This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Little Village activists spent more than a decade fighting a pair of local coal power plants that created some of the worst air pollution in Chicago, an effort that paid off when the big toxin-belching facilities shut down in 2012.
After taking credit for closing the plants, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised any replacement business would be more environmentally and community-friendly and that residents would be involved.
So community members were outraged earlier this year when they learned one of those sites was going to be replaced with a large warehouse for online retailers such as Amazon that they fear could draw hundreds of polluting diesel-fueled trucks a day. They also went to work.
In an unprecedented effort, a coalition of neighborhood activists from Little Village as well as neighborhoods on the South and Southeast sides are demanding the city implement so-called “environmental justice-based reforms,” which would alter how officials make city-wide decisions about which areas should house most industrial and manufacturing businesses.
The moves come as a scrap metal plant is planning to move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side and an asphalt plant popped up overnight across the street from McKinley Park on the South Side. The efforts also come amid a backdrop of a $5 billion redevelopment plan for Lincoln Park where one of that neighborhood’s last manufacturing districts is slated to be converted into glitzy new homes and offices and possibly the much-touted corporate headquarters for Amazon.
“It’s environmental racism — that’s what I feel like it is,” said Cristina Martinez, a longtime McKinley Park resident, after a late-July community meeting about the asphalt plant, which opened with minimal input from residents.
Little Village, McKinley Park and the Southeast Side all have high concentrations of Latino residents, and average median incomes fall below the Chicago average in each neighborhood.
Little Village is about 85 percent Latino, while the East Side community area on the Southeast Side is almost 80 percent Latino, census figures show. McKinley Park is almost 59 percent Latino.
All three areas are considered by state and federal government definitions as “environmental justice” communities, a term used to focus attention on areas that historically have endured high levels of pollution.
Among the changes the groups would like to see include updates on city zoning rules to require greater oversight and strengthening rules regarding environmental and safety risks before projects are OK’d.
A leader of the movement is Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the same group that for a dozen years fought to have the coal plants removed from their neighborhoods.
“The impacts of current land uses such as warehousing, distribution and transportation logistics uses have already negatively impacted the quality of life for those who operate within the neighborhood daily,” Wasserman’s group wrote in a report recently delivered to city officials.
In addition to stricter regulation, Wasserman said, the groups want the city to rethink how it perceives so-called industrial neighborhoods and begin encouraging and cultivating small and environmentally friendly businesses to move into those sections of the city.
“There’s been enough injustice done in different communities,” Wasserman said. “We’re starting to fight back.”
The activists’ efforts are occurring as the city has begun reassessing Chicago’s more than two dozen officially designated industrial corridors in an effort to recognize the city’s changing landscape.
The developments are not without irony. The decline of the city’s historical manufacturing base and the closure of heavily polluting steel mills has greatly contributed to the economic plight of the very South Side and Southeast Side neighborhoods front and center in new battles over dirty industry.
While those industrial corridors still include traditional manufacturing, the city’s review is supposed to acknowledge the “shifting character” of employment, including tech-related jobs as well as the growth of freight-related employment.
City planners’ first area of focus was the North Branch industrial corridor in Lincoln Park, which is largely being transformed into a residential, office and entertainment district. Now Wasserman’s group, known as LVEJO, wants Little Village and other areas that have been centers for industry to also be recognized as places where people live and raise families.
City planning department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said the city’s review of land use around its industrial corridors aims to “leverage the strengths of individual industrial corridors for contemporary uses. In Little Village, local planning partners agreed at the outset of the planning process that maintaining the corridor as a jobs center is the number one priority.”
He added that the city’s process “will continue to address the health and environmental impacts of private investments that seek to leverage the corridor’s competitive advantages.”
But activists say that no longer can the city keep isolating all the dirty industry into a handful of communities. Still, so far that’s exactly what they’ve seen.
Most recently, on the Far Southeast Side, General Iron, a company with a history of environmental violations and a recent citation from U.S. regulators, announced it would relocate from Lincoln Park to 116th Street in an industrial area already the target of neighbors’ complaints.
The more manufacturers move from the North Side to the South and West sides, the greater the resentment from residents in those parts of the city.
“You’re putting the interests of business ahead of public health,” Kate Koval, a Southeast Side neighbor told city officials at a public meeting in June to discuss manganese pollution caused by several companies. “I want to move but I can’t — my entire support system is down here.”
Wasserman and others fought to close the Crawford coal plant in Little Village and the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen. Redevelopment of the Fisk site is still in limbo but the Crawford location was bought by a real estate developer, Hilco, which wants to turn it into a warehouse and distribution center that would substantially increase truck traffic to the area. The company says it's conducting a traffic study to evaluate the impact.
There are virtually no rules that look at the entirety of a residential area that feels the impact from multiple businesses contributing to air and other types of pollution, an environmental advocate said.
“What they’re asking for is to reform those underlying rules as to how facilities are incented to — and allowed to locate in — certain areas,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who works with Chicago communities fighting industrial pollution.
Three community meetings to discuss the Little Village industrial corridor modernization will take place over two days this week, Aug. 8 and 9.
Wasserman said she feels the city answers so far have amounted to little more than double speak.
In Little Village, a high school sits across from a metal can maker that fills the air with a strong sulfur smell. An elementary school sits right next to the Unilever mayonnaise plant, which daily brings hundreds of trucks in and out of the factory site.
“No other neighborhood should have to deal with this,” Wasserman said.
Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.