I investigated what’s happening in Little Village, a town located on the SE side of Chicago experiencing high rates of environmental racism. Industries target this community since most of the community members are of Hispanic descent and lower income. Their community members fight back against these harmful industries in order to try and better their community environment and health.
Imagine your own neighborhood. What kind of people live next door to you or across the street? How diverse is your community? On a day when it’s warm and sunny, do you see any children playing outside, people on a run or walking their dogs maybe?
Now imagine the physical environment of your neighborhood. What kind of businesses, businesses are located there? How much local greenery? Do you know a lot of your neighbors that suffer from the same diseases?
When I asked myself these questions and consider the demographics of my own community, I think of a quiet, peaceful suburb about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago. Financial security is the norm. And most of the people I knew lived in medium to large sized houses with high-end amenities like golf or country club memberships.
Demographically, my town lacks some diversity. About 73% of the population is white while about about 18 percent are of Hispanic or Latino origin. I bring up these questions to highlight stark differences of privilege between communities like mine and ones with demographics with large minority populations. If you were to travel only 45 minutes south of my suburb, to the outskirts of southeast Chicago, you would see these drastic differences.
This brings me to the subject of today’s podcast, Little Village. Little Village is a real community that’s located on the South side of Chicago, and its community members are constantly exposed to environmental racism. Environmental racism is a term used to describe vulnerable communities being disproportionately affected and exposed to harmful environmental conditions like air or water pollution, typically due to industries emitting dangerous chemicals.
Residents of Little Village claim that corporations move into their neighborhood and pollute their environment. Since their population mostly consists of people from Hispanic or Latinx descent, and their community as a whole is predominantly lower income, it makes it easier for these industries to move into these areas compared to white, affluent communities. Additionally, Little Village’s claim will highlight a trend and I will reveal how these instances happen And many other surrounding communities with similar socioeconomic demographics. So let’s get into this and explain what’s going on in Little Village, Chicago.
Using a geopolitical lens, we’re going to pick apart this story and really look at the causes and effects of this situation. First, let’s evaluate who’s making this claim exactly. Obviously, we know the current residents of Little Village are well aware and furious of the damage being done to their neighborhood. But how do they fight against it?
That’s where our main organization comes in, called Little Village Environmental Justice Organization or LVEJO for short. This is a grassroots organization that was founded in 1994 by public school parents who learned about potential exposure of their children to dangerous chemicals during a school renovation. After they successfully forced the school administration to change their plans, the parents turn their attention to other environmental injustices in Little Village. And now they’re focusing their fight for stricter regulations against industrial pollution.
So within this claim made by LVEJO, they argue the effects of air pollution as a part of environmental risk. Some of the harmful pollutants affecting the environment include particulate matter or PM, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, metals, and more. These pollutants negatively affect the air quality rates in these areas and lead to many community members developing respiratory diseases.
Looking at also as well, the harmful effects air pollution has on the environment itself. For example, some of these pollutants being emitted are greenhouse gases. So it contributes to the worsening climate crisis since they are considered heat-trapping emissions.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basic foundations of this claim, we’re ready to analyze the rest of the details through a geopolitical lens. The point of this analysis is to ask three main questions:
One, how are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified?
Two, what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?
Three, what is the spatial focus of this particular claim?
By asking these questions, we can get a better and more in-depth understanding of what’s happening and Little Village and what perspectives are often overlooked but still relevant to this story.
So in my central claim, the role in the environment is being described as being unfairly polluted by industries looking to take advantage of Little Village due to it being a predominantly low income community with a high minority population. Little Village is a family friendly community that has endured the consequences of environmental racism.
Little Village was found to have the second worst air quality in the 8 county region of Chicago, as well as asthma rates among children at 17 percent. The environment and Little Village has been highly degraded for decades due to a coal power plant located in the area. This plant spewed more than 3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year and affected the health of many Little Village’s community members.
This environmental degradation goes back to even the 1980s where a Celotex Superfund site used to be located. Although it’s now abandoned, the site was never properly cleaned up and residents living close claim that the site was responsible for negative health impacts on children. Some of these impacts included increase rates of asthma. Children being born with positive test for lead and mysterious rashes appearing on residents’ hands and bodies that would not go away. The EPA even investigated and found high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, which are very dangerous.
Focusing on the perspective of people in LVEJO, one aspect that’s not exactly highlighted in this claim is how this organization has worked to change the land and try and reverse the damage. For example, this organization successfully shutdown Celotex Superfund site and in 2014 opened La Villita Park. This fight against the Superfund site took 15 years and shows how hard LVEJO is working to change the meaning of the environment from a place known for industrial pollution to a cleaner environment where kids can have access to fresh air and exercise.
The main role- role of human agency within this claim is highlighted by the work of LVEJO. This organization has not only been fighting to keep industries from building new sites, but also fighting for the existing damage to be cleaned up and to close down already existing sites. This group specifically has had many impressive victories, as I’ve stated before, but to continue to fight for their justice in their neighborhood.
Another major victory this group I had was shutting down the Crawford coal plant in 2012. LVEJO spent years trying to get rid of the site and propose alternate solutions of a solar farm or commercial kitchen amongst others. I really like this example and the one I stated before because it shows how this organization is trying to produce healthy change by wanting to implement clean energy alternatives in their community, by attempting to build a park and a solar farm or a commercial kitchen.
However, their fight is not yet over because in 2018, the site was purchased by Hilco Redevelopment Partners with plans to develop a 1 million square foot warehouse for Target. This would discredit all of the work done by LVEJO and other community members who fought so tirelessly to remove two polluting industries only for it to replace with another business that will subject them and their children to high volumes of heavy duty diesel truck traffic and exhaust pollution.
