Pilsen: Green Dreams, Industrial Roots
Written by Sarah Kramer
Produced by Jasmine Sanborn

Rosemarie Sierra, 70, sits at her kitchen table, sipping flavored water from a pink plastic cup, keeping one eye on her great-grandson as she recounts the way her family moved from house to house on Chicago’s South Side. 

Early childhood home, at Newberry and Maxwell streets, landed in the site mapped to create the University of Illinois at Chicago. Then there was the home on Halsted and Polk streets. In 1968, her family moved from there to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s expansion of UIC. The family thought they’d finally found a permanent place two blocks away, at Arlington and Halsted streets.

“I remember coming home from school and my mom was real quiet, and my dad. They were at the kitchen table,” Rosemarie remembers. “And they said, well, we’ve got to move.” 

The landlord had come with papers and asked them to relocate temporarily in exchange for the promise of a first crack at the improved housing going up in the area. The Sierras, a family of seven that would eventually grow to nine, moved to Ashland Avenue and 18th Street—just a block and a half from where Rosemarie lives now, in a little apartment on Bishop Street.

Rosemarie’s living room window looks across the street, where her aunts and cousins lived. She can still list the names of the families who lived along the stretch of 18th Street between Ashland and Blue Island avenues—a small enclave of Mexican-American families in the middle of what was then a working class Polish neighborhood. 

At a tipping point sometime in the ‘50s, she said, a trickle of Latino families became a stream. Through the neighborhood grapevine, she heard about a dance where the racial tensions came to head. A fight broke out between the ethnic groups, she said, and “opened up the path.” The Latino character of the neighborhood began to assert itself—the unique character of Pilsen that remains to this day.

Mole de Mayo is a free outdoor festival from May 23-24 celebrating traditional food, entertainment and lucha libre wrestling.

Luz Chavez co-manages the creative space Cultura in Pilsen with Moira Pujols. Both women are also writers: Pujols is the executive director of the Spanish-language monthly Contratiempo and Chavez contributes and edits for Gozamos, an English-language online magazine targeting young Chicago Latinos.

“This has been historically a Latino neighborhood,” Chavez said, sitting behind her laptop at Pilsen in Cultura’s airy storefront on Carpenter Street, tucked away between houses, in the shadow of a towering smokestack on Cermak Road. On this unseasonably cold Sunday morning in May, Pujols and Chavez are speaking warmly about the community that serves as the home base for theirs and several other organizations, a community that follows the lines of Chicago’s industrial and ethnic histories, and is trying to carve out a future for itself in the post-industrial era.

The smokestack that sits on the end of Carpenter Street belongs to the decommissioned Fisk Generating Station—a massive complex sitting on 43 acres of land in an industrially zoned corridor running along Pilsen’s southern edge. The plant began burning coal and spewing smoke in 1903, and kept it up in Pilsen for more than 100 years before it was decommissioned, along with a the Crawford sister station in neighboring Little Village. A 2011 NAACP report named the two plants the two worst environmental justice offenders in Illinois because of their outsized impacts on the health a vulnerable community, triggering asthma and heart attacks and causing premature deaths in the area.

“It's not by accident these types of projects and plants and things are typically placed where nobody else wants it,” says Tiffany McDowell with Adler University, who is working on a study of health impacts in Pilsen “So it's in a lower income, particularly minority area.” She adds that the while industry is often “framed as community development,” Fisk and Crawford had almost no employees from the surrounding neighborhoods.

The two communities fought the plants for a decade. In August 2012, the plants finally closed. The fight and the ensuing victory, Pujols says, was a “point of unity” for the neighborhood, a rallying cry that brought grassroots environmental justice groups, neighbors and national organizations together to fight for the health of the typically overlooked working class neighborhoods. 

But the debate is still raging about what to do with the sites. The Fisk Plant especially has become a repository of dreams for neighborhood planners —kayaks would glide up the Chicago River South Branch to access a green park that connects the Pilsen to the river. Electric buses would roll down Cermak Road, past huge vintage red brick former plant, rehabilitated and contributing to a clean, stable and affordable neighborhood.

Pilsen and Little Village remain home to a thriving environmentally minded community. While the city government and large green advocacy groups have moved on to other causes, residents are still facing environmental challenges both new and old—but the fight has grown more complicated. Opinions on how the neighborhoods should develop are divided. 

Everyone is trying to balance existing industry, deeply connected with the blue-collar identity and jobs in the neighborhood, with the desire to repair the damage of the previous unrestrained industrial era. Interest in climate change mitigation and green spaces abound, but some community members worry they might be facing a different threat: gentrification, and the kind of displacement that led the Sierra family to move three times before she reached high school. Rosemarie still worries that she or her 88-year-old mother will be forced to move again—but this time, out of the neighborhood entirely.

