KAI WRIGHT: Hey gang, we’ve been away for the holiday but we’re back this week with a story about change and how you know when you’ve got it — or when you don’t. A heads up for people who don’t like profanity: there are some swears in here. But you know, sometimes politics is enough to make you cussin’ mad. I’m Kai Wright and this is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future
ALEXANDRA PEREZ: My name is Alexandra Perez. I am 44 years old. I live on 32nd and-
KAI: Alexandra Perez lives in a small, two-story house on the South West side of Chicago. And for most of her life, aside from a few years growing up in Mexico, this is where she’s lived — inside this same one-mile radius, in a predominately Mexican neighborhood called Little Village.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I was at Pulaski and 30th and from 30th and Pulaski when I got married, we moved into this house. So I just literally crossed the street. (LAUGHS) That’s all I did.
KAI: She’s got a cousin next door, another one around the corner. Her roots here run deep.
ALEXANDRA: I am a Chicago public school, eighth-grade teacher, bilingual teacher. I am raising my three children in this community still. And I don't see myself ever leaving this community. Mi Villita is my home. This is who defines me and this is who has defined my children. And we're very proud to live in this community.
KAI: When we spoke with Alexandra back in the Spring, the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its early, most frightening weeks. She and her family had been staying at home — observing the governor’s shelter in place order.
ALEXANDRA: Those few first days. I mean, I didn't even want to peek out the window. (LAUGHS)
KAI: And it was during that time that something happened in Little Village — something no one would have expected during a pandemic. Early in the morning, April 11th on the Saturday before Easter, Alexandra was still asleep when she was jolted out of bed by what she at first thought might be an earthquake.
ALEXANDRA: We were awakened by the shaking of the house. Couple of things fell off the wall.
KAI: Alexandra is somewhat used to loud noises. Her house is just half a block down from a set of train tracks. And beyond that, there’s a shuttered, almost 100 year old coal-fired power plant, where construction work has been going on for over a year, but the sound that morning was different. Alexandra’s son described it like the 4th of July times a hundred.
ALEXANDRA: I was upstairs, came down to the house and I asked, ‘Did you guys feel that? Is everybody OK? What happened?’ And then it all clicked to us and said, ‘Oh, the explosion!’
KAI: Workers at that coal plant site had imploded one of its smokestacks, an old, towering concrete column that had always been one of the tallest things in the whole neighborhood for miles and miles. Alexandra had been using it as a landmark when giving directions to her house for years.
WGN REPORTER NANCY LOO: The old smokestack of the former Crawford coal plant came down in spectacular fashion on Saturday.
KAI: Drone footage of the implosion, picked up by all of the news stations, showed the first explosion at the base of the smokestack.
[SOUND OF EXPLOSION IN DISTANCE]
KAI: It looks like the beginning of a rocket launch, but instead of shooting like straight up in the air, the structure kind of tips over like a falling tree and as soon as it hits the ground-
[SOUND OF STRUCTURE FALLING IN DISTANCE]
KAI: Dust just starts clouding up around it and moving like a slow motion avalanche.
NBC5 REPORTER MARION BROOKS: A smokestack implosion over the weekend caused a dust cloud that spanned for blocks in the Little Village neighborhood.
[SOUND OF EXPLOSION IN DISTANCE]
REPORTER: A plume of dust pouring over the surrounding community.
[CAR ALARMS BLARING]
KAI: The dust expands across the empty property grounds and past the train tracks. And it eventually just swallows up Alexandra’s house. Then her neighbor’s houses and rows and rows of houses beyond them.
ALEXANDRA: It was just unbelievable because we- that dust looked like- it was a big cloud and the only thing I thought was- thinking was, this is probably how it looks when they, when cities get bombed.
KAI: Cars had to drive with their headlights on. People got caught in the dust and they reported chest pain and trouble breathing.
TELEMUNDO REPORTER MARYBEL GONZÁLEZ: La caída de la torre causo una píla de humo en el vecindario de la villita este sábado.
