Pilsen: The Next Wave 

32nd & Urban's Lauren Pacheco and Peter Kepha forsake hot Bridgeport to start a new hub at 22nd and Halsted.

Blago Shoeshine Kit

Blago Shoeshine Kit

Courtesy of Ray Noland

The last time I wrote about Pilsen's Chicago Arts District, in August, it was to chronicle the departure of yet another gallery and note the many empty storefronts along the district's main drag, roughly 1700-2000 S. Halsted. "Everybody's leaving," Robin Monique Rios lamented, as she prepared to move her business, 4Art Inc., to the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, where a livelier vibe has been attracting artists and gallerists alike.

Rios says the move has worked out well, and there are still a lot of gaping windows on Halsted. But next month two Bridgeport art-world entrepreneurs will buck the trend, trekking across the river to Pilsen to open a new venture at 2229 S. Halsted, a couple blocks south of the ghost town Rios was fleeing. Lauren Pacheco, 31, and her brother, artist Peter Kepha, 28—half the team behind the popular, short-lived 32nd & Urban Gallery—will launch the Chicago Urban Art Society on June 11 with "Sweet Tea and American Values," a solo show of work by stencilmaster Ray Noland, aka CRO.

During its two-and-a-half-year run, 32nd & Urban hosted 17 shows for 70 artists, including the likes of Juan Angel Chavez and Michael Genovese. But when their partners departed to pursue business and law degrees, Pacheco and Kepha decided to take a breather and rethink the situation. They closed the gallery in 2008 and, Pacheco says, "mourned" it for the next year as they watched the economy worsen and opportunities for artists shrivel. Finally, Pacheco recalls, "We said we've got to get back to what we want to be doing." In July she left her job as regional director of Rocket Learning, a tutoring company, to lay the groundwork for a "reinvented" gallery.

Unlike 32nd & Urban, CUAS is a nonprofit that's intended to function like a community art center, not only presenting exhibits but offering classes and a venue for meetings and events. For that they needed some serious space. Pacheco started looking in Bridgeport, where Kepha—the name, his professional handle, means "rock" in Aramaic and alludes to Saint Peter—has a graphic design business called Detour Studio. "We really wanted to stay there," he says. But they couldn't afford anything big enough.

click to enlarge Lauren Pacheco with Ald. Daniel Solis, the United Neighborhood Organization's Philip Mullins, and Juan Rangel, CEO of UNO
  • Lauren Pacheco with Ald. Daniel Solis, the United Neighborhood Organization's Philip Mullins, and Juan Rangel, CEO of UNO
  • Courtesy of Ray Noland

Pacheco and Kepha are third-generation Mexican-American Chicagoans and plugged in to a couple of the city's vital networks. Their older sister, Kristal Pacheco, a muralist and member of the Chicago Public Art Group, was their original conduit to established artists like Chavez, Kerry James Marshall, and Hector Duarte. And Peter Pacheco Jr., their late father, was a precinct captain in Brighton Park on the southwest side, where Lauren and Kepha grew up and still live. (A stretch of California Avenue is named for him.) Lauren Pacheco says they've known Alderman Daniel Solis, whose 25th Ward includes Pilsen, for a long time. When Solis heard they were looking for space, he suggested the former home of the Sandler Sanitary Wiping Cloth Company in Pilsen.

"I know Lauren and her brother personally," Solis said in a phone interview last week. Bringing them in is "a great opportunity for the neighborhood." Solis is also "looking at artists as an option" for the area east of the Sandler property, on Cermak, where three multistory structures stand nearly empty. "We haven't had a lot of success attracting industry there," he says. "The kind of industry that used to be attracted to these buildings, it's not in the city anymore."

The area had been designated a "prime manufacturing district" by the city, he notes, "but we're making it more flexible. . . . Film industry, design, whatever—people might not be able to live there, but they'd be able to work."

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