After Decades of Mistreatment, EJ Groups Seek to Turn Page in Chicago

Chicago often touts itself as quintessentially American, a reference to its reputation as a hardworking Midwestern city that is also a melting pot for multiculturalism. However, Chicago also displays ongoing discrimination, segregation, environmental injustice, and an oppressive history of redlining. While it is easy for some to forget or overlook the ways in which past racist policies manifest as present environmental harms, linking history with current environmental justice struggles can help further center and elevate the voices of communities which continue to be affected by unjust legislation and marginalization.

Chicago’s Legacy as a Segregationist City

Chicago is notorious among major American cities for its pursuit of residential and industrial segregation, and only recently has the city government shown an inclination to redress its history of implicit and explicit racism. The National Association of Realtors was founded in Chicago and campaigned openly against integrated neighborhoods, which set the table for official government redlining in addition to restrictive covenants and other informal practices. In the 1930s the city actually created maps projecting the risk of real estate investments across the city. 

Unsurprisingly, the top designations were given to majority white neighborhoods on the North Side and the hazardous “D” grades were largely reserved for areas that African-Americans, and later Hispanics, were moving into on the South and West Sides. Such boundaries were reinforced through things like zoning industrial corridors in minority communities and urban renewal programs that were so blatantly racist that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately forced the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to change its practices. The decreased land value in redlined areas encouraged the construction of heavily polluting infrastructure since it was both permissible and cheaper to site highways, warehousing, and industry alongside the most disadvantaged residents and public housing projects.

In line with these discriminatory housing policies, the city was unconcerned about the wellbeing of the residents in redlined and industrial communities. Cheryl Johnson, current director of People for Community Recovery, grew up in the “toxic doughnut” neighborhood Altgeld Gardens and recalls elected officials dismissively telling her mother that garbage and toxins had to go somewhere, by which they meant exclusively Black and brown communities. Meanwhile, the EPA regional branch claimed they had no jurisdiction over community impacts, only industry regulation itself, which highlights the gross disregard of input from affected neighborhoods in government agencies and permitting processes. 

Chicago has continued to reinforce its racist toxic siting decisions through the decades; for example, the CHA dumped thousands of gallons of PCB waste in a South Side community, and another neighborhood wasn’t informed of its ability to have an old coal gasification site cleaned up with more than just a gravel fill-in. Chicago calls itself a “city of neighborhoods,” which has too often meant targeted toxicity in its low-income, minority areas that have lacked the resources to fully fight back against the city’s redlining and pollution siting practices.

Respiratory Trauma in Little Village

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates inequalities and ravages communities with poor respiratory health, two Chicago communities are at the center of environmental justice advocacy and a culture of accountability in City Hall. In heavily-Hispanic Little Village, activists successfully campaigned for the closure of the Crawford coal plant in 2012, but the site was left untouched for a full five years after that. The influential Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) continued to press for a just transition, envisioning a space to boost community health and control such as a solar farm or garden and community kitchen.

Instead, the City offered nearly $20 million in subsidies to Hilco, a global financial services company headquartered in Illinois, which wants to build a one million square foot warehouse and logistics center. While the company promises 360 construction jobs and 178 permanent jobs from the project, the plans threaten to bring exorbitant levels of diesel exhaust to an area that already sees nearly 100 diesel trucks per hour on its main street. The environmental injustices that often accompany heavy industry are no longer limited to coal plants and steel mills, as e-commerce distribution centers are quietly placing their toxic strangleholds on Black and brown neighborhoods across Chicago and the U.S.

Even worse, and somewhat symbolic of this transition to new forms of environmental harm, Hilco’s demolition of the coal plant was a disaster. Despite LVEJO receiving assurances from municipal departments that appropriate precautions were being taken, the smokestack implosion, curiously scheduled during the pandemic’s early peak, sent a thick cloud of dust across Little Village and inflamed the area’s respiratory challenges. And while regulators claimed not to find any troublesome levels of toxins in the spread, dust from demolition, especially of smokestacks themselves, can contain particles of heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. Signifying the perpetual disregard the city has for pollution-burdened neighborhoods, Hilco was fined a mere $68,000 by the city for the neighborhood calamity, while the Illinois Attorney General was able to settle a suit for $370,000. Perhaps even more concerning, the Illinois EPA has no regulations for coal plant demolition other than a notice of the date planned and that national asbestos emissions standards are met.

This represents just the latest iteration of the battle between community health and industrial development in Little Village, as residents have previously displayed concern over an elementary school being adjacent to a mayonnaise factory and the high school being in close proximity to a packaging plant (which occasionally forces sports teams to relocate or cancel practices). Popular La Villita park, completed as a Superfund cleanup site, is also a tale of incomplete justice, since a nearby toxic canal that sometimes bubbles methane still exists and only gained warning signage after additional community pressure. Kim Wasserman, LVEJO’s executive director, argues that her community does not suffer from a “bad apple” problem, but that “Community harm is stemming from one broken, corrupt racist system. This system cannot be redeemed.”

Perpetual Industrial Toxicity in Southeast Chicago

Chicago’s 10th Ward includes much of the city’s far southeast side, an area where the “river” is in reference to the heavy industrial Calumet River, not the Chicago River downtown dotted with tourists, a riverwalk, and friendly green dye every St. Patrick’s Day. Rather than being lined with gleaming skyscrapers, the communities bordering the Calumet River often only see the water through the endless rows of industrial facilities lining its banks. With designated Planned Manufacturing Districts that thus have weakened zoning restrictions, this predominantly Black and Latinx area has long been a sacrifice zone in the eyes of the city. 

