To be clear, signs that hang in unrented spaces offer the following motto: “Work. Live. Create.” Here, it seems that creating is tertiary to working—and timely rent is thrice as important as critical acclaim.
Passing through East Pilsen along Halsted Street, one notes a subtle uniformity at play: Grayish-black exteriors and half-orange, half-blue address signs affiliate the eclectic mix of buildings. Awash in the smog of trucks speeding from Pilsen’s industrial complexes to the Dan Ryan Expressway, the spaces lining this corridor are the property of Podmajersky, Inc.: one of the largest, most powerful real-estate developers in Chicago. The Podmajerskys, who arrived in the neighborhood in 1914 from their native Slovakia, incorporated their family under the pretext of engendering a thriving arts community in the city. Yet to know a business is to know its clientele, and Pilsenfolk have adopted many contentious epithets for this historic, ubiquitous entity. The litany of monikers includes the “Pod People,” “Podmajerksky,” and – a favorite of Bridgeport’s artist collective Lumpen – the “Principality of Podmajersky.”
Although vitriol is a common response to any urban developer – it is unsurprising, for example, that alternative newspapers and arts magazines in Chicago often criticize Podmajersky as a gentrifying force – Podmajersky is not the average real-estate machine. The “for-art’s-sake” teleology proclaimed by its founder, John Podmajersky II, would seem to ally the company with the vanguards of the local culture. Yet resentment persists, and one considers exactly what gain a landlord seeks from renting his property to artists. Indeed, if the motivating factor is the same as most corporate endeavors – financial gain – why should the organization affect the higher purpose of advancing an arts community? One wonders about the fraudulence of this enterprise and the effects of this brand on its buyers (Podmajersky is nothing if not a brand).
In a short film recorded three years ago at the Second Conference for Global Transformation (an event held by Landmark, an organization that hosts infamously cult-like, self-actualization workshops), 83-year-old John II recounts his life story through laughter and tears. (Those with a patience of steel and a stomach of iron can view the video here.)
During a trip home in the 1960s, John II was dismayed by the squalid state East Pilsen had assumed after the Dan Ryan Expressway had been constructed. He impulsively bought several abandoned buildings within the quickly deteriorating sector that lay just west of the expressway. “There was a lot of abandonment of buildings,” he recalls, “and they were on the verge of being torn down, so I was kind of upset about that since, before that, I did a lot of work with my father and mother fixing up the parts of the area east of there. So I … took on this neighborhood, and I started buying buildings like a baby—I mean, like a young person would go to a candy store, just picking. Before long I had ten buildings.” After commissioning workers from a previous project to renovate these buildings, which were left to decay by the factories and shops that had fled the neighborhood, John II’s next obstacle was occupancy.
If one listens attentively to John’s soliloquy, our question takes the version of “Who am I gonna rent to?” “I realized the local residents weren’t the ones,” he answers, “because I’ve had experience with them before. They—you rent seven rooms to four people, and before long there’s another four, and then before two months are gone there are like fifteen of them. So I realized that was like an exercise in being hopeless. So I decided to vacate those buildings and gut them out. It was just fortunate for me at the time that I ran across some artists that were being displaced in an urban-renewal program. So I took ‘em around, and they liked the spaces I had, which was all commercial buildings on the street. And, uh, they needed a lot of work—but the artists would take them as is and fix them. So I realized that these were gonna be my partners in rebuilding that part of Chicago simply by virtue of who they were and what they’re committed to and how much in harmony they were with me. So I start renting to them, and, little by little, I got a reputation around the city that I rent to art people.”
Although their meeting was circumstantial, John undeniably took an active role in establishing a safe environment for his new tenants, the “art people.” Advancing a vigilante, cowboy kind of justice he remembers from the movies of his childhood, John II chased off the thieving bands and emptied out the gang-infested taverns and pool halls along Halsted. By acquiring more property in the surrounding blocks, he was able to create a cloister for his artists. He shifted life inward by establishing communal gardens and courtyards between sets of buildings, where they remain gated and sheltered from the heavy traffic.
In the half-century since its founding, the Podmajersky empire has expanded its reach and invested its handiwork into more and more spaces. (They still maintain a Band-Aid philosophy in the upkeep of their property, often performing slapdash repairs that make, for example, roofs satisfactory at least in the absence of rain. Perhaps this hands-off approach rides on an assumption that “art people” expect less, or that such tenants would prefer to make an artistic project even of their homes.) While the Pods continue catering to the artistic community, however, their marketing tactics have evolved. Under the current leadership of Podmajersky III, the enterprise now ardently pursues a specific type of “art person.” To be clear, signs that hang in unrented spaces offer the following motto: “Work. Live. Create.” Here, it seems that creating is tertiary to working—and timely rent is thrice as important as critical acclaim.
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