Quinn Myers

Life in the Doughnut

Cheryl Johnson talks about growing up in Altgeld Gardens and the future of environmental justice

Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray Homes sit about as far south as you can go in Chicago. Wedged between Lake Calumet, West Pullman, and South Deering, the almost 1,600-unit CHA-owned development is notably isolated, removed from business districts and most public transportation options. Altgeld also lies in what has become known as the “toxic doughnut”; emissions and lingering waste from former refineries and steel mills in the area have been linked to widespread public health issues in the community, including, historically, some of the highest cancer rates in Chicago.

Many of those health risks were brought to light by Hazel Johnson, a community activist who has become known as the “mother of environmental justice.” Before passing away in 2011, Johnson spent decades advocating for stricter environmental regulations and area cleanups through her nonprofit People for Community Recovery (PCR). Her advocacy and organizing took her all over the country and to Washington, D.C., where she met several sitting presidents and testified before Congress.

Like her mother, Cheryl Johnson organizes against polluters and advocates for stricter environmental regulations through PCR, where she now serves as executive director. Speaking in a converted Altgeld unit that serves as PCR’s office, Cheryl talked passionately about the decades of injustice and neglect her community continues to battle. She also spoke tenderly about her family and vibrant social network in Altgeld—a “village” she’s dedicated her life to making a healthier and happier place.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How long has your family been at Altgeld?

This community was built in the forties…[it was] one of the first four public housing [projects] built in the city of Chicago. It was for the returning veterans [from] WWII, particularly African Americans, they didn’t have a place to live once they came back from the war. So, we moved out here March 18, 1962, because my uncle [was a veteran]. It didn’t matter as long as someone in the family had some veteran status [that] made you eligible to move in. And then I think, right there, at the time that we moved in, that’s when it turned over to be public housing, they opened the door for anyone, you didn’t have to be a veteran.

This is federal property. And it was annexed too. Because it used to be in Riverdale, we used to be in Riverdale, and then the city acquired this land, built Altgeld.

What was it like growing up here?

It was the best place. I’m fifty-eight years old. I’ve been living out here for fifty-seven years. Because it’s a good community. When I was growing up, it was the best place to raise a kid. It was self-contained, but we had our own grocery stores, we had our own business strip that was operated and owned by residents from the community. People from the community worked in the school system. I remember when we had truant officers. If you didn’t come to school, they’d knock on your door. If you was outside, they was snatching you, taking you to school. So we had a whole lot of cohesiveness. And the social equity in the community is still high to me today. I raised my two kids, my kids is thirty-one and thirty-three, and I never had to pay for a babysitter, you know.

Because I’ve been doing this work for thirty-two years. So it was sometimes I’m at community meetings, that I won’t make it home in time when my kids get out of school. But my kids knew where to go. They didn’t have one house they could go to, they had several houses they could go to, and I could trust that they going to let my kids stay there, feed my kids until I get home. All I had to do was call them and say look, go pick up my kids from school and keep them for me, I’ll be home. We don’t give value to that though. The only value we give is that we paying today, 300-some dollars for one kid a week, for childcare. That’s a lot.

Do you think that social equity you talked about gets forgotten when we think about communities or neighborhoods?

We don’t place value [on it]. I don’t think it’s forgotten, [but] people don’t look at it as a value. If I’m hungry and I don’t have any food because my money is short, I could go to one of my neighbors, or call one of my friends, and say look, I need a meal to feed my babies. Many times I do that, we all do that. We’d feed ya right up in here, right now. And that’s important. When I grew up out here, there wasn’t a thing of cussing in the street, for example, around grown people. And grown people, if I misbehaving, [they’d] have the right to snatch me up, whoop me, send me home, take me to my ma, and then I get another whooping, and then if my daddy around I get another. You know. And I think that’s what a village was about.

What I love about this community, everybody had a plan. That it wasn’t just to finish high school, you either finish high school or work in an industry like the steel mill, like my brothers did, or you go to college. I think today, Altgeld, still out of all the public housing, [is] one of the highest areas that have sent kids to college. And the most important thing that I give a lot of social value to is that my friends, [who] I was friends with at one years old, they still my friends today. My friends still come out, even though a majority of my friends doesn’t live out here. But we still be around, and their kids.

When did your mother start getting involved in environmental justice work?

The day my mother moved out here, my mother been a community activist. She was heavily engaged, I always remember my mother being active in the community, doing stuff for the kids particularly. Taking us on trips, Riverview, Adventureland, all those different types of amusement parks, she used to organize and take maybe ten buses. She had other parents being chaperones and stuff like that. And she always was engaged in the community. She advocated to us that we needed a community center. She fought to get repairs that needed to be done. And one of the most important things that she did for public housing, she eradicated lead-based paint and asbestos from all public housing in the city of Chicago.

My mother founded this organization in 1979, June of 1979. She doesn’t remember the exact date, but we’ll be forty years old, dealing with community related issues. But I think we became incorporated October 25, 1982, and our primary focus of what we do is around the lens of environmental justice. Because it tends to bring more solutions to some of the issues we’ve been addressing, particularly some of the industrial pollution that happens in this area. She labeled our community the toxic doughnut, because we are in the center of the doughnut, outside the perimeters of polluting entities—fifty documented landfills [and] one of the largest sewage treatment facilities in the area. So, she felt that we had a right to know about what these industries have [and their] impact on public health.

