Photo by Jasmine Barnes

West Pullman and Riverdale, two neighborhoods tucked away on the Far Southeast side, are easy to overlook. Historically, both neighborhoods were viewed as accessories to larger industrial areas. West Pullman, for instance, was initially populated by men who worked for the nearby Pullman Palace Car Company. Disillusioned with the town’s planned worker community, which, despite its profitability, was shackled by an unrelenting and unethical corporate monopoly, Pullman employees packed up and formed a new community in the bordering area. A century later, the Pullman Porters are memorialized as only being a part of Pullman’s history; the refuge these workers sought in West Pullman—the fledgling neighborhood—is mostly forgotten.

Like West Pullman, Riverdale is also a tangent to the city’s main narrative. Riverdale is not a suburb, although the neighborhood does border a separate town of the same name, which often gets confusing. Riverdale is a Chicago neighborhood, home to the massive housing complex Altgeld Gardens. Altgeld Gardens was launched by the Chicago Housing Authority in 1945, and like West Pullman, was originally a community for industrial workers. However, unlike West Pullman, the first residents of Riverdale’s Altgeld Gardens were majority Black; by the year 1960, over 10,000 Black residents lived in the complex. These Black residents were shunned, harassed, and isolated by city officials and nearby white residents alike—including by those who lived in West Pullman. Unfortunately, racism in West Pullman and Riverdale didn’t end there. In the 1960s, race-integration busing sent white students from West Pullman to Carver High School in Riverdale, and Black students from Riverdale to elementary schools in West Pullman, which was highly controversial and even provoked violence. Thus, West Pullman and Riverdale, two peripheral neighborhoods who possessed such rich, shared history, were locked in racial conflict for many years.

By the next decade, West Pullman and Riverdale would again be in alignment, suffering from the same social phenomenon: white flight. White residents left both neighborhoods in droves, and poverty settled amongst who was left. 

However, while these neighborhoods did experience a great decline in the decades that followed, they did not—contrary to what many may think—fade into oblivion. West Pullman and Riverdale boast valuable assets to their respective communities and to the city at large. For example, West Pullman’s Ray and Joan Kroc Center is the largest community center in the state. Likewise, Riverdale has Beaubien Woods, a gorgeous forest preserve that encircles the perfect lakeside fishing spot. Both neighborhoods have a host of community organizations rallying behind it, covering for the city’s blindspot with fierce dedication and care.

Statistics and breaking news articles are not what define these areas. The resilience of our community, who total more than 33,000 people combined, are what give West Pullman and Riverdale meaning. Though they are positioned at the edge of the city, West Pullman and Riverdale are the centerpieces of our lives—the many Chicagoans who are used to being forgotten.

  • Best Baseball Team: Roseland Little League

    From a ball field at the southernmost end of South Michigan Avenue, the Roseland Little League baseball team has served as a fun outlet for kids and a source of entertainment for families on the Far Southeast side since 1952. 

    Rick Bolin is the current administrative head of the program, and has been affiliated with the team for the past nineteen years. Bolin himself was a Little League player for the South East team, where his father was his first coach, until he reached high school. And like his father, Bolin acted as his childrens’ first coach when he signed his two sons up for tee ball with the Roseland Team in the early 2000s. 

    Though his sons have long since aged out of youth baseball, Bolin has maintained a steadfast commitment to serving his community by curating an environment where local kids can release their energy in positive ways. Each year, between 100-150 kids participate in Roseland Little League’s seasonal programs. The children are grouped by age: four- to six-year-olds play T-Ball, seven- to  ten-year-olds are in the intermediate level, and eleven- and twelve-year-olds are the most advanced players. Roseland Little League’s regular season, when the games kick off, begins in late May and runs until early August, adjusted from a typical baseball schedule to account for the school year. Their pre-season practices run from late February through the end of April, and take place indoors at the newly opened Pullman Community Center, which boasts three turf fields and four batting cages.

