September 27, 2012

Updates from Little Village Environmental Justice Organization: An Interview with Rafael Hurtado

Rafael Hurtado is a student at University of Illinois- Chicago, majoring in Criminology and Urban Planning and Public Affairs. He has been a life-long resident of Little Village, and has been involved with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) on and off since high school. When a bunch of us were in Chicago for the Power Vote training in August, Rafa gave us a version of the Community Asset Toxic Tour he gives of his neighborhood as part of LVEJO's efforts to educate people about environmental justice and the harmful effects of polluting industries in Little Village.

When I spoke with Rafa last week, he had been busy preparing a press release for Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's announcement the next day of redevelopment plans for Midwest Generation’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants. Fisk and Crawford, located in Pilsen and Little Village respectively, have been recently taken offline after years of collaborative local efforts to shut them down. Rafa took the time to explain how he got involved with LVEJO and talk about LVEJO's Urban Land Campaign (which includes both Open Space and Urban Garden campaigns) and Clean Power Campaign, including some important developments.

WeArePowershift: How did you get involved with LVEJO?

Rafa: I needed to do my service learning hours for Chicago Public Schools. I recognized the logo and the name, because they were two blocks away. They had been fighting to get a park across the street from my house since 2003, when I was twelve. So I went with my friends to a rally across the street, and I was all for it. Unfortunately we didn’t get the park. But in high school, about two years later, when the time came for me to do my hours, I recognized them at the table...So I did my hours here, and I came in really simple minded, I thought they were all hippies and whatnot. But at the end I saw that this was more than environmentalism, it was more like equality. It was about us in the neighborhood and the low-income and people of color community getting what we deserve, which is the same thing all the other neighborhoods in the city of Chicago get, which are parks, good public transit, clean air, non-polluting industries, and jobs.

WAP: What is LVEJO working on now?

R: We’ve got the Urban Land campaign, which is linked to the Open Space campaign. It's about getting more parks in the community, because we are the youngest community in Chicago, and we are the community with the least green space per capita, so we are in desperate need of parks. We finally won the battle for the new park, so we're getting a new park now, it’s just making sure the park is the right one for us...It’s going to be a 24-acre site, so we want to make sure the process is transparent 100% for the community members, and we want to make sure that every step of the way, community members have a say in it. The park that we have is 11 acres for about 100,000 people, and due to gang boundaries there’s only about a third of it that’s accessible. Regardless of whether you’re affiliated, it’s going to be iffy for you to go onto the other side of the neighborhood. So with that, statistics have shown that the east side of the neighborhood had lower test scores, higher obesity rates, higher mortality rates, higher teen pregnancy rates, so it’s a lack of parks, a lack of recreational spaces, a lack of opportunity for the youth, and being the youngest neighborhood in the city of Chicago, we definitely needed that park.

And then, we’re obviously still working on urban gardens, making sure we have community gardens. And that’s always good because we’re teaching young people old methods and we’re teaching old people new methods. The garden campaign is really good in the sense that it’s also healthy competition amongst residents.  We see this a lot where one person has a nice garden, the next year their neighbor outdoes them, then the next year the dude across the street outdoes both of them, and then you have nice gardens on the block. Everyone is happy and the block looks better. It helps with beautification of the neighborhood. And then also it’s therapeutic, it’s just people that enjoy gardening. The volunteers come here and teach their ways and teach what helps. So that’s pretty much it for that campaign- helping with the park, being transparent, making sure we have the right resources at the park.

For the Clean Power campaign, the first thing is to inform the residents that the plants are closed, because they closed down without notice. I believe we went on the tour on a Thursday, and we were talking about how the plants were going to close the day after, on Friday. They had actually closed the day before. So that Wednesday was the last day that they ran.  And that’s the thing we want to tell the community about, is that they didn’t come out and warn anybody that they were going to be closing early, and we have reason to believe that they’ll do the same thing with the demolition...We’re scared that they’re going to start demolishing without public notification. So who’s going to get the worst of it? It’s going to be the residents that have to deal with asbestos and lead, and all the pollution. The local media hasn’t made any effort to let the latino community, or the non-latino community know that these plants are offline, but yet we get Facebook posts and letters, phone calls and emails from all around the country that are like ‘good job, they’re finally offline, congratulations,’ yet our next door neighbors have no idea what we’re doing. The city...didn’t inform us, and they didn’t do it because it’s empowerment. To have a multibillion dollar corporation say ‘hey, we’re offline, congratulations you guys won,’ –they’re not going to do it.

Tomorrow, the Mayor announces his plan. If everything goes as planned, our next steps will be to get what we deserve, which is a green space. This was months ago, that they decided to designate each site for specific uses. They said no residential--and it couldn’t be used for 100% single purpose, it’s got to be multi-purpose--so open space/green space, commerce and industry. And for the industry and the commerce they designated living wages for both types of use, minimum wage jobs, which is good, but as a community we’re pushing for non-polluting industry and non-big box commerce. If we get a Walmart or a K-mart or a Target near there, it’s really going to hurt 26th street which is our magnificent mile, and that’s our number one tool against gentrification. So we really want to make sure that there’s no polluting industry, and if there is commerce, that we keep it local, small, and completely non-big box.

On Saturday, Rahm Emmanuel announced that the Mayoral Task Force had come up with about a dozen recommendations for the Fisk and Crawford sites. The plans include, generally, demolition of the smokestacks and buildings, construction of light industrial sites, marketing of sites to developers, and commercial and retail development. Mayor Emmanuel also announced the allocation of an extra $8 million (doubling the budget) for the 24 acre park on the east side of Little Village that will be built on a superfund site that LVEJO pushed to have cleaned up.