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A Pilsen hub falls by the wayside

Updated: June 24, 2013 2:12AM

The colorful multistory building at 1831 S. Racine, once a Hull House settlement home, has housed dance troupes, artists, community activists, citizenship classes and, more recently, a computer lab.

Its exterior walls and parts of the interior are covered by murals and portraits of historical figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

In the early 1900s, long before Pilsen’s Mexican muralist movement, the building was named Howell Neighborhood House. It served Eastern European immigrants, the neighborhood’s majority back then.

Amid an influx of Mexican residents more than 40 years ago, the building was renamed Casa Aztlan and for decades it thrived as a community center.

“It was the nerve center for activity,” says Omar Lopez, 68, who attended and led functions at Casa Aztlan many years ago and wants to bring it back to life.

The building is a shell of its glory days. It fell into foreclosure last summer with Casa Aztlan’s board of directors owing about $115,500 to MB Financial Bank. Last month it sold at a judicial auction for $293,000 to a developer.

Decayed and tagged with code violations, the building was nearly empty when I visited last week except for a volunteer assisting residents with applications for modified utility bills.

Lopez has rallied some residents in a last-ditch effort to stop the sale from being finalized based on legal technicalities tied to the center’s bankruptcy filing. A court hearing on the foreclosure is scheduled for today.

“I’m very worried,” Casa Aztlan Executive Director Carlos Arango said. “We have a small window.”

Most of the finger pointing for the center’s downfall is aimed at Arango. “We ran into so many obstacles,” said longtime Pilsen resident Juan Cabrera, a member of Lopez’s committee to save the building. Cabrera’s brother Martin was a prominent figure at Aztlan before he died.

Among the problems, Cabrera said there was no transparency on finances.

“Apparently it’s mismanagement,” said Raul Raymundo, CEO of the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit in Pilsen. “It was a pillar institution. How did it get to this point? I can only blame it on poor management.”

Raymundo said his organization and other nonprofits might have helped if only they had been asked.

Arango said of his critics: “The lynching doesn’t help.”

Many were unaware of the group’s financial troubles until news of the foreclosure came. Earlier this year, Arango told renters, including the Pilsen Alliance social justice group, to vacate amid contentious dealings with the group.

The Alliance moved to 18th Street, and there is sadness and some relief for board member Rosalie Mancera because she no longer has to witness the building’s continued demise. “Not being there is a breath of fresh air,” she said.

The prevailing thought is that the center will be torn down and condominiums will go up.

In that vein, the loss of Casa Aztlan epitomizes a struggle with gentrification in Pilsen. Latinos increasingly are being priced out, Lopez said, and the possibility of striking a balance culturally and socioeconomically grows more remote.

“Once Aztlan is gone, the Mexican community will continue to be pushed west,” he said. “Pilsen could be a model of diversity, but there has to be a balance.”

In Pilsen, “when you say Casa Aztlan it’s like saying Pepsi Cola,” Lopez said. “People have a sense of what it is.”

These days there is a sense of what it was.

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