A Just Transition

As historically industrial and immigrant communities, Pilsen and Little Village are Chicago neighborhoods whose residents are working  to shift industry practices from fossil fuel to clean energy. 

Pilsen is a neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side that straddles the South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Since the 1840’s, it was the first stop for immigrants from all over the world. Immigrants would flock in and out of Pilsen until it became an established Latinx community that accounts for 70.7% of the current population . The values of this neighborhood have always been deeply rooted in preserving culture and identity, affordability, fighting for immigrant rights and promoting a sustainable community. It is known for the Fiesta de Sol, an annual fundraising event that is representative of Mexican culture and social transformation through community organizing.  

Little Village is located in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood and commonly known as La Villita. The community sits along the Sanitary and Ship Canal. It shares similarities with Pilsen as a Latinx neighborhood that accounts for 84% of the population. The neighborhood has more than 1,000 businesses concentrated on 26th Street, known as the “Mexican Magnificent Mile,” and is also a landmark that welcomes Mexicans in the Midwest.  Little Village is known for its grassroots leadership in environmental justice and a just transition that puts workers first in the shift away from fossil fuels. 

Due to their proximity to the Sanitary and Ship Canal, Pilsen and Little Village are sites for industry and are profitable locations for developers. Pilsen is bordered by the Pilsen Industrial Corridor and the Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor. Little Village borders the Little Village Corridor, the Little Village East Corridor, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor. The lack of open space for recreation and riverfront development has plagued the neighborhoods for many years. 

In 2014, the Pilsen-Little Village River Corridor Project was established to improve the environmental quality of the water of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor from Bubbly Creek to west of Pulaski Road on the Southwest Side. The goal of the project is to improve historically contaminated waterways such as the Sanitary and Ship Canal, Bubbly Creek, and Little Village 31st Collateral Channel by developing open spaces, improving native landscapes and eliminating sediments and odors. This project seeks to inform the public of the current conditions and the need for access to a safe and clean riverfront that can provide healthy recreational activities to the communities that border the river. These communities, which have been sites of historical environmental injustices, include Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, Archer Heights, and McKinley Park. Local communities launched the project through neighborhood organizations like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O), Friends of the Chicago River, and the Chicago Legal Clinic.

The project area starts at Bubbly Creek with Park 571 and Canal Origins Park. The vision is for it to continue downstream to include the Canalport Riverwalk, the sites of the former  Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants and La Villita Park. Local environmental justice groups would like to see the same sort of investment that was made in downtown Chicago’s Riverwalk made in their 3.3 mile segment of the Chicago Waterway System.  As part of this broader transformation, neighborhood residents would like to see the name and the nature of the Sanitary and Ship Canal become more appealing.  

However, this section of the Chicago River continues to be a site of industrial activity with no signs of it slowing down. 

According to a recent publication by Block Club Chicago, the City Commision approved a $30 million Amazon Logistics Facility in the Pilsen Industrial Corridor that also borders Bridgeport and the South Branch of the River. The building will be 112,000 square feet in size with 487 parking spaces. City and neighborhood organizations such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC ), Bridgeport Alliance, Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice, Active Transportation Alliance and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) were strongly against the proposal. The public health risks and environmental impacts brought by heavy diesel truck activity continue to be a main concern to communities due to proximity to industry. Online retail distribution centers are concentrated along the waterways that run through environmental justice communities; the warehouse jobs used to justify development and public subsidy tend to be low-paying with unsafe work environments.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization is broadcasting that polluting industries do not have a place  in their neighborhood. They are protesting Hilco’s plans to build a one-million-square foot Target distribution center at the former site of the Crawford Coal Plant. Their billboard campaign shows a little girl wearing a face mask that reads “Exchanging coal for diesel doesn’t save her lungs. #Exchange55 #FueraHilco.”  It also directs people to sign the petition to stop construction.

The former Crawford Coal Plant was demolished on Easter weekend 2020 in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That same day, reports showed that Latinx people  had the second highest COVID death rate in Chicago. LVEJO is committed to bring about a just transition at  the former Crawford site in which residents of the community are  involved in the process of shifting from dirty industry. They want redevelopment of the area to provide healthier jobs, leisure and recreation that can spur economic growth. The community of Little Village no longer wants to be a human filter for air pollution.  The Hilco redevelopment plan goes against their goals and desires.

Plans for development and economic growth exist at the community level, produced by organizations and professionals. The city, however, continues to broker deals with companies that override these plans and ignore the calls for public health and environmental justice. The conditions of Climate Change require more attention to local strategies that undo harm. Development along the Sanitary and Ship Canal  continues to exclude community voices and prioritizes profits over the people. Communities also worry that development will lead to gentrification and displacement. 

Our recent survey of Pilsen residents suggests that community members remain largely unaware of recent development proposals and feel left out of the process.  The survey also shows  that residents notice the disparity in investment along the North and the South Branches of the River. Furthermore, they describe the open spaces near industrial sites on the South Branch and Canal as “abandoned,” “gross,” “polluted with heavy metals,” and “full of garbage.”

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