Big business, little Pilsen

By Arts & Culture Editor

Thalia Hall, one of Pilsen’s most historic buildings, is getting a rock ‘n’ roll makeover.

The four-stem structure at 1807 S. Allport St. is slated to reopen its doors as a music venue in the first quarter of 2014. Although the project could attract scores of students for concerts and bring economic prosperity to the area, some Pilsen residents remain wary of the venue’s renewal. 

Purchased by Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman in late 2013, the building started to thrive after its rebirth brought Dusek’s Board & Bar. The restaurant, located on the ground floor, features a beer-inspired menu created by Michelin-starred chef Jared Wentworth. Punch House, a bar in Thalia Hall’s basement, creates eight punches daily, served by the glass, bowl or carafe. 

John Dusek built Thalia Hall in 1892, modeling it after the Romanesque exterior of the Prague State Opera house and naming it after the Greek Muse of Comedy. The hall was originally a public meeting place for the predominantly Eastern European community that resided in Pilsen at the turn of the century, according to information provided by the Chicago Architecture Foundation for OpenHouseChicago.org.

At the time, it housed a tavern, residential housing, a theater and retail stores; by the 1960s, however, the once grand Thalia Hall had fallen into total disrepair. 

Finkelman said the Thalia Hall project was about reestablishing the space for what it once was in honor of Dusek’s legacy.

“The idea is, selling beer and selling food is nothing new, so we wanted to pay homage to what [Dusek] did in the 1890s,” Finkelman said. “He was quite a visionary.” 

According to Natalia Rodriguez, administrative coordinator at the Greater Pilsen Economic Development association, which provides assistance for Pilsen’s business  owners, Thalia Hall’s restoration will benefit the community.

“I think Thalia Hall’s reintroduction into the community is exactly what we need to boost the economy and promote Pilsen as a destination spot,” Rodriguez said. 

Despite positivity from community organizations, some Pilsen residents remain skeptical of the effect Thalia Hall’s renewed presence will have on the neighborhood. 

Pilsen Bike Tours founder Zorayda Ortiz said although she is neither for nor against the renovations of Thalia Hall, she is aware that some community members are opposed to the change.

“The first thing that came to mind was the old adage, ‘Nothing for us without us,’” Ortiz said.

However, Ortiz said the venue’s presence could be positive if it books acts that appeal to Pilsen’s predominately Mexican culture.

“I sincerely hope [the owners of Thalia Hall] do shows with Mexican culture, not completely leave out the roots of the Mexican culture that are currently there,” Ortiz said. “We want to keep Pilsen Mexican.”  

Gentrification is another community concern because new venues can drive up the price of rent, forcing long-time residents to move.

Though Rodriguez said she has only heard positive feedback regarding Thalia Hall, she said a raise in property values would not be a bad thing. 

“If your rents go up, it’s hopefully because you’re putting money and value into your properties, so you’d expect it to go up, regardless of who’s moving in or out,” Rodriguez said. 

Finkelman said he acknowledged the possibility of gentrifying the area, but that developing Chicago’s neighborhoods is important. 

“There is always a chance that that could happen,” Finkelman said. “I know that on that 18th Street corridor right there, that had happened in the past. It’s a tough question to ask. You try to keep housing as affordable as possible, but you want to keep areas being able to move forward.”

Finkelman has actively reached out to employ Pilsen residents, according to Luiz Matana, technology organizer at PilsenPortal.org, a website that promotes local events, creates original content and posts job listings of businesses in the Pilsen community. 

“How we worked with Thalia was they submitted information to us, some job openings, and we put that on the portal,” Matana said.

Both Ortiz and Rodriguez voiced concerns about reduced residential parking surrounding the hall, which is already a problem in the area surrounding the 18th Street Pink Line Stop. 

“If I lived right there on Allport and 18th, I would be livid if there was no parking when I came home from work because there is a bunch of students at a show,” Ortiz said.

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