Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Latino Residents Champion for Green Justice in Little Village

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Latino Residents Champion for Green Justice in Little Village

Article excerpt

On a trip to 26th Street in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, visitors are struck by the rich Mexican culture and the thriving business activity. Regarded as the capital of the Mexican Midwest, Little Village is also the second-highest provider of tax revenue to the city of Chicago, behind only the Magnificent Mile in downtown. A recent article in Crain's Chicago Business marveled at the economic prowess of the community:

"The strip lacks the glamour of Michigan Avenue or the wealth of Lincoln Park. Instead, the area between Kedzie and Kostner Avenues is dotted with family-owned restaurants, bakeries, barbershops, grocers and clothing shops, plus an occasional Western Union and Verizon outlet. Nothing about the simple signage or interiors hints at the huge volume of cash being spent: some $900 million annually, according to the most recent figures available."

If the thriving business environment in this immigrant community is a surprise, then the neighborhood's standing as a center of environmentalism in Chicago is even more startling. Low-income Latinos from Little Village have waged successful campaigns that closed a coal power plant in the area and transformed a superfund site into a 22-acre public park. Working alongside the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), a local nonprofit, these community-led victories for clean air and open space are two of the most important grassroots environmental justice success stories to occur across the country in recent years.

Overcoming Environmental Obstacles

As a densely populated environmental justice community located on the southwest side of Chicago, Little Village is an excellent case study of a community that has endured environmental racism. According to a 2008 Huffington Post article, Little Village's ZIP code was regarded as having the "second-worst air quality in the eight-county region of Chicago, [and] children in this area had the ninth-highest rate of lead poisoning of Chicago's 77 community areas with asthma rates of 17 percent." For decades, a coal power plant in the area also spewed more than 3 million tons of toxic carbon dioxide emissions each year, and for many years, low-income community members lived next door to an extremely toxic property. Since the late 1980s, residents living next to the abandoned Celotex superfund site complained that the site was responsible for troubling health impacts on young children. Through years of door-to-door organizing, community meetings and protests, neighbors learned that children were being impacted and displaying high rates of asthma and other health concerns. In a recent oral history, one Little Village resident, Teresa, recalled that her daughter gave birth to a baby boy who tested positive for lead. The doctors speculated that Teresa's daughter had been breathing in particles from the contaminated site. Other neighbors worried about rashes on their hands and bodies that wouldn't go away. An EPA investigation of the site and surrounding areas confirmed the contamination, and one of their reports mentioned that high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, were observed, which could potentially lead to negative health outcomes, including cancer. Currently, Little Village continues to be a frontline community where local residents are impacted by industrial legacies and multiple sources of pollution with residential areas placed immediately next to an industrial corridor and polluting factories. Each day, heavy diesel trucks clog traffic, nearby shipping waterways release methane and raw sewage and hundreds of contaminated brown-field sites lay abandoned.

Despite the environmental challenges in Little Village, Latino residents migrate to the community because it serves as an ethnic enclave for Mexican residents who desire a sense of home and community. In addition to strong family and community networks, the resilience of Little Village's low-income community members and skills in neighborhood organizing are why community leaders and LVEJO have scored stunning victories for environmental justice. …

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