Greening the Ghetto

November 15, 2007

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The word “green” has taken on a life of its own in politics, in architecture, even in marketing. For some black environmental activists in Chicago, green is about social justice and health. And it's also about affordable housing. But even those positive goals don't guarantee green is always an easy sell to African Americans.

Cecile Carroll has a headache. The smelly fumes from diesel trucks are getting to her. Carroll is standing at the corner of 100th and Ewing in South Chicago counting the trucks and buses rumbling down the street. She's an organizer with Citizen Action Council – trying to get people around here to think about diesel pollution. It's been an easy sell because she tells them …

CARROLL: That where you live could possibly kill them.

With a hand-held machine, scientist Bruce Hill measures the toxic particles in the air from the trucks. At one point ninety-seven thousand particles in a lump the size of a sugar cube blow out the exhaust. Hill says on a clear day, in a clean environment, a lump that size would have only about three thousand particles.

Diesel pollution can trigger asthma, heart attacks, developmental delays in children and chronic bronchitis, Carroll says. In a half an hour, she counts 97 diesel vehicles.

Health worries are just one spark behind a surge in Chicago environmental activism among African Americans. Urban organic farms are cropping up on vacant city lots. Tomatoes and kale are ready to harvest on what used to be empty lots. Besides fresh food in neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce, they bring in jobs.

A new group, Sustainable Englewood, wants to build green trails along abandoned railroad tracks. And there's Climate Justice, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition pushing for pollution reduction and recycling. But there are snags in turning blacks to green. To some African American leaders, global warming is just another crisis dragging attention away from more serious problems.

MEEKS: I'm afraid to death that some more of these kids are going to get killed before the earth warms over.

I attended the funeral of Blair Holt, a teenager killed in gang crossfire last spring. In his eulogy, Salem Baptist Church pastor James Meeks called for the focus to remain on immediate dangers like youth violence.

MEEKS: We need to deal with gun violence rather than global warming.

Environmentalists also have an image problem with some blacks. Stereotypes such as polar bear-loving, tree-hugging vegetarians are pervasive.

Majora Carter was awarded what's known as a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2005. She has plenty of green advice as founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an environmental justice organization. It's behind a new public greenway, mixed-used economic development and waterfront revitalization. She's learned to tailor her message.

CARTER: You talk to people about the environment, they don't get that all worked up. You talk to people about the impact of the pollution, then they do. There are green jobs that could play a role in not only improving the environment but improving the economic well being of people that are living through this. However, if we're not clear about that and linking the betterment of the environment to their own economic well being, suddenly it's a different language.

Carter calls this greening the ghetto.

To Naomi Davis, that means new jobs and quality of life. The potential for both is what lured her to the movement. She's founder of a collective called Blacks and Green.

The two of us drive through the South Side Riverdale neighborhood near Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex. We joke about snaking through unpaved back roads that lead to a thicket of trees.

DAVIS: And we are here in Missisippi…

MOORE: We're still in Chicago, right?

DAVIS: Yes, we're still in Chicago.

Wearing overalls and sensible shoes, Davis, an attorney, tells me her plans for this wooded land off the banks of the Little Calumet River.

DAVIS: One vision revolved around how to take the assets of a place and use those to generate economic opportunity for the people who live here now and the people who can be attracted to the place. So naturally, we're in the Calumet and it's well known from across the country for its very special ecology.

Part of this land was connected to the Underground Railroad, and Davis has organized commemorative festivals in the area.

DAVIS: We have the opportunity to create a green village in the hood.

This “village” would include eco-tourism, light remanufacturing and have a cultural component. The timeline is some years out, but she's meeting with community leaders and a developer has made drawings.

This surrounding neighborhood is black, low-income and blighted. The idea of a flourishing community with lush greenways and energy-efficient affordable housing is part of Davis' goal to make green the new black.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.