Esmeralda Hernández is a lifelong resident of Little Village, but she chose to work at the polls in the Pilsen neighborhood on Election Day.
She campaigned for incumbent Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, and opted not to vote in her own ward’s aldermanic election.
Little Village residents say they feel invisible, and that translated to the polls where the 22nd Ward recorded a 23% voter turnout as of March 1, one of the lowest in the city.
“I just don’t feel that anything really changes in terms of the way things are done here in Little Village,” said Hernández, 46.
Hernández said Sigcho-Lopez was the only alderman who stood up for her community after the botched Crawford smokestack demolition by Hilco Redevelopment Partners that enveloped Little Village in a toxic dust cloud on April 11, 2020.
Hernández does not hold a high opinion of her alderman, Michael D. Rodriguez: “The only times that I saw him speaking on Hilco was when there was a podium and cameras.”
Rodriguez’s opponents did not look promising to Hernández either. Neftalie Gonzalez wasn’t personable enough and Kristian Armendariz wasn’t established enough, she said.
Rodriguez won with 66.5% of the vote, but residents are angry that the alderman did not do more to stop the demolition and that Hilco was allowed to complete the project after the dust storm.
Rodriguez, who lives five blocks from the demolition site, said he did not know much about the risks of implosion.
“Hindsight is 20/20. I would have done things much differently. If I would have known about these risks, I would have fought tooth and nail to not let (the demolition) happen,” he said.
According to a confidential report that was leaked last month, senior city officials knew that an “almost cataclysmic” dust storm was an “unpreventable byproduct” of the demolition of the former Crawford coal-fired plant up to seven months prior and allowed the project to proceed.
Residents say they are outraged that the report still hasn’t been officially released by the city, and they want assistance with pollution-related health problems and more say in how their neighborhood is being developed. They went into last week’s election with even less faith in the city’s ability to work on their behalf.
[ Little Village activists demand action after publication of confidential report ]
Hernández said she was overcome with emotion but not surprised when she finally read the full report.
“I was furious. I was angry. I cried because I felt like we are not worth being looked after, like we’re just not worthy. That other interests were put first instead of human lives,” she said.
Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, whose office wrote the report and had also called on the city to make it public, said he was “shocked, but somehow not surprised” when it was leaked.
In a recent interview, Ferguson said he has witnessed similar inaction by the city repeatedly.
“In Chicago, it’s always Groundhog Day,” he lamented. “The Crawford implosion and the government’s handling of that was one of the last examples of how the government failed the people.”
Little Village, a Mexican American enclave on the city’s Southwest Side, has long been fighting for clean air.
After activists successfully campaigned to shut down the Crawford plant in 2012 — which a Harvard study linked to dozens of premature deaths, hundreds of hospital visits and thousands of asthma attacks every year — the land was acquired in 2018 by Hilco, which planned to turn it into a logistics warehouse for Target.
The community raised concerns again, saying the development would increase traffic from heavy-duty trucks, trading coal pollution for diesel pollution.
“I picketed against it,” said Hernández.
The project proceeded and the demolition of the old plant began in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when concerns about respiratory ailments were high.
At 8 a.m. on a Saturday, the implosion of the 400-foot smokestack blanketed Little Village in a mixture of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dirt and other pollutants from coal soot, according to a lawsuit filed against Hilco and its contractors by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul in May 2020.
Hernández lives about half a mile from the site. She was home with her 77-year-old mother when the dust cloud descended, coating her house in a thick layer of dark gray. Even though she closed her windows, she said she found a dusty film on her furniture and floors. Dust likely entered many houses in her neighborhood through cracks in old windows and foundations, she said.
The week after the dust cloud, Hernández said she was coughing, sneezing, congested, short of breath, and had a pressure headache and itchy eyes. Ever since, strong smells like perfume and car exhaust can trigger the allergylike symptoms again.
Before the dust storm, Hernández enjoyed gardening in her backyard. But seeing the effect on her home and body, she can’t imagine turning over the soil to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers like she used to.
“We can’t do anything back there anymore. We don’t know what’s in the soil,” she said.
Genaro Contreras, 60, also lost something he enjoyed to the dust.
Well-known in the community for riding his bike around the neighborhood, Contreras can’t ride as far or as frequently because of health complications.
Three days after the implosion, Contreras said he also began having trouble breathing, feeling fatigued and experienced sharp pressure in his chest. Today, he said he suffers from chronic shortness of breath and chest pains. His wheezing is audible.
Costly medical care and long wait times at free clinics have prevented him from getting the care he needs without health insurance.
Hernández and Contreras said they are certain their health problems were caused by toxins from the dust storm. According to the attorney general’s lawsuit, the dust cloud contained particulate matter, which can cause aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and increase respiratory symptoms.
For many residents, the major concern is health. Contreras wants Hilco to provide medical insurance so he can pay the outstanding medical bills from his hospital visits and see specialists for his wheezing and chest pains.
“The truth is that I don’t want money. I want help with my health. I want to return to the healthy state I was in before. Money doesn’t solve things or anyone’s health,” said Contreras, who spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.
Ferguson’s office completed the Hilco report in September 2021. Despite calls from residents and the City Council, the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot refused to release the report.
After the report was leaked in February, a spokesperson for the administration said, “As the mayor and others stated at the time of the incident, the implosion at the former Crawford Generating Power Plant was an unacceptable event. Contractor negligence and failures led to the dust cloud that created fear and trauma in Little Village. This administration took swift, public action to hold those responsible accountable.”
The city fined Hilco and its contractors $68,000 and ceased all implosions for six months after the incident.