KAI: Most residents had only been given half a day’s notice. The company that owns the coal plant site, it placed fliers around the neighborhood just the night before. Organizers in the community that had seen this coming- they had pleaded with city officials, ‘Don’t let this implosion go forward, particularly during the lockdown.’ After all, the zip code in and around Little Village, has reported some of the highest confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the state of Illinois.
RAUL MONTES: This is an outrage this should have never have happened, especially with COVID-19.
CBS2 REPORTER MIKE PUCCINELLI: Residents who were already concerned about COVID-19, now say they have to worry about what they may have breathed in on the morning of holy Saturday.
KAI: This implosion, it's part of a much larger, much longer story in Little Village. A story about a group of residents like Alexandra, who got together and began to demand justice for their neighborhood.
KAI: And I'm telling you this story now because, I think there are a lot of people, all over the country, who can suddenly relate to that experience. People who are joining old movements, who are starting new ones. And maybe as a result of that, I keep hearing this question: Is THIS it? Is this THE MOMENT of real, lasting change? But you know, having covered social justice movements for a couple decades now, I know that the answer to that question is... well, annoyingly complicated. And the best way to wrap your head around it -- to understand what it really takes to make that kind of lasting change everybody wants -- is to follow a story like this one: The ongoing story of the fight for environmental justice in Little Village.
ALEXANDRA: At this point, everybody's pointing the finger at everybody, right? Because this is the hot news right now, but then we know what happens to all that. It boils down. And then they forget about us.
KAI: Our reporter Jenny Casas has the story from Chicago.
JENNY CASAS: People call Little Village the Mexican capital of the Midwest. It’s this vibrant neighborhood of small homes surrounded by little yards. The main drag is full of Mexican groceries and restaurants, places to shop for a baptism. It used to be an enclave of Polish and Bohemian immigrants. Today’s there’s an arch that reads Bienvenidos a Little Village. And to understand how and why this neighborhood was swallowed by that dust cloud, you have to meet Kim Wasserman.
KIM WASSERMAN: So we are in the Little Village community, which is technically the South Lawndale community...
JENNY: I found this video of Kim from about a decade ago. She’s giving a driving tour around Little Village.
KIM: Little Village is home to 108,000 people who all live within a five mile radius.
JENNY: She grew up here, lived here almost her whole life. And Kim used to do these driving tours all the time. Three to four times a week.
KIM: We are the second most densely populated Mexican, Mexican-American community outside of East Los Angeles.
JENNY: Keywords Kim uses when describing what it was like to grow up here...
JENNY: House music, graffiti, hoop earrings, paleteros, eloteros, murals, music, and people everywhere. But she wasn’t giving a driving tour because of the great food or the great vibe. In the stop and go of traffic in this video, Kim was taking her passenger to a place she didn’t know much about until she was 21, when she gave birth to her first son.
KIM: Nine pounds, eight ounces...
JENNY: Kim has told me a lot of these stories over the phone where we‘ve gotten to know each other at a distance. Her kid was born in April 1998 and by June, he had his first asthma attack.
KIM: And I just remember sitting there and the doctor being like, ‘Okay, do you smoke? Like, what did you do when you were pregnant?’
JENNY: Kim had had a healthy pregnancy, so the doctor started asking her about where she lived and the air quality in her neighborhood.
KIM: And I was like, ‘Well, shit, if I know, dude. Like I've lived there pretty much my whole life, but fuck if I know what's in the air.’ And so that motivated me to go back home and start to understand what was in the air and what was in my neighborhood, and wouldn’t you know it! There was a goddamn coal power plant.
JENNY: A coal power plant called the Crawford Generating station. The one just down the street from Alexandra’s house. It had been burning coal in Little Village since the 1920s. Of course, Kim always knew the Crawford plant was there. The site is huge — over 70 acres. And there was that tall smokestack that marked the neighborhood from miles away.
KIM: It's always been in the background and very much in the background. It's this huge ass building. You can't miss it.
