One of the many murals located in Pilsen that celebrate the neighborhood’s Mexican vibe.

By Will Hernandez

Once the summer hits in Chicago, street food cart vendors are not hard to find in the Mexican-dominated Pilsen neighborhood.

You notice them by the 18th Street Pink Line stop. They’re scattered around the perimeter of Harrison Park, a staple in the neighborhood for decades.

Most vendors sell the same kinds of foods. Elotes, which is grilled Mexican street corn served with an array of condiments mixed into a creamy concoction, and tamales are the most popular items.

And if you want dessert, it’s not hard to find a “paleta man” pushing a cart filled with ice cream bars and ice cream sandwiches.

But in a world that continues to go more digital and mobile, there’s only one way to pay for a tasty treat from these hard working vendors: cash.

No one uses Square to accept a credit card. Not one vendor is asking you to Venmo them for a tamale. In fact, some of them still use flip phones. It’s truly amazing to see in this smartphone-dominated world.

Pilsen is one example of the many anomalies when it comes to the digital discussion because as long as street vendors are in business in this kind of a neighborhood, cashless society talk is a moot point.

Yes, that’s an exaggeration to some extent. But a look at these street vendors tells a story about an aspect cashless society chatter that doesn’t get discussed enough: the 10 million households in the U.S. that are unbanked (and millions more worldwide).

And we can take it a bit deeper. Despite a neighborhood that houses branches from Bank of America, BMO, Byline Bank and Wintrust, cash is still king at many businesses despite credit card acceptance. It’s not uncommon to see a line 10 people deep at Bank of America waiting to withdraw cash from the two ATMs in the lobby.

Until the business operations of a street vendor in Pilsen are addressed to push the digital future forward, the idea of a true cashless society is a pipe dream at best.

Flickr photo. 

How elotes and tamales keep a cashless society at bay