Joshua Granger, 38: I would like to see more opportunity for the neighbors, for the people that's already living there. You know- education, not just for the children, but for the adults as well. Get rid of all these liquor stores, you know? Put healthy markets in... There's just a long list... So much needs to be done. But instead of putting millions and millions of dollars into downtown Chicago, making metal beans, making these big, extravagant parks for tourists, let's put them back into the neighborhoods and help out people.

Lewis Taylor, 34: It's gonna hurt the people in Pilsen. It's going to raise the rent everywhere, it's gonna have... some people come from out of state with some ulterior motives, something that has no benefit for the neighborhood. They don't care about any of the culture here, the people or any of that, they just care about money.

Roberto Quetzalcoatl, 68: I've lived here since 1947 and I don't like the neighbors being gentrified. I call it ethnic cleansing, though. But I want it to stay a Mexican neighborhood. To stay Mexican! That's what I want. And to get a different alderman, too.

"The plants were already scheduled to close a year later than they actually did,” explains Victoria Thurmond, a community organizer with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO). The plants had a grandfather exemption from the Clean Air Act that was about to expire. Retrofitting the generators was more expensive than shutting them down entirely. The next year, Midwest Generation went bankrupt and sold the sites to NRG Energy. In September 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel assembled a task force assigned to consider the reuse of the plants with input from the community. PERRO sat on the task force with aldermen, city and county officials and other environmental groups. The task force held forums and developed a set of guiding principles for reuse.

The Cermak Corridor saw green improvements in 2011, including wind-powered streetlights. Thurmond hopes that the rehabilitation of Fisk includes solar power, green roofs and a commitment to expanding the CTA’s fleet of electric buses. Sigcho says the community is discussing “other sources of energy production” in order to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

“People wanted green space,” Thurmond says, “We still lack that in this neighborhood.” Also of great concern, she says, were clean jobs and give residents access to the river. Byron Sigcho of the Pilsen Alliance, which sat the task force with PERRO and city and county officials, adds clean energy to that list: “Make it more green and more accessible and make sure that we have local hiring as well.”

In January, three years after the task force was formed, the city announced that the Chicago Transit Authority was considering a bus garage.

Pilsen is easy to access via the Loop. The arts district is in East Pilsen at 18th and Halsted with the arts/commerical center in West Pilsen at 18th and Ashland.

“That was kind of out of the blue, to be honest,” says Thurmond. PERRO has concerns about the project, including increased diesel emissions in a neighborhood that has so vehemently fought air pollution. Thurmond is skeptical about how many permanent well-paying jobs the garage will bring. The organization is planning a community forum on June 16 at Holy Trinity Croatian Catholic Church in order to draft a list of demands for the developers.

“We know it’s our responsibility to push them back,” Sigcho says, “to make sure that they know there’s community groups advocating for being good partners, good neighbors.”

Rosemarie met the director of the Pilsen Alliance, Nelson Soza, while working against sweeping school closings. Soon she became involved in the alliance and started attending meets. “I was really surprised by the people that passed,” she says, “because they because they lived close to the plant.”

When it comes to environmental issues in Pilsen and Little Village, Fisk and Crawford are one priority on a long agenda. Both neighborhoods are home to the Cermak Industrial Corridor, the mile-long stretch of Cermak Road running from Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue, the same corner as Benito Juarez Community Academy high school. 

The copper smelter H. Kramer & Co. sits along this strip, as does Sims Metal Management, a metal shredding facility. Pure Metal Recycling plans on building a similar facility across the street from the school. In November, 84 percent of voters in the surrounding precinct rejected the shredder in an advisory referendum. The Pilsen Alliance sued in Cook County Circuit Court to stop the second shredder. Sigcho says the court ruled that city standards for pollutants were sufficient to protect the community. Sigcho calls these standards “minimal.”

Meanwhile, PERRO is focusing its efforts on cleaning up environmental degradation with the help of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The group successfully lobbied for the cleanup of lead-contaminated soil around H. Kramer and Co. on 21st Street. Two years ago, the group fought for the remediation of the former site of Loewenthal Metals—a brown field on Cullerton Street plagued with not only lead, but arsenic, copper and mercury. Thurmond says PERRO is now trying to find the parties responsible for the contaminated soil around the train tracks that run from Cullerton Street to Sangamon Street. The organization is working with the city to design a walking and biking path for the community.

Open air street markets, like at Mole de Mayo, serve as gathering spaces for the tightly knit Pilsen community.

The Pilsen Alliance’s new concern sits less than half a mile south on Sangamon Street. Here a 7.9-acre lot - former home of NL Industries Inc., formerly known as National Lead – sits empty as it has for years, changing hands with the boom and bust cycle of the economy. First owned by the city and then sold to the Jesuits religious order, the lot is now likely to be purchased by Property Markets Group, a New York-based developer. The company has envisioned 500-units of new housing on the site—a move that Sigcho says has been shrouded from public view.