JENNY: But what Kim hadn't realized was just what kind of health effects came with living near a coal plant. Dozens of studies have proven that emissions from coal plants expose people to toxic gasses and heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic — things known to damage lungs, brains and other organs. And not only that, five miles away in the next neighborhood over, there was another coal plant. Chicago was the last major city in the country to have two power plants burning coal within the city limits. Little Village is home to a lot of industry; scrap yards, factories, a former superfund site. Zoning rules have put these kinds of industrial sites right next to homes and schools, with almost no say from the local community. The neighborhood has some of the highest exposures to air, water and land pollution in Chicago. A 2002 Harvard study found that the coal plant here and the one down the road could be linked to 2,800 hundred asthma attacks and 41 premature deaths. Every year.
KIM: I've had two kids since then, and all three of my kids, unfortunately, have asthma. And, you know, it was important for me as a mom just wanting to understand. Did other people care? And what could we do about it?
JENNY: There are plenty of people in this country who live next to a dirty factory or some sort of heavy industry. Some might move. Some might just accept it. But for Kim, the only option was to close the coal plants down — to get them out of her neighborhood.
KIM: Literally as a community we would like to see them shut down. They don’t have a contract with the city or the state to provide electricity to us. All of their electricity is sold on the open market and so that is a huge problem for us because these are basically cash cows...
JENNY: To do that, Kim started volunteering with a group of residents called the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO for short.
[SOUNDS FROM LVEJO PROTEST]
JENNY: The group had been working to get polluters out of the neighborhood since the early 90s and pretty quickly, Kim became a full-time paid organizer. The Crawford coal plant -- it became her Goliath. And she threw every stone at it that she could find.
[SOUNDS FROM LVEJO PROTEST]
PROTESTERS: Coal is over, coal is done, gonna get our power from the sun! Coal is over, coal is done! [FADE OUT]
JENNY: They protested outside government buildings…
KIM: To say to our legislature to say to folks in Washington that our air is not for sale.
JENNY: They made elaborate signs, a giant paper mache puppet of an evil looking corporate exec.
SELENA GONZALEZ OF LVEJO, in a deeper voice: Hello, I am the coal baron. I have come to take your children and your lungs from you. For what? For profit of course! (FAKE LAUGHTER)
JENNY: They organized after-school programs and hundreds of those driving tours around Little Village.
KIM: You name it, we did it. Like if you had an idea, most likely we were going to run with it.
[LVEJO SINGS PROTEST SONGS]
JENNY: In one protest, LVEJO gathered 41 high school students — one to represent each of the premature deaths estimated in the Harvard study. The group met in front of Richard M. Daley’s office — then Chicago’s Mayor, part of the family that ruled the city’s politics for decades. Daley had shown zero interest in closing the coal plants. So, there on the fifth floor of City Hall, each of the students slipped into a body bag, zipped themselves up and laid out scattered on the floor with asthma inhalers in their mouths.
KIM: You know and because we were just walking in, we didn't have any signs or anything. And then yeah we just passed out the bags and then before you knew it, there's a bunch of people laying on the floor in body bags. So yeah, it was pretty cool in that sense, but I just remember their reaction.
JENNY: Kim says Daley's staff were livid.
KIM: They were like, 'Don't you ever do this again. Like, you embarrassed the mayor. They were more worried about the mayor being embarrassed than the goddamn issue at hand. But we had no choice because it was the only way that we could continue to get the narrative out there around how fucked up the coal power plants were.
JENNY: Kim eventually came to run LVEJO as its executive director. This campaign to shut down the coal plants, the fight to get the city and other Chicagoans to care. It dragged on for years and it spread into every part of Kim's life.
KIM: You know my kids- well, because my kids went to work with me for a very long time. And they understood why we were fighting the coal powerplant campaign, why it was important. It was my middle son who really- every time we would drive by the damn coal powerplant, 'So, Mom, when are you gonna close the coal powerplant?' I'm like, 'Man, I am working on it! Like stop, stressing me out, like stop asking- like every single time we would drive by that thing, 'So you gonna shut them down anytime soon?' And I'm like, 'Dude, I swear to God.'