However, the report found city officials acted with “willful bureaucratic negligence” in the lead-up to the implosion. Senior employees at the Chicago Department of Buildings and Department of Public Health ignored expert warnings that imploding the smokestack would be a “disaster” and failed to follow regulatory protocol “to the ultimate detriment of a community.”
The report recommended disciplinary action for two building officials, but they received “remedial counseling.” It also recommended the potential firing of a health department official. He received a written reprimand.
The city’s Department of Procurement Services could have put Hilco and subcontractor MCM Management Corp. on probation, which would have prohibited them from getting a license or contract to do business in the city, Ferguson said. Hilco has since completed the project and is building a neighboring truck storage site.
The administration’s decision not to publish “really speaks to the extraordinary power that is held by the mayor,” he said.
Ferguson proposed changing the system to allow the inspector general to determine whether substantiated reports like the Crawford demolition should be made public.
Last September, following the mayor’s refusal to release the Crawford demolition report, Rodriguez said he proposed an ordinance that would transfer power from the mayor to the inspector general to publicly release IG reports. It is still sitting in the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, he said.
Meanwhile, Hernández wonders what happened to the fines the city collected from Hilco and its contractors.
“Where does that money go? Who gets that money? We don’t. We sure don’t,” she said.
A spokesperson for the health department said “the portion that contractors paid went to funds supporting the City’s environmental enforcement efforts.” The department was unable to provide information on the specific efforts or where in the city they were concentrated.
As one of Chicago’s 26 designated industrial corridors, Little Village is zoned primarily for industrial and manufacturing activities. Residents say they feel like they don’t have a voice when it comes to construction in their own backyard.
“When the developers come and do whatever they want without having any community input, it’s like we’re living in hell. Like, ‘Hello, I’m a human being. I live in this neighborhood. This is going to impact me for the rest of my life,’ ” said Armendariz, one of the unsuccessful aldermanic candidates and a lifelong Little Village resident.
When the Crawford plant was closed, residents had hoped to turn the site into a public park. The neighborhood has the least green space per capita in the entire city, according to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
[ Little Village residents slam city for failing to reduce influx of industry ]
Currently, the neighborhood is home to more than two dozen industrial facilities that use medium and heavy diesel trucks. Residents say the effects are palpable.
“On the weekends here, you have a mixture of carnitas and people grilling, and it smells like diesel and meat,” said Little Village Community Council President Baltazar Enriquez.
Chicago ranks third in the United States in deaths and health costs related to diesel pollution, according to an analysis from the nonprofit group Clean Air Task Force. The pollution causes $3.7 billion each year in hidden health costs, and 340 people in the metropolitan area can be expected to die this year from diseases related to diesel pollution, the report said.
The Target logistics center built by Hilco has increased this truck traffic, residents say.
Rodriguez said he got Target to sign an agreement prohibiting large diesel trucks on neighborhood side streets, but residents say the drivers have been ignoring posted “Do Not Enter” signs.
They are also concerned about how Hilco may be handling the truck storage project.
“It is scary because I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t know what’s up (the city and Hilco’s) sleeve,” Hernández said.
Years of industrial projects, pollution issues and city inaction have eroded trust in government, residents say, leading to less than a quarter of registered voters going to the polls last week.
While campaigning, Armendariz recalled people telling him: “I don’t vote. What am I going to vote for? Everything’s going to be the same and nothing is going to change. You’re going to promise us this and that, but once you’re in office, you’re not going to do that.”
Armendariz said he told residents, “Whether we like it or not, politics is everywhere, even in the air that we breathe. Just take a look at Hilco, for example.”
Ferguson urged Little Village residents and all Chicagoans to think about procedural changes they can demand be made to city government so that events like the Crawford implosion don’t happen again.
After stepping down as inspector general, Ferguson began (Re)Chicago, an organization exploring the structural changes needed to improve governance in Chicago.
[ Joe Ferguson: Chicago needs to clear the air in Little Village over the Hilco implosion ]
“The government didn’t work for you,” Ferguson said, with Little Village residents in mind. “However, there’s a mechanism to identify those places where the government failed to meet the moment, and there are mechanisms to assure that there is accountability.”
One of those mechanisms he and (Re)Chicago propose is a city charter or constitution. Chicago is the only major city in the country that does not have this kind of document, which Ferguson said is needed for citizens to hold government accountable. It would define the government’s responsibilities to citizens and provide a legal basis for citizens to file complaints against the government.
But, today, a deep-rooted sense of pain and neglect persists.
“It’s always been the haves and the have-nots,” said Hernández. “I feel like a citizen of Little Village and at times from Chicago. But there’s always this divide where I feel that we’re always getting the short end of the stick.”
Even though many didn’t turn out to vote, Little Village residents aren’t giving up on change.
Five days before the election, community activists were outside Rodriguez’s office chanting:
“What do we want?”
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“When do we want it?”
They had gathered to hand-deliver their demands in response to the publication of the inspector general’s report.
Foremost among their demands were an emergency community meeting with city officials and a halt to the truck storage project.
Rodriguez said he is organizing the meeting. A spokesperson for the health department also said the city is working with community organizations to identify neighborhoods experiencing the greatest environmental, health and social stressors. The department plans to use this data to inform future land-use and permitting decisions.
In the meantime, Little Village residents say they will continue to advocate for their health and neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of people out here who are willing to go out there and march — like myself — for better air quality. We’re even fighting for our right to breathe,” Hernández said. “So if it’s something that I have to do, then it’s something that I have to do.”