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In Southwest Chicago, Environmental Groups Must Also Grapple With a Sluggish Economy

After working together to shut down a pair of coal plants, three grassroots organizations no longer see exactly eye to eye on the best way forward for their community.

Pilsen, in Southwest Chicago. (Connie Ma/Flickr)

Nelson Soza left his native Santiago, Chile, a hardened cynic after enduring the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The U.S. is a much safer place for political malcontents than 1980s Chile, but Soza said it was useful preparation for his current role as executive director of Pilsen Alliance, one of several grassroots organizations fighting environmental hazards on Chicago's heavily Latino and working-class Southwest Side.

Nelson Soza (Pilsen Alliance)

"You have to have know-how but also a lot of patience," he says. "I'm a very hardcore political person from a different era and an incredibly corrupt place."

Pilsen Alliance was part of a coalition that fought to shut down two coal-fired power plants along the south branch of the Chicago River. It joined the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) in a campaign to close the Fisk and Crawford power plants, two of the last coal-fired plants in any major American city. (Pilsen and Little Village, in South Lawndale, are adjacent neighborhoods.)

LVEJO's organizer, who last year won the Goldman Environmental Prize and $150,000 for her advocacy, got into this line of work almost by accident.

"The reason ... was simply because my son had just been born and I didn't like leaving him at home everyday with a babysitter or in childcare. LVEJO let me bring him with me," Kim Wasserman Nieto told me last year. Then her son suffered an asthma attack. They lived close to the Crawford plant.

Wasserman Nieto surveyed neighborhood residents about their families' health history, noticing a lot of complaints about asthma and not a lot of awareness about its cause. The next year, 2002, a Harvard School of Public Health study linked the power plants to 41 premature deaths and 2,800 asthma attacks annually.

Kim Wasserman Nieto (Goldman Environmental Prize)

"The smokestacks put out white smoke, so kids referred to the coal plants as the 'cloud factory.' From the street, it doesn't look like it's going to hurt you," Wasserman Nieto says. "That report really catapulted the campaign forward."

Soza agrees it was a galvanizing moment. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace got involved, and public demonstrations picked up. Low natural gas prices hit the already embattled power plant operators hard, and in 2012, the city shut them down more than a year ahead of a previously negotiated schedule. It was a huge victory for the neighborhood groups.

The Fisk power plant in 2011 (Steven Vance/Flickr)

Two years later, the plants still await redevelopment, and the challenge facing the groups has changed: Can they reconcile the need for economic development with community health while protecting the area's working-class roots? Since the 1990s, the white population has surged in the still predominantly Mexican community of Pilsen. (Last year, the real estate website Curbed described Pilsen as "scorching hot".)

Not long after Pilsen Alliance formed in 1998, the group had floated the idea of establishing a planned manufacturing district in that area, in part to keep former industrial real estate along the Chicago River from becoming pricey residential developments. That zoning was later adopted.

"We supported the Planned Manufacturing District as a gentrification bulwark," says Jerry Mead-Lucero, a teacher and former lead organizer with PERRO. The new zoning could help adapt the coal plants and other industrial sites into cleaner businesses, or much needed green space. "The other good part of the PMD is it's meant for manufacturing and light industrial, but it has possibility for permitting of parks," Mead-Lucero says.

PERRO, LVEJO, and Pilsen Alliance are among several neighborhood groups invited by City Hall to sit on a task force charged with advising the new owner of the derelict coal plants. The result of their negotiation remains to be seen, but Mead-Lucero calls preliminary proposals "exciting."

Meanwhile, the fate of another industry will help decide the direction of Pilsen: metal recycling. The area already has one metal shredder, Sims Metal Management, whose presence has sown division within the neighborhood. PERRO has been openly critical of Sims, while Pilsen Alliance has engaged the company in the hopes of extracting a community benefits agreement like the deal the New York Yankees struck with the Bronx.

Both groups, however, oppose a new shredding facility planned for a 15-acre parcel across the street from Benito Juárez Community Academy, the neighborhood’s largest high school. They point to fires, explosions, and toxic dust problems associated with scrap metal recyclers.

Alderman Danny Solis touts job creation in favor of the venture, Pure Metal Recycling, which has ties to some of his major campaign donors. (Pure Metal Recycling and Solis' office did not return requests for comment.) Both have publicly asserted the new shredder will have safety controls. The Pilsen area has an unemployment rate of around 16 percent, and the new facility could employ up to 100 people, although both PERRO and Pilsen Alliance worry that it could cannibalize workers from Sims, thereby resulting in less local job growth.

The grassroots groups are trying to build on a ballot measure passed November 4, calling for a moratorium on new metal recyclers in the neighborhood. Pure Metal Recycling received conditional approval from the city's zoning board of appeals, but is currently facing a lawsuit from Pilsen Alliance.

Chicago's Southwest Side is reconciling its industrial heritage with a grassroots environmental-justice movement whose victories even Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting (or co-opting, some advocates counter) in his campaign for re-election. That visibility brings legitimacy to the work of Pilsen Alliance, PERRO, and LVEJO—but also a responsibility to balance environmental concerns with the other needs of a changing community. As the split over the shredder shows, they may increasingly try to strike that balance different ways.

"I think we have a different idea for the future of the community," Soza says of himself and the alderman. "The shredder is a good example of that. There is a need for jobs. There is a need for a new way to treat the Earth, too."

About the Author

  • Chris Bentley
    Chris Bentley is a freelance journalist based in Boston. Formerly Midwest Editor of The Architect's Newspaper and a reporter for WBEZ's Curious City, his work has appeared in The New York Times' Green blog, The Chicago Tribune, Next City, and many other publications.