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JENNY: Kim was facing an uphill battle. The company that owned the coal plants, Midwest Generation, had allies at almost every level of Chicago city government. And if Kim and LVEJO had a hard time with Mayor Daley, they had an even tougher time with their own local alderman. Aldermen sit on the city council and the one in Little Village, Ricardo Muñoz, received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the company. So did the alderman for the ward next door, the one with the other power plant. So Kim and LVEJO had to find an ally from a completely different part of the city.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
CLIP: JOE MOORE: I'm Joe Moore. I represent the Forty Ninth Ward in the city of Chicago.
JENNY: In 2009, Joe Moore was a young progressive alderman on the far, far north side of town, about as far as you can be from the Crawford coal plant and still be in Chicago. And Moore had a reputation for standing up to Mayor Daley.
CLIP: JOE MOORE: If you look at the way city government is structured by law, we are a strong council, weak mayor form of government.
JENNY: It was the first time LVEJO have had anything close to the kind of political support they would need to do anything about the coal plants. But even then, Kim says Moore encouraged them to change their messaging and set their sights on goals he thought were more feasible.
KIM: He was like, 'You all are confused.' He was like, 'You all don't really mean that you want it shut down. You all want them to get cleaned up.' And we were like, 'Nah homie. Like nah, that's not what we're at. We know what we're asking for.' And he was, 'That's not going to be politically viable.' And so we spent a lot of time just fighting people who wanted to help us and getting them to understand that we knew what we wanted, that we didn't need them to change our messaging, that we didn't need them to change our strategy in fact. That we just needed them to support us.
JENNY: Moore didn't respond to our requests for comment, but Kim says they were able to convince him that closing the plants was the only option.
CLIP: JOE MOORE: I want to do what we can here within the city of Chicago to close two of the biggest contributing causes to global warming right here in the city of Chicago...
JENNY: In the spring of 2010, Moore introduced an ordinance that would cap the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that the two coal plants could emit. Basically, the message to Midwest Generation was clean up or closed down. And the option to clean up was so expensive that if the ordinance passed, it would probably run the coal plants out of Chicago.
CLIP: JOE MOORE: When this legislation passes, Chicago will do what no other large city in America's had the guts to do: clean up a dirty power plant within its jurisdiction and thus protect the health and welfare of its residents. [APPLAUSE]
JENNY: At the City Hall press conference, Kim smiled and nodded. It was the first time she was inside that building behind a podium on the side of politicians. Instead of protesting against them.
CLIP: KIM: Our communities have lived in the shadows of these plants for too long and my hat goes off to the amazing people behind me for taking the initiative, for stepping up and for saying that if the federal government and the state won't take action or it takes too long, we will... [APPLAUSE]
KAI: So did it work? Did Moore's ordinance finally close down this power plant?
JENNY: You know, it never passed.
KAI: See, Jenny, it makes me wonder: Was Moore right in saying that Kim had unreasonable demands that we're never gonna be politically possible?
JENNY: Well, I think Chicago politics is one thing, but if Kim's story has taught me anything, it's that organizing is all about patience. And even if this ordinance didn't pass, what she was doing was laying a foundation for what would eventually set up a victory.
KAI: How do you mean?
JENNY: Well, think about when this happened. Right. So we're in 2010. The Obama administration is really putting the pressure on the coal power industry. It's hard to imagine now, but the president of the United States was pushing clean energy everywhere. And once you add all that pressure that Kim had been putting on Midwest Generation at the local level over years and years and years, it created a momentum against these coal power plants that Chicago politicians couldn't ignore.
KAI: It's really, it's almost like it's a death by a thousand cuts.
JENNY: So many cuts. And eventually, Kim finally got what she wanted.
KIM: I get this phone call from an organizer who works with us and she's like, 'They're going to shut down.' And I just remember just crying and just nonstop crying because I- it just was twelve years of just so much work and just so much heartbreak and just so much struggle. And to get to that point and just not at all be prepared for it. Never in a million years that I had the opportunity to actually stop and think, what would that moment look like?
