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This Japanese Photographer Captured Pilsen In 1990 — Now He Wants To Return

By Ariel Cheung | August 22, 2017 8:12am
 "Pilsen Days," a new photography book by Akito Tsuda, shows the streets and people of Pilsen in 1990.
Japanese Photographer's New Book Shows The Streets Of Pilsen In 1990
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PILSEN — Akito Tsuda roamed the streets of Pilsen in the early 1990s, doing his best to capture the essence of those who lived there and the neighborhood they called home.

Today, 10,000 Hispanic people have left Pilsen. In their wake has come Taco Bell, proposals for 30-story glass towers and wealthier, single white people.

Tsuda's work serves as an important reminder of who made Pilsen what it is today, and that's why Cultura in Pilsen is looking to bring Tsuda and his new photography book "Pilsen Days" back to the neighborhood.

"There's a lot to be said about the history," said Ilene Palacios, a co-manager at Cultura in Pilsen. "Even with all the issues and lack of support the community has had, there are still a lot of people who made this their home and found happiness here."

The literary and arts group is hoping to raise $7,500 to fly in Tsuda from his native Japan for an exhibit of his "Pilsen Days" work. Tsuda spent three years in the neighborhood, visiting people's homes and learning about Pilsen culture.

The crowdfunding campaign will also pay for the "Pilsen Days" book release and a two-week exhibit at La Catrina Cafe, 1101 W. 18th St., opening Oct. 27.

Clinard Dance will also present a new dance piece inspired by Tsuda's photos in a Nov. 4 show featuring guitarist Pedro Cortés, which Tsuda would attend.

So far, the Indiegogo campaign has netted $2,100 in just under two weeks, with another 11 days to go to raise the remaining $5,400 by Sept. 2.

The project is an important piece of history for what was Chicago's first majority Latino community, Palacios said. While gentrification has intensified in the last 15 years, data shows Pilsen is still a working-class community, and its population remains mostly Hispanic.

"The people in this neighborhood really built it back up when it was left by the first wave of immigrants," Palacios said. "They made it something that was theirs, something beautiful that honored Mexican and Latinx histories and culture."

Photos from "Pilsen Days." [All photos provided/Akito Tsuda]

Families who lived in the neighborhood have spent decades fighting to improve Pilsen and nearby Near West Side neighborhoods, Palacios said. They resorted to hunger strikes to get schools built and painted murals to beautify their streets.

As more affluent people have moved into the neighborhood over the past decade, "there's this kind of idea that through gentrification, it's being 'improved,'" Palacios said. "So I'm hoping this photo series really complicates that and rids us of that very basic, incorrect idea."

Tsudas photos from the early '90s remained largely unseen until last year, when they began to surface on social media. With piqued interest, Tsuda decided to look into publishing a book of his photography, and Cultura in Pilsen stepped in to help make it happen.

Ideally, Palacios said she'd like to see the subjects of Tsuda's portraits meet the photographer, and Cultura in Pilsen is reaching out to those people in preparation of Tsuda's visit.

She also hopes the exhibit will provide an opportunity to highlight the work of current Pilsen artists, as well.

But if Cultura in Pilsen can't raise the needed money, they'll have to make do with however much of their plans they can afford, Palacios said.

Donations to the Indiegogo campaign come with perks ranking from a social media shout-out for $5 to a $1,000 benefactor level that comes with five copies of "Pilsen Days," a mention in the book's acknowledgements, two signed posters and 10 postcards.

Those who donate at least $75 will receive a signed copy of the book.