Additionally, to make matters worse, in the spring of 2020, Hilco used explosives to demolish the old coal plant, but without proper dust mitigation or warning. So the explosion was botched, emitting a large quantity of dust containing asbestos and other particulate matter. Again, I really would like to highlight the role of LVEJO since they’re constantly trying to better their community from pollution, but which are so many obstacles.
Evaluating the social and economic factors that influence- influence environmental racism, I found one study that looks at the policies that allow for this form of racism to continually occur. The study looks at the trends around the United States. So it’s not exactly specific to Chicago per se, but a lot of the same practices and solutions proposed have basis to the claim made in Little Village. The study first concluded that severe air pollution affected a greater percentage of minorities than whites, which makes sense since submission densities were much higher in urban areas where large percentages of racial minorities live and work.
When looking at why this happens to mostly communities of color, zoning laws play a huge factor. Zoning laws have some benefits, but a huge drawback to the framework is that it determines where unwanted land uses are permitted. Zoning laws have an incredibly racist history where at one time, black Americans were systematically excluded on the basis of race from living in certain areas. This type of expulsive zoning, although illegal now, may have provided the original mechanism and land use law that has resulted in the current racially disproportionate distribution. Now these communities are already at a disadvantage and since their areas are lower income, the property values are also lower. So this means that industry is looking to build a new site will automatically want to relocate to these areas. Since it’s a lot cheaper than moving into wealthy into a wealthier neighborhood.
Additionally, the not in my backyard practice is another way. Wealthy neighborhoods are able to avoid new sites being constructed in their areas. Affluent communities often have the means to fight the site developers in court. The threat of a lawsuit can significantly increase the cost for these industries. So instead they move to low income areas where community members cannot afford this litigation process or don’t always have the same connections or resources.
Moving on to the third question, although my initial spatial focus on- concentrates on Little Village specifically, as I talked about before, the same scenario can we seen in many other neighboring towns throughout Chicago. In my references page, I’ve included a picture of two maps.
One map shows where there are industrial corridors located throughout the city, and the other map shows which neighborhoods experience the highest burden of environmental threats. Looking at the map of environmental threats, we can see that Little Village experiences a very high burden. This makes sense, however, since in other map we can see this areas also located where many industrial corridors are. And just from glancing at these maps, we can see that areas in the South Side of Chicago in general, are significantly more impacted by environmental threats than their northern counterparts. One main reason for this is the communities in the south side again have populations. with predominantly Latino and Black Americans. While the Northern neighborhoods like Lincoln Park have high, mostly white people populations living there with high-end amenities, which is why they do not experience the same burdens.
Overall, what’s happening in Little Village is incredibly harmful. It also a complicated case. It’s obviously not fair to these residents to be disproportionately affected by this pollution because of their race and income level. These communities should not have to bear these responsibilities and be forced to have their own health compromised, as well as their children or other family members.
As we talked about throughout this podcast, what’s happening in Little Village is not something that has begun recently. Even though LVEJO was founded in 1944, we know that this has been happening long before. This organization and community have worked tremendously hard throughout the many years and still have to fight to stop new industries from opening sites. However, to truly stop this issue from happening, we have to figure out a different location for these industries to move and operate.
I say this because although Little Village has successfully turned away new sites or closed them down, that doesn’t mean these industries have closed down for good. Even if they don’t relocate in Little Village, what’s to stop them from opening a new site in the town over or in a different state or a different country even. It might save Little Village, but what about the other communities that experience the same thing? These industries need to build new sites because of the demand that we as consumers create.
Ultimately, we could end this problem if we just simply stopped buying products from these businesses, since they would eventually go out of business or be forced to create stricter regulations for themselves. Obviously, this is a lot easier said than done and isn’t exactly realistic or feasible in today’s society. So I believe the best way to try and solve these issues is to create stricter federal regulations for corporations to follow. They must be strictly enforced with fines that will actually have an impact on these multimillion or billion-dollar industries. Because towns like Little Village deserve to feel safe from polluted air or water or weird rashes on their body and their own neighborhoods.
Campillo, Paloma, and Iyana Simba. 2021. “From Toxic Fluff in Lincoln Park, to the Smoke That Blanketed Little Village: A Snapshot of Environmental Justice Issues in Chicago.” Illinois Environmental Council, February 8, 2021. https://ilenviro.org/snapshot-of-environmental-justice-issues-in-chicago/.
Carr Michelle. 2021. “Confronting Environmental Racism in Southeast Chicago.” The Nature Conservancy, April 21, 2021. https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/illinois/stories-in-illinois/confronting-environmental-racism-chicago-southeast-side.
Chase, Brett, and Patrick Judge. 2018. “Interactive Map: Pollution Hits Chicago’s West, South Sides Hardest.” Illinois Answers Project, October 25, 2018. https://illinoisanswers.org/2018/10/25/interactive-map-pollution-hits-chicagos-west-south-sides-hardest/.
City of Chicago. 2020. Air Quality and Health Report. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/7035547-2020-7-26-CDPH-Air-Quality-and-Health-Report.
Collin, Robert. W. 1992 “Environmental Equity: A Law and Planning Approach to Environmental Racism.” Virginia Environmental Law Journal 11(4): 495-546. https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/velj11&i=505.
Fernandez, Mariela, and Antonio Lopez. 2016. “Latino Residents Champion for Green Justice in Little Village.” Parks & Recreation 51 (2): 40–42. http://www2.lib.ku.edu/login?URL=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=112817755&site=ehost-live.
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “Support EJ Organizations.” http://www.lvejo.org/.
Reyna, Lacy. 2014. “Fight or Flight: The Altgeld Gardens Conflict.” Roosevelt University. https://futureofschaumburg.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/reyna-ej-final.pdf.