On April 11, 2020, Hilco Redevelopment Partners and its contractors botched the implosion of a smokestack at the former Crawford Coal Plant, sending a cloud of volatile dust into the sky that settled on hundreds of homes and backyards in the Little Village community. This was alarming to many community members, elected officials, and city agencies, who were shocked to see the negligence unfold before their eyes. Hilco’s proposed development should never have been approved in the first place. Little Village residents organized for more than twelve years to shut down the coal plant, and did so successfully with local and national support, envisioning a future of community-building, educational, and job training space in its place. So why did the City of Chicago hijack this project against the established wishes of residents and organizers?
Little Village has historically been an industrial neighborhood due to its location along the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal replaced the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1900, and was built for two main purposes: 1. to allow the reversal of the Chicago River and to move sewage runoff away from Lake Michigan, the city’s main source of drinking water; and 2. to move barges and ships from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.
Over the twentieth century, heavy industry was developed along the banks of the canal in order to capitalize on the access to water and adjacent railroads. Currently situated near the canal are oil and gas facilities, asphalt plants, construction companies, waste management facilities, industrial packaging and container manufacturing, and Trucking, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL) facilities. These industries all contribute significantly to the poor air quality in Little Village and surrounding neighborhoods. Although it connects to the Chicago River, it is a human-made industrial canal with severely polluted water.
For over a decade, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has advocated for a Just Transition—meaning a transition away from a fossil-fuel extractive-based economy to a regenerative-based economy—to happen at the seventy-two-acre site of the former Crawford coal plant. Referred to as “cloud factories” by youth who tried to describe the pollution, the plant’s smokestacks filled the skies of Little Village with toxic emissions for generations, while coal dust settled onto houses and school grounds. Residents of all ages were suffering high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and many other respiratory illnesses. A Harvard study conducted in 2001 linked more than forty-one premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks every year with toxic emissions from Crawford as well as Fisk Coal Plant in neighboring Pilsen—with children being the most vulnerable to exposure. LVEJO and our allies successfully shut down both plants. It was our most significant accomplishment of environmental justice.
Following the shut down, a Crawford Reuse Task Force was formed to consider strategies to reuse both sites. The task force consisted of three heads of local organizations, one member from Midwest Generation (owners and operators of Crawford), two former aldermen, one labor representative, one ComEd representative, and one economic development representative from City Hall, and was facilitated by the Delta Institute, a local nonprofit that works on solving “complex environmental challenges.” Per the final report, “Residents have participated in numerous workshops, surveys and visioning exercises regarding the sites. From these, several themes emerged, including the desire for a clean environment, sustainability of the neighborhood, affordability, local education and jobs.”
The community was hopeful that engagement would be ongoing, and that any future developer would be realistic, provide transparent updates, and remain accountable. But Hilco’s acquisition of the site has always lacked transparency. The developer purchased the property in December 2017 for $12.25 million in a backroom deal that occurred during the tenure of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who received $135,900 in political contributions from Hilco CEO Jeffrey Hecktman, then-22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (who received $3,000), and then-commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), David Reifman.
In August 2018, Hilco held two community meetings, in which residents expressed concerns or outright rejected their plan. At both meetings, Hilco claimed they were doing the community a favor by demolishing the coal plant, remediating the site, and constructing a massive warehouse that they claim will bring an estimated 178 permanent jobs once completed. Even when they heard the community’s pleas that we had too many semi-trucks driving through our residential streets, and that our air quality was among the worst in the state, they did not care to listen. The rezoning was pushed by Muñoz through the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council the very next month.
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During those community meetings, representatives of the multi-billion dollar corporation said they would not be seeking public funding. Yet, in January 2019, they were appearing before the City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development, to request the Cook County Class 6b tax break, which would reward them with $19.7 million over a twelve-year period. They bought the property for less than that. Once again, LVEJO and residents testified against the plan during public comment, while Muñoz used his aldermanic prerogative to force it through.
Throughout meetings of the Chicago Plan Commission, City Council, and City Council committees, Hilco had the support of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce and local businesses that are owned by the family of Eve Rodriguez, who both serves on the Chamber board and does public relations consulting for Hilco. In an attempt to buy more support, Hilco has hosted shoe giveaways and created two $10,000 scholarships for City Colleges of Chicago. (Currently CPS students can attend City Colleges for free as long as they meet certain requirements.) They have also sent out promotional mailers and put ads on Mexican radio.
The coal plant operated from 1924 to 2012 and was one of the dirtiest in the country when it closed, making remediation of the land both delicate and dangerous. Hilco promised to inform the community throughout the remediation and demolition process. They created a website, but did minimal outreach to inform nearby households of efforts to remove toxic elements from the building or from the soil.