And when she started doing the research, and talking to the U.S. EPA, about our community being exposed to these environmental hazards, they didn’t have the jurisdiction to work with communities. [So] she started lobbying with elected officials, and talking to people within Region 5 here about why there’s no resources for community, but they tell us that they were just mandated to work with academic institutions and to regulate industry. [Ed. note: The EPA breaks up the United States into regions consisting of several states for administrative purposes; Illinois, along with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, lies in Region 5.] But if industry is harming communities, where’s our protection? So she starts speaking, she starts going on a national front, she starts working with other groups around the country, and they lobby the Clinton Administration. That’s when Clinton came up with the Common Sense Initiative, and they worked on a lot of policy around paper mills and emissions from industrial processes. [Ed. note: the Common Sense Initiative was a four-year program aimed at developing cost-effective ways to cut down on pollution and standardize environmental regulations across six major industries.] [Clinton also] created Executive Order 12898, the environmental justice executive order. That order opened up the EPA to provide resources, technical assistance, and to work with communities, and gave us, the community, the right to know about the operation of facilities in our community.

What would you consider the biggest accomplishment of your and your mother’s advocacy work?

Well, seeing environmental justice be part of the conversations today. My mother took a big hit, I seen her cry many times, I used to tell her [it’s] not even worth it. When you go down to your state legislator and they tell you, “Well, the garbage got to go somewhere, why not your neighborhood,” or [get] called a big mouth, or “she don’t know what she talking about” because the perception of people in public housing [is that] we’re less educated and we’re dependent on government assistance. “You already live on government so why not let government dump on you,” that type of abuse. So, it’s interesting that in her speeches, she testified at Congressional hearings about the impact of what we doing with the chemicals, is that it’s depleting the ozone, changing our weather pattern…today we call it climate change.

It’s to see stuff that my mother talked about thirty-five years ago, to see that we’re addressing those issues today because she called it out. And nobody is talking about it in the eighties about this. And that we know how to dirty up this society but we have no plans or work for us to clean it up. We don’t have people trained to clean it up. And now we’re training people to clean it up.

But her vision was, to create…an open environmental lab, I’ll never forget when she said that.

What would that environmental lab look like?

We just need government, university, businesses, and communities to be able to come together to solve some of the problems, for our future generations. So my goal is to really create this environmental center that [my mother] always wanted. She wanted to see where government is involved, university is playing a role, and community is coming together. Pairing community with college students probably is the best thing that I see she was talking about, because they both learning. But training other folk to be scientists, because one of the things I understand is that we need to have something in place in [the] community that will teach people, that will inspire them to go to school to become environmental engineers, environmental social workers. Or to just be environmental chemists, to change the stuff from dirty to green.

To teach people, to teach community folks, and to bring universities down, to come up with real solutions, do real hands-on practices in the community, for our soil remediation, emergency preparedness and response, because we seeing a whole lot of that around here. To be able to work with water reclamation district, and to have training models that reflect what their operation is, so if a kid don’t want to go to college, he can go straight to the water reclamation district. We know that, with the American Chemical Society, they need more scientists. How do I partner with the American Chemical Society and prepare our kids from a community level, to inspire them to continue their education? Because the traditional way is not working now, you see more kids dropping out.

What’s one project you’re working on now?

CHA and public housing authorities around this country really don’t talk about the reason why they tear down public housing. It’s because for one, there was a lead epidemic that they didn’t want to be responsible for, lead poisoning. The second biggest thing was utility costs. [They] could never get a handle on the utility costs in managing public housing.

This is one of the solutions that I’m working on, creating one of the first community-drive solar farm areas. We using three megawatts, our proposal is to generate ten megawatts…so we’d have an excess of seven. So we want to help offset some of the [costs in] neighborhoods, in this area, that have high utilities. The fortunate thing that we have in public housing here, in Altgeld, is our utilities are included in our rent. So we hope that whatever we sell will come back and help develop programs, and help develop economic development, help residents start business all over again. That would be an anchor for us.

And if the Red Line Extension…I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but they spent too [much] taxpayer money doing the assessment, doing the environmental impact stuff…that’d be awesome for me, to take one train ride from here to Loyola University, to the end of the line, from one end of the line to the other end of the line. I mean how many kids would take that to go to Loyola University, or any other one?

What’s it like to live here today?

It’s different. One of the biggest challenges that I see in my community, instead of fighting for what’s right, we adjust to that issue. Instead of fighting and knowing that it’s wrong, we don’t get engaged like we used to. Due to fear, due to the epidemic of violence that’s going on. And poor leadership. This is the poorest leadership that I’ve seen since I’ve been in this community. And it’s been going on for almost two decades, really. CHA would have never gave us this unit if we continued to fight with them. So we learned that fighting with them is not the right course of action. It’s getting engaged with them to force them to do what’s right. [Ed. note: In 2012, the CHA unveiled its plan to demolish Altgeld Gardens as part of its Plan for Transformation. After protests from hundreds of Altgeld residents and a campaign by PCR to place Altgeld on the National Register of Historic Places, the CHA eventually scrapped the plan.]

[The CHA has a] better administration today than I’ve ever seen, living out here. I’ve been engaged with my community since I was twenty-four years old, so I had to get engaged with the administrators of public housing, with the CHA…it’s been bad leadership, bad practice for many, many years. But these last four years, you’ve seen a positive change. You seen the administrators really want to help improve the life of residents in public housing, to make them self-sufficient.

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Quinn Myers is an audio and print reporter based in Pilsen. He previously covered the 25th Ward aldermanic race for the Weekly.

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