[MUSIC FADES IN]
KAI: Kim, LVEJO, they managed to do what they'd been told was unachievable. And Kim, because she was an organizer, she knew there was plenty of work still ahead. She just didn't know she'd be fighting this time, in a dust cloud.
JENNY: Have you ever heard of a time where it just works out? Like where the fight ends in a victory and that's like that's it? It ends?
KIM: Yes and no. Honestly, I hate to say that, but the reality is- is that we're dealing with a system that's based on structural racism. Like you cut off the head and two more grow. There's a root cause to what these things happen and usually it's capitalism and racism.
KAI: That's next.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KAI: If the 12-year fight to close this coal plant was a Hollywood movie, the story might end with that phone call Kim got, that told her that the plant had been shut down. But this is real life Chicago. After the closing, the city convened a task force and it invited residents to daydream out loud about what they wanted on that old coal plant site. A zoo, a sports center, a community college. Many residents said they were happy to reuse the existing coal plant building for whatever they came up with. The important thing was Little Village residents just wanted it to be environmentally-friendly and they wanted to have a say.
KIM: Right, like up until this point, we had been fighting the city tooth and nail. And so to get them to be like, 'Yeah, let's all come to the table,' we got like a naive young person who's never been through this before. You're like, 'Alright, cool, this sounds like a good idea.'.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
KAI: But all of those ideas would stay as daydreams. Here's Jenny again.
JENNY: Once they closed, the land under the empty coal plants became prime pieces of industrial real estate. And in 2018 and 2019, both were sold to a developer called Hilco Redevelopment Partners. The company is part of a giant international firm known for, among other things, liquidating the assets of failing companies. Think Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Borders Books. And Hilco's Plan in Little Village was to demolish the coal plant to build a one million square foot warehouse and distribution center. Target has reportedly signed on to lease the building. The development is expected to cost one hundred million dollars and could bring with it loads of truck traffic, possibly negating a lot of the progress made in cleaning up the air quality when the coal plants closed. Not only that, the city council approved a tax incentive for the project worth almost 20 million dollars, which meant LVEJO's next battle was going to be about how Hilco planned to demolish the old power plant.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JENNY: At a public meeting last summer, that LVEJO organized in a community center auditorium, Kim voiced her concerns to state and city officials about toxins found in and around the building site.
CLIP: KIM:The fact of the matter is that the site is over 60 years old and it is very much contaminated with asbestos and lead and it is going to be a difficult thing to demolish. And as community residents, we want to be sure to understand how that process is going to take place, ensure that our community health as community residents is protected...
JENNY: One of those city officials there that day was David Graham from Chicago's Department of Public Health.
CLIP: DAVID GRAHAM: Hello, my name is David Graham. I am the assistant commissioner for environmental...
JENNY: Graham's job is to make sure demolitions in the city are done safely, that no one is exposed to toxins like asbestos and lead. And residents still talk about his presentation that day, almost a year later, because of what it didn't include: a plan to conduct air monitoring as the plant was being torn down. A step residents knew was critical for their safety.
CLIP: COMMUNITY MEMBER: Wouldn't it make sense to have air monitoring at this location, given that when you burn coal, you have lead. You have mercury, you have heavy metals. You potentially have arsenic that's going out into the air. You have asbestos now. Wouldn't it make sense to have some sort of air monitoring at the site, even though they're not volatile organic compounds? Because even though you can't see them, they're still as deadly, if not more.
CLIP: DAVID GRAHAM: That's a good question. Considering what the contamination is like...
JENNY: Graham's voice is hard to make out, but he tells the crowd he doesn't know what Hilco's plan is. Someone points out that a representative from the company is right there in the room.
CLIP: COMMUNITY MEMBER: They're right here. [AUDIENCE LAUGHS].
CLIP: DAVID GRAHAM: I would, I- I would not necessarily, I would recommend doing the air monitoring but it's not up to me.
JENNY: Then he says he would recommend the air monitoring, but it's not up to him. The city doesn't require it, even though his agency's literal mission is to promote and improve the health of Chicagoans.
