Little Village Needs a Park

March 4, 2008

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Open land in Little Village

Mayor Daley thinks Chicago should be as green as our lakefront. But face it, beyond the beaches Chicago doesn't look all that green. In many communities trees and grass are in short supply. Take the community of Little Village. Air, soil and noise pollution from industry have filled resident's backyards for years. City officials agree the area should be greener, but just getting a neighborhood park has turned into a near-decade long struggle.

ambi: wind and gates swinging, trucks

On a frigid winter day like this one, it takes a bit of imagination to picture what this barren piece of land here in Little Village might look like if it were covered with trees and grass and filled with kids running around.

A new chain link fence surrounds the 24 acres of open space previously owned by the Celotex Corporation, a company that produced asphalt roofing products. The area was once part of an important manufacturing corridor. 

At the moment, the site of the future park looks more like a parking lot, filled with semis. The barbed wire fence of Cook County jail borders the eastern edge.

CASTILLÓN: It's not beautiful. You see how is it and we have to handle all that truck, smelling diesel and get up at 4:00 o'clock in the morning because these people make a lot of noise with the, I bet you if it's in Lakeview, they gonna listen the people who live down there very soon.

Martha Castillón is one of the many Mexican immigrants that live in the two-story brick homes near the Celotex site. 

She's lived here for 20 years and when you ask her about plans for the park she starts waving her fists in the air.

She's convinced if this were a wealthier neighborhood without so many immigrants something would have been done long ago.

CASTILLÓN: We need this one especially in the summer time, I, I, you can see like 40 kids, 40 kids on this block.  I counted ok, playing on the street on the pump and it's not fair. They are playing right there in the street and then I told the mothers you have to be careful and they say what you gonna do. Where they can go?

ambi: 26th street

Little Village, still a port of entry for many new immigrants, has a bustling commercial district that runs down 26th street.  But there aren't a lot of trees in front of the shops and restaurants.

The neighborhood is also home to one of the region's largest coal burning power plants.

The city agrees that the neighborhood needs more green space.

DICKHUT: Open space is a general quality of life kind of thing.  So you know it has environmental benefits, it has recreational benefits, it has social benefits, it has neighborhood developmental benefits.  So pretty much it's one of those assets that you want to have to have to have a rounded, livable community.

Kathy Dickhut is with the Department of Planning and Development. Back in 1998 the city came up with a plan to develop more open space in the places that were lacking it, neighborhoods like Logan Square and Little Village. This park was part of that plan. Ideally, the city wants at least two acres of open space per every one thousand residents.

To achieve that Little Village would need to add at least a hundred more acres of green space, but that just doesn't exist. Which is why Dickhut says this 24 acre park is a priority.

But getting a park in a neighborhood can be complicated. The city doesn't even own the land yet. And there's another obstacle.  Money.

The Park District's total budget for overseeing all of the city's parks is $30 million dollars. Dickhut says the average cost for developing a new park is about a million dollars an acre. So

DICKHUT:  Twenty-two million dollars will get a basic park without any buildings.

But Little Village Alderman George Cardenas is confident he'll be able to raise the additional funds needed to build facilities for both indoor and outdoor activities.

CARDENAS: All I know is that there will be a park, here. That's all I know. And if I have just an open field than my god I've improved the situation. If I have nothing but just a running track than I've improved the situation. If I have trees and shrubs and you and some gardening and have flowers than I've improved my community.

ambi: street sounds
 
But there's something else that makes the residents in this neighborhood uneasy. The land is contaminated.

The soil contains polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. They're a group of chemicals that form when coal, oil, wood and gas are burned. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, PAHs may cause cancer.

The contamination was discovered in 1992 and the land is still considered a superfund site, a classification the EPA gives to hazardous waste sites.

That concerns residents who live nearby.

GUZMAN: Eso es la cosa…this is the thing.  They want to make us the park without a clean up. They want to do it on top of the contamination. We're afraid.

Angela Guzman's lived across from the Celotex site for twenty eight years. Her kids grew up here.  They used the empty lot as their playground.

ambi: street sounds

During the last year the EPA has overseen the clean up of about 155 homes near Celotex, including Angela Guzman's backyard.  The soil in her yard contained the same contaminants that are found on the proposed park site.

Angela says that until recently, before all the yards were cleaned up, before the contaminated soil was carted away and new landscaping put in, people from outside the neighborhood would come and dump their garbage near the site.

It smelled. It was dirty. It was dangerous. So Angela wants something done.

GUZMAN: Con un parque…with a park, it would be beautiful.

Jena Sloboda is the EPA's project manager for Celotex.  She says the clean up plan they approved in 2004 is a safe solution.

SLOBODA:  It's not uncommon. There's plenty of other parks all throughout the country that have been on landfills or other places where waste has been left in. It just is a practical use for them and if there's no exposure threat then it's a good use of space for a lot of urban areas especially.

But one local community group, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, isn't satisfied with the EPA's clean up plan.  The group's been trying to get a park in the neighborhood for nearly a decade but it says it would rather wait than see a park built under the current clean up plans.

Lorena Lopez is the group's community organizer.  As she stands in front of the site, she says a park is crucial for the neighborhood's future.

LOPEZ: What will get our children not to gang bang is to put them in extra curricular activities, skating, swimming, making sure they're not into those things, they have something else to do besides just staying on the street corner. And that's the risk our kids take by not having open space.

The EPA says the clean up of the Celotex site will begin this spring. Lopez and her group say they'll be there, too. They plan to protest.

I'm Alexandra Salomon, Chicago Public Radio.