Despite losing one quarter of its Latino population since 2000, rising unemployment rates, deportations and incessant gentrification, Pilsen residents have shown resiliency by organizing to demand justice on issues of public health, economic justice and other concerns. Residents were understandably elated when, after over 100 years of burning coal, Fisk Generating Station finally shut down this past September. In late August a barge delivered the last shipment of coal to Fisk, likely Cermak road’s most infamous polluter, but not the only one.
Cermak, Pilsen’s busy commercial street, has recently inherited a new accolade. It’s being called the “Greenest Street in the Country” by the Chicago Department of Transportation. CDOT partnered with local stakeholders to develop the Cermak/Blue Island Streetscape, which they want to replicate around the city. The $14-million sustainable urban design project, funded by TIF money, state and federal grants, runs along Cermak from Halsted to Wolcott with plans to extend to Western Avenue. David Leopold, project director, said it’s a demonstration of Chicago’s efforts to design storm water management, air quality, bike access and transportation infrastructure improvements. To its credit, Pilsen already has many community-led sustainability projects like the community garden network, the educational green space near 17th and Loomis, and environmental justice work among residents.
Cermak may be the “Greenest Street” but for years was part of one of the city’s most polluted communities. Jerry Mead-Lucero, an organizer with Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, known as P.E.R.R.O, says he supports the project’s sustainable energy and infrastructure features “but a green street does not make a green neighborhood.” Mead-Lucero pointed out that H. Kramer, located on Loomis/21st near Cermak, is being sued by the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois State Attorney General for violation of air pollution standards in regards to lead. The company is denying responsibility for the polluted soils near their facility which would ironically make walking or biking down Cermak almost unbearable without holding your nose.
Maria Chavez, co-founder of P.E.R.R.O is skeptical about a project that “sounds impressive but did not include community input at all.” She wants more testing done on lead, mercury and radiation levels emitted by the SLAG, the waste derived from smelting or burned coal, which was used as part of the first concrete layer for the sidewalk.
“The project seems like a sort of compensation for the pollution that was expelled for decades,” Carlos Lopez, Pilsen resident and Urban Planning student at UIC, said. “Hopefully it continues to invite best environmental practice and economic development for Pilsen.”
Two major highways run across Pilsen to the east and south, both of which contribute to high asthma rates and smog. Other Cermak polluters are: the Chicago International Produce Market, a terminal produce market that receives and transports tons of produce to surrounding businesses, and SIMS Metal Management Midwest, located south of Cermak, which grinds up scrap metal and creates clouds of dust, especially at night.
The city claims that the project will “improve the urban ecosystem, promote economic development, increase the safety of streets, and build healthy communities,” but has yet to explain how these goals will be reached for a project that is essentially an improvement to an existing commercial corridor. Ald. Daniel Solis claims that the purpose of this project “is to improve the infrastructure and quality of life of the Pilsen community.”
Solis, who was not available for comment, is part of the Cermak project but was not always the eco-warrior. In the past, Solis had collected nearly $50,000 in campaign donations from Midwest Generation, which operated Fisk. It was only through pressure from residents and nearly losing his re-election campaign in 2011 that he agreed to support it the Clean Power Ordinance and help P.E.R.R.O on eliminating other pollution sources in the community.
Mead-Lucero cautioned future green project planners by saying they “mean little if the neighborhood’s biggest polluters continue to pollute the community.”