CLIP: COMMUNITY MEMBER: I personally don't understand how it could be up to the developers of the site to determine whether or not they want to invest in air monitoring for a community that they're not invested in. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]
JENNY: Instead, Graham told the audience kids and people with breathing problems and anyone sensitive to dust should just limit their outdoor activity when work was being done on the site.
CLIP: DAVID GRAHAM: I would try to keep your doors and windows closed when you come in the house.
JENNY: This community meeting took place at the end of summer, one of the last few months of good weather in Chicago. And this advice was given to an audience that made clear they didn't want a demolition or the warehouse.
CLIP: We have one more question over here. OK.
CLIP: COMMUNITY MEMBER: I just want to say this: I ask you how do I protect myself from this going on and you tell me, 'Close my windows and shut my doors?’ What are you doing to protect us here? I have a right to be in my yard. I have a right to walk to work. I have a right to breathe. So you need to do something. Not me, shutting my doors or shutting my windows.
KIM: And then this pandemic hit. And. And. I apologize, I'm probably going to cry. (PAUSE) We knew. We knew this shit was coming.
JENNY: LVEJO closed their offices mid-March. Kim and her staff began working remotely at home, alone.
KIM: Probably the second week of us being home, we lost our first volunteer.
JENNY: A second volunteer would die the following week.
KIM: [SNIFFLES] So I'm trying to manage grief in our organization and our community, like checking in with our staff. How are you all doing? Can you guys work? If not, how do we support you? And the worst question was like, Are you prepared for somebody in your family to die and do you need support?
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JENNY: Being isolated from each other was the complete opposite of how Kim and LVEJO had accomplished everything they had so far. And now they had to manage a new, much more imminent crisis. On the night of April 9th, 2020, Kim got a stock email from Hilco. Chicago officials had signed off on a permit to bring down the coal plant smokestack using explosives. The city hadn't approved an implosion like this since 2005. But this one would happen with almost no warning, in less than 48 hours.
KIM: I just honestly fell to my knees and I was like, 'what the fuck?' I don't think I cried that much in my life. And it wasn't even when I got the email. Because I got it, the email when they sent it out and we hustled and we tried. That whole night- that whole night, the whole next day, we tried to stop it.
JENNY: Kim calls everyone she can think of. People who live near the coal plant. The aldermen. People at city hall. Local reporters.
KIM: Then I got a call or text from somebody we knew at the city who was basically like, 'I'm sorry. I tried everything I can and it's going to happen.' And it's like, goddamn. How many fucks can you not give about us in the neighborhood?
JENNY: The implosion happened early Saturday morning.
[EXPLOSION IN THE DISTANCE]
JENNY: The explosives, the smokestack hitting the ground.
[STRUCTURE HITTING THE GROUND]
JENNY: Those were the sounds that shook Alexandra Perez and her family out of bed.
ALEXANDRA: The house looked like it was a little cloudy. And so then we looked outside and it was supposed to be a sunny day, but you couldn't even see the sun out.
JENNY: Concerned residents flooded Kim and LVEJO's phone lines and email.
KIM: Just hundreds of e-mails and calls from people and just messages asking us so many questions. And we couldn't answer them.
JENNY: Questions like, 'Why did the city approve this demolition, just as the pandemic was sweeping through Chicago? Why weren't residents given more notice? Why was there so much dust?'
KIM: And then there was questions around, 'What was in the dust? Like I breathed it in. Do I need to take care of anything? What do I do? It's in my house. My kids were outside. Should I wash- should they shower? Are my vegetables fine? Can I still continue to garden?' Yeah. After that explosion, it was like, 'I'm itchy here. I'm itchy there and sneezing' and all that.
JENNY: Alexandra says the experience left her jumpy. Any loud noise on the street? It has her running to the window.
ALEXANDRA: And then I'm like, OK, you know, we don't want to freak out, but you do freak out. And all of these things come to your head.
JENNY: Like what?
