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Shaping a Community Vision for the Future of the Collateral Channel

For more than two decades, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has been a strong advocate for social and environmental justice in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and across the region. LVEJO’s work is rooted in the Principles of Environmental Justice and the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing. As such, the experiences and voices of community members shape the LEVJO’s grassroots campaigns and community-centered research.

The Little Village community has celebrated a number of victories in recent years including the closing of the Crawford coal power plant, reinstatement of the 31st Street Chicago Transit Authority bus route, and construction of La Villita Park. Thanks to LVEJO’s advocacy and organizing, the former Celotex superfund site was remediated and converted into the 22-acre La Villita Park in 2014. Before being home to a park, the superfund site was the source of cancer-linked polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons that made their way into residents’ basements and local bodies of water through rain runoff. The park stands as a great example of the power of community organizing to redevelop brownfields into green open spaces that provide numerous community benefits. 

Great Rivers Chicago

Today, hundreds of people visit La Villita Park every week for picnics, soccer games, or a quick stroll outdoors. The beauty of La Villita Park can be overshadowed by the strong foul smell coming from the Collateral Channel, a mostly abandoned and stagnant waterway on the Chicago River’s South Branch, located just across the street (see map to the right.) According to residents, the pungent smell from the channel is stronger on hot summer days, often causing park visitors headaches. The channel once served as an industrial waste disposal site; though the channel is mostly unused today, the City continues to store barges there. With funding from the Our Great Rivers grant, and in partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), LVEJO will advance plans to transform the Collateral Channel, which urgently needs remediation and revitalization due to its methane emissions and poor water quality.

LVEJO will re-engage with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, who owns the property around the Collateral Channel and handles the combined sewage outfall in the channel, to begin a remediation process. LVEJO will partner with the Little Village community to collectively envision a new future for the channel and the surrounding land. As part of their partnership with CNT, LVEJO is developing a Cleanup and Revitalization Action Plan to include opportunity maps, a story map to weave together quantitative and qualitative data, and an implementation process for this vision. LVEJO hopes that this work will be a model for just transition planning that shifts economic and political power from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy, thus improving environmental quality, public health, and economic opportunity in communities experiencing environmental racism.

LVEJO has co-led various research that has produced critical environmental health data in recent years. Among them, the cumulative impact map was done in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Southeast Environmental Taskforce (SETF). The map shows the effects of environmental and social stressors, and identifies the most health-burdened communities in Chicago. In addition to the cumulative impacts map, members of LVEJO have been leading community health research by surveying and conducting air monitoring along the Little Village Industrial Corridor, specifically on streets with heavier diesel truck activity such as Pulaski Road, Kedzie Avenue, and 31st Street.

This summer, LVEJO will be rolling out a study to understand the current landscape of the area near the Collateral Channel. Although the study design has not yet been finalized, the plan is to collect demographic, flooding, and spatial data. As part of community outreach for the project, LVEJO will focus on raising community awareness about the current environmental health burdens in Little Village and conducting various community mapping activities at La Villita Park. Follow LVEJO to stay up to date on their community programming and campaigns.