Activism | Environment | Little Village

Citizens for an Unpolluted La Villita

Little Village’s fight for environmental justice

Ellie Mejia

On December 14, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent the day in Little Village. He was the center of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly completed Park 553, dubbed “La Villita” by residents and journalists, where he touted the twenty-two-acre site as one of several new green spaces opened during his time in office and a major victory for the park-starved neighborhood.

In anticipation of Emanuel’s appearance, a group calling themselves the “The Oh Heeeeellz Naaaaaaaaaa Coalition” organized a Facebook event entitled “Oh Heeeelllzz Naaaaa Rahm is coming to La Villita,” a protest to interrupt Mayor Emanuel’s scheduled public event at the nearby Dulcelandia candy shop. The group’s main objection to Emanuel’s presence was what they saw as his appropriation of the decades-long fight that made the park possible.

To the Coalition, Emanuel’s policies have neglected the needs of South Side neighborhoods, and his day spent in Little Village last month was a disingenuous attempt to claim allegiance with, and credit for, the work done by groups like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). LVEJO unites a wide scope of issues in its campaigns to correct what Executive Director Antonio Lopez calls some of the “best examples of environmental injustice in the city of Chicago.”

Little Village resident and mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has seen the grassroots efforts of local environmentalists first-hand, and is similarly critical of Emanuel.

“The mayor’s entry into the picture was eleventh-hour,” Garcia said. “As was the fight for shutting down the coal-burning plants. That was a ten-year effort. Neighborhood residents engaged in that. He came in and said, ‘I’m the hero, look what I did. I closed them down.’”

In reality, efforts to close down polluting coal-fired power plants and other industrial sites in Pilsen and Little Village have been spearheaded for years by LVEJO, which was founded by neighborhood parents in 1994 in response to concerns about the exposure of local children to harmful particles. Since then, the group’s organizers and youth team have collaborated—through picketing, petitions, meetings with aldermen, and other measures—to push for environmental protection and remediation from the city, CTA, and private corporations.

LVEJO’s activist work is not limited to the cleanup of brownfields, however. The organization considers access to public transit part of the fight to correct injustices in the neighborhood. The bulk of Little Village lies within the roughly triangular space formed by the Pink Line, the south branch of the Chicago River, and the city’s western border. This area was once served by CTA bus route #32, which ran along a limited western section of 31st Street before crossing the river, a route that provided no direct connection between Little Village and the city to its east. The #32 was discontinued in 1997 due to low ridership.

LVEJO promptly fought back, calling for even more extensive service. In 2012, the CTA granted that request in a six-month experiment. After the six months, the CTA recommended in their 31st Street Corridor Analysis that both portions be made permanent. Today, CTA route #35 runs as a single route across Little Village, with a summertime extension to the beach, providing what the report calls “service coverage for a densely populated area of the city that lacks a true east-west bus connection to the rest of the system.” In its first year of operation, the route’s average daily ridership has increased by 14.7 percent, according to CTA ridership statistics.

One of LVEJO’s most significant recent triumphs came when two coal-fired power plants, Pilsen’s Fisk Station and Little Village’s Crawford Station, shut down for good. Coal-fired facilities like Fisk and Crawford generate electricity using high-pressure steam that powers a generator. But to heat water and create that steam, they burn thousands of tons of coal per day. A 2001 Harvard School of Public Health report found that the two plants—and other coal-fired plants across Illinois—were significant sources of harmful particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, which put nearby residents at greater risk of respiratory problems and premature death. According to the report, both Fisk and Crawford remained exempt from the emission standards prescribed by the Clean Air Act because they predated the legislation.

After years of campaigning by LVEJO and others, the plants were finally closed in 2012. An Environmental Protection Agency inspection four months later found that dust levels in the surrounding area were back within normal parameters; however, the removal of contaminated soil from the sites continued into 2014.

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La Villita Park has its origins in a similar effort. At the same time that LVEJO was working to have Fisk and Crawford closed, they had their eye on a vacant former industrial site in the neighborhood: the land once occupied by the Celotex asphalt factory. Lying immediately west of the Cook County Jail complex at 26th and California, the factory had also been fired by coal.

According to an EPA report published in English and Spanish, the agency had received pollution complaints regarding the site as early as 1989. By 1993, Celotex had removed all buildings from the site, which nonetheless remained polluted as a result of the coal tar distillation Celotex had used to produce coal tar paints, pipe coating, driveway sealer, and other products.

Celotex covered the site with soil, but thorough cleanup efforts were not completed until 2009. Lopez notes that LVEJO was responsible for pressuring site owner Honeywell to clean up residential yards surrounding the factory land, in addition to the site itself.

Though Emanuel issued a proposal for a park on the site in 2012, LVEJO pushed back on the initial proposal, calling for modifications in the types of sport facilities to better fit community preferences. These requests were granted, including the replacement of proposed baseball fields with more facilities for soccer and basketball. Now, while the Coalition has questioned the authenticity of Emanuel’s relationship with the park and LVEJO’s efforts, a statement published on Facebook stresses that they “[applaud] the development of the park: it’s the result of grassroots neighborhood organizing—the youth and community who made the park happen deserve all the credit.”

The fight for the cleanup of polluted brownfield sites has clear ties to environmentalist work, but LVEJO’s work to improve the neighborhood’s public transit stems from the organization’s belief that struggles for environmental justice and neighborhood empowerment have important ties. As far as concerns about mayoral sugarcoating go, Lopez isn’t too worried. “The reality is, a lot of people know these are community victories,” he says. “It’s more about how people think about social change, whether it comes from policymakers or from the grassroots.”

Indeed, Little Village activists have thought hard about the connections between environmentalism and transit access; at the core, both are issues that center on the neighborhood’s visibility in politics and policy. With greater visibility, their work shows, traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities can be transformed, one lot at a time.

Osita Nwanevu contributed reporting for this article.

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