ALEXANDRA: I was just like, 'Oh, my God, what are we going to get sick? Should I be googling what the effects of asbestos are? What should I be doing?' So, you know, should I be getting bloodwork done? So we're in the process of getting our doctor's appointment to get ourselves checked, just to make sure that we are OK. I know a lot of people are going to say, 'well, you should have moved.' That's not the point. That the point is not to move. I'm going to move, but I'm gonna leave behind this problem. And leave it for who? For the next one's that come? That wouldn't be fair.
JENNY: In the weeks following the implosion, it was hard to justify the safety risks of getting people together in person to protest the way that they always had. This was before the murder of George Floyd, before the protests that have swept the country. So LVEJO organized a demonstration, but everyone would stay socially-distanced in their cars. The group would drive through a little village past the old coal plant sites, make a stop by Hilco's downtown office and end up at city hall.
MAURICIO PEÑA: So, yeah. Yes, we're on the procession route now.
JENNY: I caught a ride with Mauricio Peña, a reporter with the local news outlet, Block Club Chicago. He's been following Little Village's fight against Hilco for the past two years.
JENNY: How many cars is that? Maybe-.
PEÑA: Definitely more than 50.
JENNY: We're wearing masks with the windows down in his little black Honda Civic. And the line of cars snaking through the neighborhood. People come out to wave, take pictures and yell and support.
COMMUNITY MEMBER: Thank you all for being here this morning.
JENNY: LVEJO hosted a livestream that day, so people could tune in from home.
COMMUNITY MEMBER: I know it's, you know, wasn't easy to get up earlier. You know, obviously we're out here dealing with all this craziness and we're all here together in solidarity.
PEÑA: So they're going to turn down to Crawford or down Pulaski to go to Crawford. And then, there's a road that cuts through.
COMMUNITY MEMBER: I think most people are familiar with Crawford Coalplant. This is obviously the site of the implosion a couple weeks ago.
JENNY: Aside from the smokestack, large sections of the power plant are still standing. Massive, torn up, busted out walls and exposed wiring.
COMMUNITY MEMBER: We're just trying to keep this development from happening. Hilco wants to replace this with a one-million square foot warehouse. This would be the largest warehouse within city limits. It is- it would also bring hundreds, if not thousands of more semi-trucks to a neighborhood with already the second worst air quality in the state of Illinois. So we're really trying to stop this from happening again.
JENNY: After the implosion, Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference here.
LORI LIGHTFOOT: Ready? Are you ready? Alright, good morning, everyone.
JENNY: She promised the city would conduct a full investigation.
LIGHTFOOT: The demolition was permitted and scheduled and was supposed to be controlled in a way that kept the dust and debris contained to the site of the plant. The city was given repeated assurances that Hilco had a solid plan to contain the dust. Clearly, that didn't happen.
JENNY: Lightfoot had the Department of Public Health test the air, the dust, the soil near the implosion site to get answers about what was in that dust cloud.
LIGHTFOOT: I would not tolerate this in my neighborhood and we're not going to tolerate it here either.
JENNY: When the results came back, city officials posted them online and assured residents they had nothing to worry about. Asbestos, which is known to cause cancer, was found at the coal plant site but not in the dust samples collected off of cars in the neighborhood. Lead was also found, but at levels the city said, "posed no immediate health risk to residents."
SAM DOREVITCH: It's really important to know that there's no such thing as a safe level of lead. There's no such thing as a safe level of something that causes cancer.
JENNY: We showed this city's lab results and online messaging to five environmental scientists. All expressed concerns - ranging from what was found in the samples to how they were collected and how the city is portraying the result.
DOREVITCH: Let me open it up again.
JENNY: Sam Dorevitch was one of them. He's with the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health.
DOREVITCH: So I'm looking at a document called Building Debris * sampling Asbestos Results.
JENNY: Dorevitch looks at one of the lab reports of samples from the building site. He compares that with results from a little more than a dozen dust samples taken from around the neighborhood.
DOREVITCH: You see something that says they tested 14 samples and none of them had asbestos. But have to, you know, on the property, it sounds like they did detect asbestos. If there's an implosion, some of those- some of the asbestos is going to fall outside of the demolition site and into the neighborhood.
