‘We basically had less than 24 hours to mobilize.’ This Chicago neighborhood was battling coronavirus — then the demolition happened

Chicago News

On April 11, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, a 145-foot smokestack was demolished in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, spreading brown dust over a major cultural and economic corridor — and a COVID-19 hotspot in one of America’s hardest-hit cities. For nearly 90 years the smokestack had spewed pollutants from the old Crawford Avenue coal-fired power plant, and the plant’s 2012 closure was a victory for local activists.

With another cloud forming over the neighborhood, they organized around the plant again in the middle of a pandemic.

On an edge of Chicago’s southwest side, the heavily Mexican-American Little Village is famous for its retail strip, 26th Street, a corridor of more than 500 businesses that’s reportedly the second-highest-grossing shopping district after the city’s glitzy and heavily touristed Michigan Avenue — the Chicago Reader, in fact, has dubbed it a “Mexican Magnificent Mile.”

Little Village, or La Villita, has been a gateway to the Midwest for generations. But 44% of the neighborhood is industrial, and the Crawford power plant alone caused an estimated 26 deaths, 350 emergency-room visits and 1,800 asthma attacks every year, according to a 2002 study from the Harvard School of Public Health.

In 2018, Hilco Redevelopment Partners acquired the 70-acre site, and announced a demolition and remediation process that would take up to two years. Environmental activists opposed Hilco’s plan to build a distribution center on the site because they feared it would create more air pollution from increased truck traffic. But it was approved in September 2018. In February 2020, Hilco signed Target TGT, -1.45% as a tenant for the distribution center as demolition of the power plant continued. Then the pandemic started, and the slow process of developing the site came to a fast stop — for a while.

‘We couldn’t believe that the city would allow an implosion, on Easter weekend, during a pandemic.’

“We got an email from the [Hilco] CEO, Roberto Perez, on Thursday, April 9, that the implosion was happening Saturday morning,” said Edith Tovar, a community organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and a Little Village native. “We basically had less than 24 hours to mobilize and warn our residents. We mobilized via social media. We tried to reach out to as many contacts as we have in the City of Chicago to double-check that it was actually happening. We couldn’t believe that the city would allow an implosion, on Easter weekend, during a pandemic.”

“The measures taken by the demolition experts on the ground simply were not sufficient to contain the dust, as they should have been,” a spokesman for Hilco said. “We take full responsibility for that and are saddened this has cast a bad light on what we think is a really good project for Little Village and Chicago. We’re committed to making it right.”

“We’re going to have a beautiful facility built at Exchange 55 with state of the art technology powered by clean solar energy, surrounded by 700 native Illinois trees and the room to create thousands of jobs for people who can ride a new bike path to work from the local community. All of that will rise from an unsightly coal fired power plant. It’s going to be something we can all be proud of,” he added.

The neighborhood was already being tested by the coronavirus outbreak. Latinos have the highest COVID-19 case rate in Chicago, with nearly 2,000 cases per 100,000 — one-third higher than Chicago’s black population and nearly four times that of its white and Asian populations.

There have been 46,979 cases of COVID-19 identified in Chicago residents as of Wednesday, and 2,188 deaths, and 123,830 confirmed cases in Illinois, and 5,621 deaths, city data show. There have been 83.7 deaths per 100,000 people in the Latinx population in Chicago, nearly double the 47.2 per 100,000 for white residents. For black residents, it’s even higher: 124.3 per 100,000.

“Rates have been increasing in Latino neighborhoods, in Little Village in particular,” said Arshiya Baig, an internist at University of Chicago Hospitals and an associate professor at the Pritzker School of Medicine, who has been treating patients from and studying health issues in the neighborhood for over a decade. “I’m hearing that there’s a high positive rate out of those who have been tested, 60%-65%, much higher than the rest of the city, which is under 20%.”

‘Nationwide, one-sixth of Hispanic workers can work from home. That means five-sixths can’t.’

“There are a lot of underlying health disparities that this is exposing even further. In Little Village there are high rates of obesity and diabetes, co-morbidities associated with the virus,” Baig said. “Nationwide, one-sixth of Hispanic workers can work from home. That means five-sixths can’t. It raises profound questions: Do I go to work and make money? Lack of access to unemployment can be a problem; lack of paid leave can be a problem. A lot are essential workers — delivery, cashiers.”

Crowded and multigenerational housing conditions, in the United States and elsewhere, have also been suggested as a potential cause of elevated COVID-19 rates in certain areas. According to U.S. Census data at the Chicago Health Atlas, 14% of housing in South Lawndale — the community area that contains the Little Village neighborhood — is considered crowded. That’s the highest rate in the city. It’s one of only five out of the city’s 77 community areas with a crowded-housing rate of 10% or higher; four of those five are Latino-majority. Nearly one-third of South Lawndale residents, again the highest rate in the city, have no health insurance. Death rates from COVID-19 in Chicago’s Latino population are 44% higher than among the white population.

Chicago is notoriously segregated, and its health disparities fall along the same lines. Life expectancy in the statistical community area centered on the Loop, the heart of downtown and the city’s central business district, is 85 years; in West Garfield Park, a predominantly black neighborhood a few miles to the west, it’s 69. COVID-19 has highlighted those disparities and their socioeconomic causes; a Chicago Tribune analysis found that case rates mirrored violent-crime rates. The death rate in Chicago’s black population is one-third higher than in the Latino community, perhaps because of even higher rates of co-morbidities; African-Americans make up 45% of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago despite being one-third of its residents.

14% of housing in South Lawndale, which has the Little Village neighborhood, is considered crowded.

The virus complicated the intensely social job of community organizing, but, because shelter-in-place rules began in the city on March 20, LVEJO had already begun emphasizing the virtual realm. “We were trying to transition to online organizing and communication, because a lot of our work is door-knocking, one-on-one conversations with residents. So we were trying to figure out how to still be in touch with our base, through phone, through video chat,” Tovar said. When the smokestack came down, an ally flying a drone captured the dust fanning out over the houses next to the plant.

The city hosted a video community meeting to address the implosion and the ongoing demolition of the plant. Tovar called the session a “disaster,” because it didn’t include a professional translator. LVEJO, in turn, has hosted two virtual town halls, as well as a “car caravan” protest in the Loop. Hilco fired the contractors who carried out the work, blaming them for not containing the dust; the city fined the companies $68,000 and set a six-month moratorium on implosions.

But demolition restarted a couple of weeks ago on the site’s turbine hall, according to the local news website Block Club Chicago. LVEJO is planning future actions to update the neighborhood on the work at the site. It’s also working with residents to present an alternate proposal for the site’s future.

In cooperation with the city, Hilco shas been notifying residents of ongoing work at the site, a spokesman for Hilco told MarketWatch. “We’re cooperating fully with the city, state and environmental authorities and have been happy to hear that air quality tests performed by the city showed no health risks,” he said.

Right now, LVEJO’s work sits at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Crawford demolition. The organization works with community gardeners, and, when shelter-in-place rules began, it went to work on food security, getting produce to residents in need. These channels have sustained a real-life network when so many social connections are on hold.

“Our food-justice team has been communicating a lot of these updates, especially updates from the organization, to these 40 families [who work in the garden],” Tovar said. “Many of these families were also involved in shutting down the Crawford coal plant. It’s beautiful to see that they’ve continued to work with us to share updates with their neighbors.”

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