In December 2019, Reynaldo Grimaldo, 54, a worker who was also a Little Village resident, fell fifty feet from an elevated platform at the site, and died.
When it came time to demolish the smokestack, the City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings was negligent in approving the demolition permits, while Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Public Health failed to halt the demolition despite having been warned of the potential health risks it posed in the middle of a respiratory pandemic. Current 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez inherited the project and knew about the scheduled implosion more than a week before the community was alerted. Yet officials kept the community in the dark about their plans.
On April 11, Hilco and their contractors failed to use the proper precautions: they used explosives to implode the century-old smokestack and did not have enough water cannons to spray down the mushroom cloud of dust and debris. Multiple news outlets showed footage of the aftermath captured by the residents themselves. A day after the implosion, 78-year-old Fernando Cantú passed away after he had tended to his garden. He lived a few blocks away from Crawford, and his immune system was compromised due to issues with asthma and COPD; it is possible that the toxic particulate matter aggravated his respiratory system.
Mayor Lightfoot placed the blame on Hilco, issued a temporary stop work order, and fined them $68,000. Hilco responded by washing home and automobile windows near the site and passing out masks in the surrounding blocks. But following a city-sponsored virtual community meeting hosted by the commissioner of the Department of Buildings, Judith Frydland, Hilco was given the green light to proceed with the demolition of the rest of the coal plant, currently underway. Shortly after that meeting, Frydland retired.
The Hilco project will bring thousands of semi-trucks daily to an area that already disproportionately experiences heavy transportation traffic compared to the rest of the city. Overall, there are more than thirty companies in the Little Village Industrial Corridor (LVIC) that are either classified as TDL or that use semi-trucks on site. These trucks are powered by diesel and release particulate matter 2.5 and 10 into the air, which can have a devastating impact on the immediate and long-term health of people who inhale these particles. The resulting truck traffic is not only hazardous to other automobiles, pedestrians, and cyclists, but also to the overall environmental health of Little Village, which already has the second-worst air quality in the state of Illinois. Bringing thousands of more semi-trucks into the area will only further exacerbate this issue.
In nearly three years, Hilco has never shown a genuine attempt at caring about the neighborhood. Why should we believe this will ever change? Hilco has not been able to guarantee a number or the quality of jobs that the site would offer locals, due to the fact that they will be leasing the warehouse to someone else to operate it as an e-commerce warehouse. Most warehouses in Chicago hire people through staffing agencies, also known as “temp agencies,” which have been known to exploit both undocumented immigrant and Black workers. Those same warehouses don’t pay their employees living wages or provide them with medical benefits. How will these jobs provide people the opportunity to move up or build wealth? This is not economic development that will be beneficial in the long term.
The community already had a plan for the site when Hilco purchased the property, one that did not include a warehouse. In 2018, LVEJO created renderings based on what the community said they would like to see at the site. This included a huge greenhouse for large-scale indoor farming, which could provide organic produce to local grocery stores and the roughly 160 restaurants in the neighborhood; a food vendor hub, which would serve as a food business incubator for street vendors in the community, who make up sixty percent of all vendors in the city; and a large solar farm, which could produce up to fourteen MW of energy annually, which could power 2,660 homes, and would link to the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) and Solar For All state programs, which create access to job training and clean energy jobs in low-income communities.
These are the types of projects that would transform land use in the Little Village Industrial Corridor, potentially bringing thousands of jobs and wealth-building opportunities to the community, while also bringing environmental justice to a neighborhood that has long suffered from environmental racism. Given the fact that the Crawford site is located within the Little Village Industrial Corridor, at 1,252.2 acres is the third-largest in the city, we have a great opportunity to invest in industries that don’t further exacerbate environmental issues or exploit workers.
The City of Chicago should not be giving tax subsidies to developers who only look to exploit our labor force, but to developments that will truly engage and benefit our communities. We don’t need a one-million-square-foot warehouse that will continue to poison our community. Little Village, like countless communities across the planet, needs a Just Transition. This is fundamentally about disinvesting in industries that are fossil-fuel based, and investing in industries that use renewable energies or alternative methods of production that don’t exploit natural resources. If the largest economies in the world refuse to stop using fossil fuels, we may face a climate catastrophe. But Little Village, and Chicago as a whole, can still be a model for other major cities, especially those with a large industrial sector. These are the developments that Little Village, along with every working class neighborhood in the city deserves.
José Acosta-Córdova is a research organizer at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). He completed his Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at UIC and is a first year Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying issues related to transportation and environmental justice. This is his first piece for the Weekly.