JENNY: Dorevitch says that to know exactly how much of that material made it onto homes and cars in Little Village, the city would have had to be monitoring the air while the implosion happened, which, if you remember, is exactly what residents asked for at the community meeting. Eight months before the smokestack fell.
DOREVITCH: The implosion was on April 11th, but it seems that by the time the sampling actually began, the air sampling, the cloud was basically gone. You know, it's like if a chemical spills in the ocean and you wait a couple of days, you know, some of that chemical might have evaporated. Some of that chemical might have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. So you don't really learn very much about how bad things were initially and that's sort of what happened here. Their testing was done too late.
JENNY: The caravan picked up late drivers along the route. In total, it stretched to almost 100 cars.
COMMUNITY MEMBER: Nice job everybody, we're huge! Let's make some noise. Honk your horns.
[CARS HONKING HORNS]
JENNY: Little Village residents will never get a full picture of what was in the dust that day. Illinois's Attorney General sued Hilco. The city issued 16 violations against the company and its contractors. The fines totaled $68,000.
PEÑA: The contractor, but the city gave them a $19.7 million tax break for this development. And so, like in the great scheme of things like $68,000 is a drop in the bucket.
JENNY: Mauricio says there were early hints the demolition could have gone wrong. Hilco's contractors had been cited before for letting dust leave the construction site. And last year, a worker from Little Village named Reynaldo Grimaldo fell to his death on the job.
PEÑA: I think while the city is pointing the finger at Hilco and the contractor, they still have to reckon with the fact that they approved this permit. There was a track record. They have to answer to that, too.
JENNY: We asked Mayor Lightfoot's office about all of this. They didn't respond in time before we published this story, but in past statements, the mayor has acknowledged that Little Village residents have felt disrespected for decades. At the very least, LVEJO and the people in this caravan, they want that tax incentive rescinded. And these are people that closed down two coal power plants. They're still fighting for the bigger prize. They want Hilco out of their neighborhood.
KIM: What do we want? When do we want it? What do we want? We want to breathe fresh air. We don't want more trucks in our neighborhood.
JENNY: LVEJO is back to protesting in front of the coal plant where the city has allowed work to continue on the site. And Kim, she's back on the bullhorn.
KIM: The mayor and her administration doesn't give a shit about Black and brown lives, having this happen during a respiratory epidemic! What do we want? When do we want it?
JENNY: For Kim, this all started with one goal: trying to close the coal plants in her city to protect her neighborhood. But what this fight has shown her over the past 20 plus years is just how that problem is tied to so many others. It wasn't just shutting down the coal plants. It was also trying to understand why people were allowed to live near them in the first place. It wasn't just the implosion, but that it happened in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, during a pandemic that is killing black and brown people at twice the rate of white people. It's not just Hilco or Target, but the profit-driven system pushing this development and others like it across the country. Kim has realized the work she's doing is against a much bigger adversary.
KIM: It's just so much more than just like- it's just one bad person. It's a bad system in general. Right. And it's- it's bananas to me that this all came from the fact that my kid couldn't breathe. Right. And now that statement can be expanded across so many different realms. For me personally, I think to get to this point of understanding, like how it's all interconnected and like how we don't have a right to say shit about what happens in our neighborhood.
KAI: What Kim wants is a world where environmental decisions are made by and with the people who will be impacted. One that recognizes communities like hers are experts in what they need, regardless of how much political power they have or how much money their ideas can bring to the city, which is not a far fetched thing. Actually, people all over the country are realizing that things don't have to be the way they've always been.
KAI: Policing, housing, labor, schools. But Kim's story is a lesson in how that kind of change will come about. There is no moment. No singular victory in which there is a before and after. There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks because justice is a thing we recreate every day and every collective choice. We're in this for the long haul. And that's a good thing.
KAI: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was reported by Jenny Casas. It was edited by Christopher Werth and mixed by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Karen Frillmann. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Marianne McCune and Veralyn Williams. With help this week from Michelle Harris and Kim Nowacki. Hannis Brown also wrote the theme music for our show. It's performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Please do keep in touch. You can follow me on Twitter at @Kai_Wright. And thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.