physical displacement of an individual, creating social and cultural barriers for marginalized communities that call these neighbourhoods home. Photographers like Hidalgo create an avenue of discourse between individuals of these communities and the general public that counters the prejudiced narrations of the media. Everyone is entitled to feel safe and have a place to call home.

See more of Sebastián Hidalgo here.

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