    However, the games don’t have to end when summer does: Roseland Little League also hosts additional programs at PCC in the fall. The Fall Ball League is an instructional unit that runs from September through the end of October and focuses on fine-tuning baseball skills. 

    The winter and fall training programs are $25 each per child. The cost for the main season varies by age, but never exceeds over $100 for the two-month program.

    Additionally, no child is turned away for lack of funds. Bolin is cognizant of the financial pressures that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has placed on local families, and strives to make the programs affordable for all. This is why Roseland Little League offers grants for families who are struggling financially, ensuring that fees do not stand in the way of any child’s enrichment. 

    As the summer comes to an end, Roseland Little League has a lot to celebrate. The intermediate team did not lose a game all season, and continued their winning streak when they claimed the championship title in the Chicago Youth Baseball Alliance playoffs. The advanced team placed second for their division. Bolin, and the six coaches who currently oversee the team, are always looking for more volunteers to lend their time and support the effort to provide a safe and fun activity for children of the South Side. If you are interested, please sign up to become a volunteer through the Pullman Community Center website during the off season.

    Roseland Little League, 12483 S. Michigan Ave. (games) and 10355 S. Woodlawn Ave. (training).

  • Best Solar Plant: West Pullman Solar Farm 

    The name West Pullman invokes the area’s industrial history: in the 1800s it was populated by workers for the Pullman railroad car company located just to the east. The railroad and the Calumet River forming West Pullman’s boundaries were veins for raw materials and industrial products, in a region where coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, foundries, and steel mills spewed pollution. 

    So perhaps West Pullman is a fitting site for an installation symbolic of the shift toward clean energy happening in the state and, if far South Siders have their way, in that part of the city. 

    In 2010, a ten-megawatt solar farm began producing power on a forty-acre brownfield site, billed as the nation’s largest urban solar farm. It was built by the power company Exelon—owner of the state’s six nuclear plants—and it produces enough electricity to power up to 1,500 homes. The power is sold into energy markets, where power is procured for the state’s two utility companies—Ameren in downstate Illinois and Exelon’s own subsidiary, ComEd, in the Chicago area. In December 2020, Exelon agreed to sell the solar farm to Brookfield Renewable Partners.

    Before the West Pullman solar farm went online, there were only about five megawatts of solar installed in the whole state of Illinois. 

    Six years later, the state passed ambitious clean energy legislation meant to make solar blossom across the state. Subsidies in the form of Renewable Energy Credits did indeed spark solar on homes and businesses statewide, as well as larger utility-scale solar farms on open land in downstate Illinois. Another energy bill passed in 2021 expanded the solar subsidies and programs to encourage solar development in low-income and environmental justice communities—those neighborhoods, like many on the South Side, that have suffered disproportionate harm from the fossil fuel industry. 

    Now, there are over 1,500 megawatts of solar installed statewide.

    Coming years before the state’s solar industry began to take off, the West Pullman solar farm could be seen as ahead of its time. 

    A state program called Illinois Solar for All now makes it nearly free for many Chicago residents and non-profits like churches to get rooftop solar, though few people have taken advantage of it. Auburn Gresham resident Debra Earl was among the first South Side residents to get solar under that program in 2020, and she hopes her neighbors are inspired to do the same. Qualifying Chicagoans can also get free training in solar jobs under Illinois Solar for All, and get hired for local solar installations.

    The solar farm is an important source of clean energy, but individual Chicagoans and the grid as a whole benefit even more when smaller solar installations are scattered on rooftops throughout neighborhoods. That way individual households can get the bill savings from solar, rather than essentially buying solar energy from the massive company that got $700 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies in the recent energy bill. As local leaders say, solar installations and solar jobs on the South Side would be one way to continue the transition from an industrial “sacrifice zone” burdened by pollution to a leader in the clean energy economy. (Kari Lydersen)

    Correction, October 7, 2022: A previous version of this story failed to indicate that the solar farm changed ownership in 2021.