Many of the historical environmental justice battles in Chicago, including those over illegal piles of toxic petroleum coke and manganese that became airborne, have their roots in these communities. Despite victories on issues such as a bus storage facility, a new garbage incinerator, dump reopenings, and a police gun range, the constant targeted toxicity has led to the neighborhood being in the 95th percentile for diesel emissions, 90th for hazardous waste, and 80th for air pollution across the entire nation. The trauma reaches deeper than just these numbers, as communities also face high burdens when it comes to healthcare access.

Now, the city is again subsidizing and encouraging increased toxicity among its most vulnerable constituents. In one case, a confined disposal facility that stores toxic sludge from the Calumet River was scheduled to close in 2022 but currently is subject to an expansion proposal from the Chicago District of the Army Corps of Engineers. A sign of the desperation and exhaustion from constant attack, organizers against the expansion are similarly fearful that defeating it will just result in relocation and expansion in another part of the 10th Ward.

Additionally, in what has been called a blatant case of environmental racism, the city is dangerously close to approving the necessary permits for the relocation of what was formerly named General Iron from Lincoln Park to the 10th Ward. Reserve Management Group acquired the company in 2019 and now seeks to relocate its metal shredding operations next to their other facilities along the Calumet River under the new name Southside Recycling. During its time in Lincoln Park, a predominantly white and wealthy neighborhood, General Iron racked up numerous environmental citations and was even shut down by the city in 2016 after code violations. A 2015 fire also led to multiple explosions and firefighters found spread of toxic and corrosive chemicals as a result. Unwanted by the North side, General Iron’s toxic footprint has sadly yet predictably been targeted to communities already heavily burdened by pollution, triggering a month-long hunger strike that included community activists, residents, and even a Chicago alderman.

There is a more insidious process at play here, however, as the city is facing a fair housing investigation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The highly controversial Lincoln Yards project, a $6 billion megadevelopment along the stretch of the Chicago River housing General Iron and other industries, has a promised $1.3 billion in tax increment financing from the city. Central to the HUD investigation is both Mayor Lightfoot and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to orchestrate the move of General Iron to the 10th Ward to streamline and facilitate the Lincoln Yards development, and HUD representatives have asked the Lightfoot administration to pause all permitting. Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA separately questioned Governor J.B. Pritzker’s administration about granting a necessary state permit, which they believe could be in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA’s nondiscrimination rules. At least for now, the city has felt sufficient heat to delay the final permit approval, telling the Reserve Management Group that they need more information about the cumulative air pollution around the proposed site.

The Inadequacy of Piecemeal Revitalization

President Biden’s announcement of a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and pledge that 40 percent of federal clean energy and water investments would go to pollution-burdened communities is a welcome tone for environmental justice advocates. However, the issues clearly reach much deeper than anything the president alone can do, and LVEJO’s José Acosta-Córdova has said the city of Chicago needs to fundamentally rethink its definition of which communities are essential. 

Much publicity and funding has been dedicated to greening the Chicago River and near-downtown corridors in recent decades, but community advocates say that has come at the expense of preserving and worsening toxicity in other areas that have retained low-income and minority populations. Similar criticisms abound regarding Chicago’s Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan, which simply reinforces toxicity through modern harms such as the warehouse and logistics center proposed in Little Village, rather than using zoning to revitalize land and benefit community health. Redlining in its explicitly racist mid-20th century form may not abound, but these past and present injustices in Little Village and the 10th Ward, among other parts of the city, demonstrate that nefarious targeting of environmental harm continues to build on past inequities and threaten those least able to cope or fight back. In fact, Gina Ramirez of the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that the city seems to view the Southeast side as living in the 20th century, and that “they don’t have a vision for the 21st century for my neighborhood that includes green infrastructure and clean jobs.”

Mayor Lightfoot and the City Council have recently introduced policies designed to address the city’s environmental justice crises, though they have been criticized as inadequate first steps. Largely in response to the outcry over the Little Village coal plant demolition, Lightfoot led and enacted a proposal to increase the allowable fine ranges for various air pollution violations, including for demolition and dust spread. More publicly, a clean air ordinance advanced out of the Zoning Committee last week and will face a full Council vote as soon as March 24th. It expands the city’s role in the permitting and approval processes, requiring a traffic study and air quality impact evaluation as well as one community meeting before filing a development application. Special use permits, necessary for sites close to schools, parks, hospitals, and restaurants, will ultimately be routed through City Council itself, a reflection of the distrust some have for the Zoning Board of Appeals.

However, no notable environmental groups in the city support the ordinance, claiming that more decision-making by the city is unlikely to change the systems of oppression the city has so often supported and are instead petitioning for more community input. Kim Wasserman of LVEJO demands a first right of refusal for impacted communities and a city environmental justice advisory council with veto powers that also considers the track records of applying companies and their subcontractors. Illinois Environmental Council deputy director Colleen Smith similarly distrusts the proposal, pointing out that it is “relying on agencies that have failed in some of these decisions historically […] to be the backstop.” 

Chicago has put forth its Healthy Chicago 2025 agenda, which includes explicit mentions of environmental justice and community buffers, but so far the city seems to remain ignorant of the fact that communities are their own best scientists and decision makers on what types of development will benefit their health and lead to a more equitable future. Instead of reinforcing sacrifice zones through unjust, piecemeal urban greening projects, Chicago should invest in the organizations fighting for neighborhood health and in the development of a clean workforce to remedy the areas so historically wronged through racism, redlining, and targeted toxicity.

Featured Image: La Villita Arch. Photo by: Eric Allix Rogers on Flickr