If you look at a map of where people face the most significant threats from air pollution and toxic waste in Chicago, you see a bright red gash running southwest from the downtown skyscrapers. This gash follows the canals, railroads, and roadways that launched Chicago’s rise as a great metropolis by linking the city to the western prairies starting in 1848.
It is here, at the western edge of the reddest portion of the map, in a Latino neighborhood called Little Village, that retail giants like Amazon are rushing to build their latest e-commerce warehouse.
The project will bring at least 178 permanent jobs to a neighborhood where chronic unemployment provides a steady stream of recruits for murderous street gangs. It will replace a coal-fired power plant that spewed soot and sulfur dioxide into the neighborhood for nearly a century, and that’s been rotting away since closing in 2012. But to neighborhood activist Kim Wasserman, this e-commerce incursion into Little Village is still a prime example of environmental racism.
It is not just that the warehouse will each day bring hundreds of diesel-powered trucks into a neighborhood that’s packed with people who can’t afford to live anywhere else, and that’s already choking on air pollution and traffic gridlock. It’s that the city seems so incapable and disinterested, Wasserman says, in measuring the cumulative impact of such projects, and of even asking whether better alternatives exist.
“We’re a low-income community of color, primarily an immigrant community,” says Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Economic Justice Organization. “It’s not by accident that these dirty industries reside here. They’re looking for an employment base they can exploit and for lax regulation. That’s unfortunately what they’ve found in a city like Chicago.”
Specifically, Wasserman is fighting a $100 million plan by Hilco Global to demolish the coal plant and replace it with a one-million-square-foot warehouse for next-day delivery of internet orders in Chicago. Hilco plans to open the warehouse in the first quarter of 2021. That’s a year later than first announced to allow more time for planning and community outreach.
Gary Epstein, Hilco’s chief marketing officer, won’t identify his potential tenants. He declines to respond to Wasserman’s charge of environmental racism. But as proof of his company’s social responsibility, he cites a defunct Baltimore steel mill that Hilco transformed into a warehouse and manufacturing district for companies like Amazon and Under Armour. Public bus service and even recreational fishing have returned to the waterfront site, Epstein says.
“I’m proud of being able to take toxic, contaminated and abandoned facilities and give them a brand-new useful life that has been consistently embraced by the communities in which we’ve done projects,” Epstein says. “I can’t speak to the world. I can only speak to Hilco.”
To Wasserman, this last comment, about speaking only for Hilco, is precisely the problem, because this one warehouse won’t be the only source of traffic or air pollution.
The Hilco warehouse, for example, will be just across a freeway from an intermodal freight yard that slices through the neighborhood for an entire mile. More traffic is coming as pressure for same-day delivery drives Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, to build warehouses not just in far-away suburbs but also in inner cities. Chicago is happy to oblige, so long as the warehouses stay away from the North Side and its wealthy online shoppers and locate instead in depressed industrial corridors like Little Village. In March, the City Council welcomed Hilco’s warehouse with a $19.7 million tax abatement. (Hilco plans to replace a second coal plant nearby with a data center for networked computers).
In exchange for the tax abatement, Hilco agreed to plant 700 trees and upgrade traffic lights and driveways. The company expects 173 trucks per day, and Epstein predicts they’ll go directly back and forth to a nearby freeway – and avoid residential streets. Smaller delivery vans leaving the warehouse will stick to the freeway, too, he says. But Hilco has no binding agreement with the city to enforce this. Unlike in Paris, New York, or Los Angeles, there’s no regional authority in Chicago that’s coordinating staggered or nighttime freight deliveries, or that’s banning old and smoky trucks.
This lack of regional coordination is a glaring weakness. Half of all U.S. intermodal container traffic already moves through the Chicago area, according to Tom Murtha, a senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Average daily package deliveries to Chicago-area homes and businesses could rise to 3.3 million by 2021, up 26 percent from last year, according to Jose Holguin-Veras, an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Mike Rodriguez, the Little Village alderman, says the neighborhood already suffers from “entirely too many trucks,” and he’s trying to ban them from a particular street (Kostner Avenue) that’s also clogged with school kids. Michael Crowley, the press secretary for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, didn’t return messages seeking comment. Epstein declined to comment on how trucks using the new warehouse will affect air quality.
Little Village residents already face higher health risks from tiny soot particles suspended in the air than all but three percent of Illinois residents, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Today the neighborhood is 85 percent Latino, with a quarter non-U.S. citizen. Asthma forces children in Little Village into hospitals three times more frequently than on the north side of Chicago, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Wasserman understands these health impacts as a mother. All three of her children have asthma, which makes breathing difficult. “Instead of lifting us up, the city is enticing developers who end up hurting the community more,” she says.
Because retailers are so enthusiastic about the Little Village warehouse, Epstein says, they’ll create more than the initially announced 178 jobs. Almost all these jobs will be filled by Little Village residents and pay “at or above” the $15-per-hour minimum wage Chicago has mandated for 2021.
Even with Hilco’s new jobs, Little Village still has a long way to go. Nearly one in five Latino men aged 20-24 in Chicago are out of work or school, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study. Wasserman is pressing for an alternate growth strategy that builds on existing strengths, like food shops and restaurants that make the 26th Street corridor in Little Village second only to downtown’s famous Magnificent Mile in retail spending. Toward that end, she’s competing for a $10 million grant, sponsored by Chicago’s wealthy Pritzker family, to build a kitchen and storage area for food vendors.
At age 43, with black curly hair and rapid speech when excited, Wasserman was instrumental – along with cheap natural gas and stricter air pollution limits – in forcing the coal plant out of business. The San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation was so impressed it gave her a $150,000 leadership prize.
She’s also demonstrated plenty of stamina. In Little Village, she’s participated in organizing campaigns that lasted five years each for a new high school, bus line, and community garden; twelve years to close the coal plant, and twenty years to build a public park called La Villita.
“I encourage people to continue to tell me it’s not going to happen,” Wasserman says. “As a neighborhood, it doesn’t matter to us. We’re going to continue to fight until every option has been exercised. And we’ll see who’s left standing.”