    Exelon Solar Plant, 201 W. 120th St.

  • Best Urban Farmers: Urban Growers Collective

    “Eat your vegetables!” 

    I remember this phrase being said years ago in many households all over the country. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods have changed through the years, but we all need nourishment of some type on a daily basis. Yet the thought of having and making good use of fresh vegetables and fruit is not what many desire to eat. It helps though, when fruits and veggies are grown and harvested nearby. Farm-fresh produce is low-calorie and nutrient-dense. Health professionals have found that growing food crops in and near your neighborhood contributes to a healthier community overall, because this engages residents in work and recreation that improves public and individual well being. They bring people together, help heal a community, and fosters a sense of purpose for people who simply want to contribute to society and their neighborhoods. Plus, when you take advantage of neighborhood gardens and farms you save money, which can free up funds you have to buy other foodstuffs or meet other household needs.  

    Urban Growers Collective aims to make all this a reality for as many Chicagoans as possible. With seven farms across the South Side, including a two-acre bee sanctuary at Altgeld Gardens, plus a teaching farm smack downtown in Grant Park, the nonprofit organization is planting the seeds of healthy eating all over town. They also run a farmstand in nearby South Chicago, and the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, a bus that has been converted into a mobile farmers’ market. Their goal is to bring food justice and just plain good food to Black and brown communities that don’t otherwise have access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables—and aim to raise awareness through apprenticeships, farm tours, and workshops. This community needs to eat healthier daily. But if you still don’t want to eat your vegetables, why not go check out one of Urban Growers Collective’s farms and see all the hard work others are putting forth to make this happen for you and your neighbors.

    Multiple locations.

  • Best Environmental Justice Organization: People for Community Recovery

    People for Community Recovery is an organization focused on combating environmental issues for residents of the Altgeld Gardens community. Activist Hazel Johnson, who current outreach specialist Beria Hampton calls “the mother of environmental justice,” founded PCR in 1979. Johnson conducted a health study and realized the vast amount of waste and toxic materials in her heavily industrial neighborhood were negatively impacting the health of the community. For decades PCR has fought to bring clean air and water to the Far Southeast Side—where the high concentration of polluters surrounding Altgeld Gardens led Johnson to coin the term “the toxic donut”—and has done much to raise awareness of the intersectionality of race and class with environmental justice.  

    Photo by Jasmine Barnes

    Since moving to Altgeld Gardens in 1985, Hampton herself has been a witness to Johnson’s incredible leadership and has been involved with People for Community Recovery since she was a child. “Then I didn’t understand a lot of the things [PCR] was doing because I was a kid,” she explained to me. But she saw how her own mother adored the organization and constantly volunteered, so Hampton continued to learn and do the groundwork, like passing out flyers and protesting at City Hall. 

    Although Hampton originally studied chemical engineering, she decided to shift her job priorities and now works for PCR full-time. In addition to being the outreach specialist, she is also  a youth development coach, a role in which  she strives to reduce violence within the community. “I’m all over the place all the time,” she joked. “I wear many different hats in this organization.” 

    Hampton added that one of PCR’s recent biggest accomplishments was stopping the demolition of the historic C Building in their community. Now, the team is brainstorming ways they can restore the building, such as curating a museum honoring Hazel Johnson’s work and opening an accessible grocery store for Altgeld Gardens residents. 

    Since Hazel Johnson’s passing in 2011, Hazel’s daughter Cheryl Johnson has become executive director and has worked hard to continue her mother’s mission. Some of the current projects include health recovery mutual aid, installation of solar panels, economic development, affordable housing, and of course preserving the legacy of Hazel Johnson. Even though the pandemic has brought new challenges to the organization, PCR is still as strong as ever. The organization is also constantly looking for volunteers for phone banking and other projects, and Hampton stressed that she understands that everyone has a lot of responsibilities so PCR is flexible with how much individuals want to get involved.

    See for more.

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