A Chicago neighborhood is redefining toxicity in pursuit of environmental justice

Since 2000, toxic tours in this community have evolved from talking about pollution, to now include systemic racism, policing, and mass incarceration.

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SOURCEYES! Magazine
Image Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo for NRDC

On an overcast October day in Chicago, a group of a dozen people walk along a sidewalk to the soccer fields in La Villita Park, a patch of green in an otherwise dense urban area. The clouds aren’t the only contributor to the gray sky. Beyond the borders of the park, trucks rumble and spit dark fumes out of their exhaust pipes. Just past the baseball field, a parking lot for the Cook County Jail, whose confining buildings loom over the park, sits full of police vehicles. Factory smokestacks continuously emit vapors that slowly meld with the gray clouds in the air. The pollutants of these industrial sites disproportionately affect this low-income, Latino community—Little Village—an environmental justice issue faced by similar working-class communities and communities of color across the nation.

“We are now standing in what used to be a Superfund site full of toxic pollutants,” says Edith Tovar, a community organizer for Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, to the group gathered in the park. “It took years of community activism to turn this site into what you see today—an open green space for the community.”

LVEJO started in 1994 as a group of concerned parents. When renovations at their children’s public school, Joseph E. Gary Elementary, resulted in asthma attacks, fainting, and high blood lead levels, the parent group successfully lobbied to alter renovation plans to prioritize the health of their children. But this wasn’t the only threat to their children’s health.

Outside the school, pollutants from local industries were making their way into the lungs of residents in the community. In contrast to more affluent, nonindustrialized Chicago neighborhoods, Little Village residents experienced higher rates of asthma attacks and persistent skin rashes, as well as high lead levels in some babies’ blood. These chronic health conditions were linked to the nearby Celotex Superfund site (now La Villita Park), where asphalt roofing used to be manufactured, as well as to many other abandoned and polluted brownfield sites in the area. In addition, the looming Fisk and Crawford coal power plants spewed sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the Little Village neighborhood, contributing to more than 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits, and 41 premature deaths, according to a 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Environmental justice is everywhere, and we need as many people [as possible] to be talking about what environmental justice is,” Tovar says. “We need folks to listen to front-line communities to make sure that they are supporting efforts and local campaigns.”

Expanding the scope

After successfully lobbying the elementary school, the parents turned their attention to other neighborhood threats. In an effort to educate the Little Village community about the toxic pollutants and their negative impacts on the health of community members, LVEJO started giving “toxic tours.”

The practice of toxic tours began in the mid-1980s, when members of the environmental movement were first beginning to connect race and class with pollution. The tours were devised to educate the public about what would eventually be known as environmental racism. The conversation was catapulted to the fore by an instance in North Carolina where tons of PCB-polluted soil were dumped intentionally in a Black community, which led to a report on “Toxic Wastes and Race” in 1987. The tours have since become a widespread tactic used by environmental organizations to highlight environmental injustice in their communities, from Baltimore to the San Fernando Valley and across the globe.

Phaedra Pezzullo explains in her book Toxic Tourism that the tours serve as a space for the public to gather to have meaningful conversation and witness the effects of toxic pollution firsthand, most often from tour guides who are residents of the area and experience the effects themselves. She writes, “Toxic tours concretize or make present the sometimes overwhelmingly ambiguous and abstract terms toxic and pollution through spatial practices such as sharing stories, pointing out who has died, mapping the location of polluting industries to those who are ill, and exposing tourists to the smells and other bodily sensations of a place that are hard for most to imagine are part of the everyday lives of the tour hosts.”

Toxic tours offer a way for non-community members, such as legislators, activists, and students, to truly understand the effects of environmental injustice in a community. “I think that’s a beautiful thing about these tours—having community stories being led by community, through a very critical social justice lens,” says Karen Canales Salas, who once ran toxic tours in Little Village and now serves as LVEJO’s environmental justice educator. “Then you’re able to have these discussions with groups based on lived experiences.”

From education to action

LVEJO began giving its toxic tours in 2000, and the tours have evolved since then to talk not only about the negative effects of toxic pollution, but also about the community activism that’s arisen in response. Tovar says the real goal of the toxic tours is to go beyond education and actually inspire visitors to take action to address environmental racism: “We’re always inviting folks to plug in wherever they feel like they want to serve or [are] just curious to learn more about.”

Each toxic tour ends with an invitation for participants to engage in one of the organization’s many campaigns, whether it is helping to maintain the Semillas de Justicia community garden, counting the number of diesel trucks passing through the neighborhood on their way to and from the industrial corridor, fighting for clean water in the nearby Collateral Channel, volunteering for summer camps that educate youth on environmental justice, or fighting to transform previous Superfund and brownfield sites into recreational spaces that serve the community.

