A Land Forgotten
The Tenth Ward on Chicago’s far southeast side—generations of immigrants have worked, prayed, lived, and died here. The fumes from the slaughterhouses, steel mills, and oil refineries were the price residents willingly paid for solid blue-collar jobs.
But over the last thirty years, most of the jobs left and this industrial corridor along the Grand Calumet River became home to even dirtier companies like S.H. Bell, a manganese storage facility, and two Koch brother-owned facilities that store petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining. The new businesses have few employees, but the fine dust that blows from their yards coats windows and lawns and has a major impact on the community. Manganese is a potent pollutant. In children, it’s linked to lower IQ scores and learning disabilities. When petcoke is inhaled, it can lodge in the lungs and cause serious health problems.
The Tenth Ward is now predominately Latino, recent immigrants drawn by affordable housing and the proximity to jobs in Chicago. It’s the largest but least populated ward in Chicago. The families who live here bide their time and pray they can one day move to a healthier neighborhood.
But not everyone in the community is willing to accept the status quo. Peggy Salazar is Director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. She and a group of dedicated volunteers are pressing the city and federal governments to protect residents in this environmental disaster area.
Salazar grew up on the southeast side and understands the resignation many residents feel. “People think it’s always been this way and there’s nothing they can do,” Salazar says. “They don’t want to live next to dirty industry if they can choose to live elsewhere, and those that can, eventually leave.” But Salazar feels a moral responsibility to the people who take their place. “When you sell your home, it just passes the problem along to the next person,” she says.
|Rev. Zaki speaking at an environmental rally at The Zone.
Rev. Zaki Labib Zaki is of Egyptian descent and grew up in Sudan, where his parents were missionaries. He served as pastor of East Side United Methodist Church from 1997 to 2012. Passionate about his belief that Christians must be stewards of God’s creation and stand up for marginalized communities, he didn’t let his congregation’s small size deter him. “I saw East Side Church as a hub for a larger alliance,” Zaki says, “to bring together like-minded organizations in our community and surrounding neighborhoods.”
One of the coalition’s first battles was with Waste Management of Illinois, which wanted to greatly expand its CID landfill that already sprawled across nearly 400 acres on the southeast side and northwest Indiana. “We created alliances with groups that had never worked together before,” Zaki says. “When Waste Management made a counter proposal, we stood strong.”
When Zaki found that parents were too burdened making a living to get involved, he turned to the youth. The church established the Southeast United Methodist Youth and Community Center, also known as The Zone, in 2002. It attracts scores of youth many of whom were eager to help their community.
The coalition of community groups convinced the city not to issue a permit for the dump and the project died, but like a multi-headed hydra, polluters continued to be attracted to this vast, mostly empty industrial area. Leucadia National Corporation wanted to build a gasification plant across from a local high school to convert refinery waste and coal into synthetic natural gas. The process would release vast amounts of greenhouse gas and heavy metals. The community once again rallied against it. “We sponsored community information meetings and used grassroots organizing tactics,” says Zaki. Some 50,000 letters, many written by children, were sent to then Governor Pat Quinn. In 2012, the governor vetoed a bill to provide Leucadia subsidies to build the plant.
The environmental battles on the southeast side will continue. In 2018, thanks to the work of Salazar and other activists, the EPA required S.H. Bell to install more air monitors to track manganese levels. But while looking for one toxic pollutant, they discovered lead in residential soil, where almost 6,000 children live.
Salazar refuses to be deterred. She has a longer view of how to save her community. “There’s a lot of open space here,” she says, “the only large natural areas in Chicago.” Salazar would like to eventually see the Grand Calumet River and its tributaries restored to a more natural state. She imagines the Tenth Ward as a place where tourists stop and enjoy the scenery and wildlife instead of rushing by on the expressway.
“Things move slowly on the southeast side,” Salazar admits. But when people come together to work for change, there is always hope.