“We don’t oppose development, but we want sustainable development, development that is in line with the necessities of people,” Sigcho said. People like Rosemarie are tired of being displaced due to rising rent and property taxes. While 21 percent of the units will be set aside for affordable housing, community groups worry that the general fabric of the neighborhood might start fraying with a massive influx of newcomers--- especially, Sigcho says, temporary residents who may not have ties to the community.

“There’s been a lot of tension between longtime residents and newcomers that have decided to refashion this neighborhood to their liking,” Pujols says. She’s been working in the neighborhood since 2004, and says she’s seen gentrification accelerate rapidly in the first half of 2015. At least two artists her organizations work with have been forced to relocate due to rising costs in the area. It’s not the influx alone, she says, that bothers the residents who have roots in the neighborhood: “Not all the of the development that has come with the gentrification has been to the benefit of the residents, but rather of the new people that have come in.”

McDowell emphasizes that most residents aren’t opposed to development. “They want good things in their community,” she says, “but if they can’t afford it or it’s designed and they don’t feel like they’re welcome there and have access to it, then it’s not useful for them.”

“They promise you the world and then they give you a kick,” Sierra says of the developers who have recently come to the neighborhood. “They put you in a box, where how much can you afford?” Her mother lives around the corner from her apartment. Both women are retired and live on a fixed income. If their property taxes go up, Rosemarie said, it could price them out of the neighborhood entirely.

Below is a map outlining current environmental sites as noted by the EPA.

So what’s the way forward for Pilsen? Community groups stress that input from residents is key to sustainable progress in the neighborhood. “We want to keep a balance where we’re mindful of residents, we’re mindful of health, we’re mindful of the environment,” Sigcho says. The Pilsen Alliance is holding a forum Thursday in order to gather input from residents. This is in addition to the forum PERRO is planning on June 16.

McDowell points out that community involvement is critical to how residents feel about their neighborhood. “No matter what’s incorporated into the actual plan for redevelopment, just the fact that having community as a part of it is probably the number one piece.”

There are also ways to mitigate displacement. Rent control and rent caps, Thurmond says, are potential policies that could help residents all over Chicago stay in their homes. Chavez says that arts spaces like Cultura in Pilsen can “help preserve that legacy and that history” of the working class Latino enclave by featuring Latino artists and community groups.

Pilsen can look to its neighbor, Little Village, for an example of a successful industrial rehabilitation. The community worked with the federal EPA to clean up the Celotex Superfund Site. Seventy-eight years of asphalt roofing production left 24-acre site polluted and unusable. After a decade of proposals, community forums and several years of cleanup, La Villita Park opened in December 2014.

The nonprofit Delta Institute participated in both the Fisk and Crawford task force and the Celotex Superfund cleanup. “Here we are in 2015 and communities are rethinking what they want,” says Margaret Renas, a senior manager with the Delta Institute. The cleanup process was so lengthy, she says, because of the high level of community engagement as well as the high level of contamination. Crews built a barrier of 10-12 feet in order to protect park users. “The EPA is very conservative,” Renas says. “They want to protect people.”

Little Village is dense and has little space that can be used for parks and gardens, according to Romina Castillo of Enlace Chicago, a Little Village nonprofit that helps create open spaces in the low-income neighborhood. When talking to stakeholders, she says, “we always remind them that Little Village is one of the communities that has the least amount of space per resident.” Enlace acquires and develops spaces for the community, but transfers the stewardship completed projects to the community: “I think that’s what creates more of a sense of belonging.”

There are some similarities in the history of industry and pollution in the two areas, but Little Village has different struggles. Schools are overcrowded; gang activity limits residents’ access to open spaces. “There are a lot of different layers you have to plan with,” Castillo says.

While the considerations in Pilsen and Little Village are in some ways dramatically different, their roots are similar. Pujols remembers a time where going to Pilsen was “more of an adventure.” She says that “in general, the community’s safer for people, but it has meant displacement for a lot of people that had Pilsen as a home.”

“The city continuously makes policies that benefit the rich and the affluent,” Sigcho agrees. “As long as we keep developing these biased models, where profit prevails before anything else, we’re going to keep failing our youth, we’re going to keep failing our elderly.” Instead, he hopes, Pilsen can create a collaborative model of development that nurtures both the environment and the existing community.

Past and future improvements, Sierra says, are a result of concentrated effort in the face of an intransigent city. “We’ve always gotta fight. No one recognizes us. I’m damn tired of being a sleeping giant. This giant woke up.”

Thurmond predicts that there will be more movement on these issues in June, after the Pilsen Alliance and PERRO hold their forums. “The coal plant was a ten-year fight; Kramer was a ten-year fight,” she points out. These battles may not be won quickly, but each victory is more evidence that the community can work together for its own benefit—and win.

“How do we keep the city a sustainable city?” Sigcho pauses over his coffee at La Catrina Cafe, a Pilsen coffeehouse and community gathering space. “It starts with neighborhoods. It starts with blocks.”