Toxic tours have also changed perspectives and galvanized pride among young people in the neighborhood. Jacqueline Vazquez started at LVEJO as a summer intern seven years ago, learning about community stewardship and restorative justice, and has since worked their way up to being a park organizer. “I used to be a big Little Village hater,” they say, “but then, with LVEJO, they let me see the beauty of our neighborhood instead of all the bad that kept getting highlighted [in the media], because there was so much good being done there.”

Today, Vazquez spends time in La Villita Park through LVEJO’s Mi Parque Leadership Project, where it engages the community in park maintenance and growth. Vazquez has seen a major improvement in the area since their time as an intern. “To tell you the truth, ever since we started with our Mi Parque program, we hardly see anything bad going on, just the occasional person trying to smoke a cigarette,” Vazquez says.

The toxicity of policing and incarceration

Still, there is more education to be done. In recent years, LVEJO has expanded its definition of “toxicity” in the community to include systemic racism, policing, and mass incarceration. The toxic tours in La Villita Park now include the adjacent Cook County Jail, the largest single-site incarceration facility in the United States, which incarcerates mainly Black and Brown bodies.

“Jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers are another form of environmental violence on immigrant and communities of color,” argues LVEJO in its “Statement on Violence, Policing, and Immigration.” The Cook County Jail, for example, covers 96 acres of land, which is more than twice the amount of total green space in the neighborhood. “Much more land and resources are dedicated to policing and incarceration than to green space in Little Village, a demonstration of how environmental injustice and violence intersect.”

Moreover, Vazquez says the constant police presence in the park provokes fear in the neighborhood: “To have cop cars posted here when nobody’s doing anything, nobody’s behaving poorly, nobody called them … everyone’s watching their backs,” they say, “because knowing what could happen is what brings more fear. It could mean a death sentence for some.”

Salas says it’s important to show the public this form of “toxicity” through the tours, too, so visitors can see some of the effects of over-policing and mass incarceration firsthand and hopefully have deeper discussions about the effects of systemic racism in Little Village.

“As things in the neighborhood change, as different needs arise, as different conversations need to be had, the toxic tours should also be reflective of that,” she says.

The limits of toxic tours

Of course, toxic tours won’t single-handedly solve the environmental racism happening in Little Village (or in similar neighborhoods all across the country). The tours have a limited reach, especially since they require community outsiders to commit to making the trip in person and dedicate time to participating. Often, the folks most in need of education and inspiration about environmental justice issues (such as those involved with toxic organizations) are the least likely to attend.

Still, LVEJO is trying to make its toxic tours more accessible, offering tours in English, Spanish, and both.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the way LVEJO conducts its toxic tours. “We’ve been having a little bit of a difficult time with COVID, not being as accessible to community residents,” says Tovar. “We have been able to do some toxic tours virtually, but I think, for us, it would be good to figure out ways to engage … to get good interactions.”

An end to toxification

What started as a group of concerned parents has transformed over the past 28 years into an organization using multiple initiatives, including toxic tours, to make a difference in the Little Village community. “Those who host toxic tours are posing a relatively simple challenge: If you want to live, if you want the next generation of children to live, join us in the struggle to end the ongoing toxification of our world,” writes Pezzullo in Toxic Tourism. “This call is not merely one of belief or agreement (again, who is for toxic pollution?); rather, it beckons us to act.”

For its next act, LVEJO recently received a Chicago Community Trust grant to support its efforts to clean up the Collateral Channel—an abandoned and stagnant waterway on the Chicago River’s South Branch. LVEJO aims to remove toxic sediments, eliminate odors, improve native landscapes, create fish habitat, and develop open space along the river. This would make the river safer for people and wildlife, as well as better connect it to the community.

Tovar sees a role for toxic tours like LVEJO’s in communities around the country. She says the effort doesn’t have to fall on one person’s shoulders, nor does it have to come from a formal environmental justice organization. “I think the tours do a really great job at highlighting the issues, but also visually highlighting the accomplishments and the resistance,” she says. “It’s more than just reading about it, because you’re actually able to see it, you’re there to experience it and really visualize what environmental justice looks like in action.”

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Kyra Lyons is a writer and video producer from Waukegan, IL. She is a graduate of Trinity College, holding degrees in English and Film Studies, and is currently pursuing her master's degree in Civic Media at Columbia College Chicago. Kyra currently works for the Aldo Leopold Foundation as a virtual programming associate, in which they aim to further the connection between people and land. Kyra is passionate about storytelling and community engagement and is continually trying to combine the two through her work. She can be reached at klyons@colum.edu

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