Little Village: the city’s youngest neighborhood, its second-busiest economically (after Michigan Avenue) and one which has been at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice in Chicago.
Fall is a particularly exciting time to visit La Villita, as residents call it, particularly the Semillas de Justicia Community Garden.
The Garden is emblematic of La Villita’s hard-won successes. It sits on a former brownfield site that had been abandoned by its owner and become a dangerous unlicensed dump. After years of tenacious community campaigning, it was was eventually cleaned up by the IL EPAin 2014. When asked what should be done with the site, the Community’s resounding answer was that it should be a garden, something of which there is a rich tradition in Mexico, the country of origin for the majority of LV’s residents. It now boasts nearly 40 plots, beehives, chickens, community composting, demonstration gardens, and weekly community dinners made in part with the produce from the Garden.
We brought with us and released a Monarch butterfly (danaeus plexippus), one of the continent’s most iconic pollinators, to begin her migration to Mexico (Monarchs currently passing through Chicago migrate 3000 miles or more to the forests of Michoacan, to overwinter). We had earlier tagged her so she can be recovered by scientists at the end of her journey. Monarchs typically arrive there around Nov.1 (Dia de los Muertos) and are said to be the souls of loved ones who have passed.
At La Villita Park, the largest ever built on a Superfund Cleanup Site, the community was successful in having a former toxic Honeywell site capped and turned into this beautiful green space that was built based on community designs, and doubled the amount of open space in the community. Prior to this park’s construction between 2014 and 2015, Little Village had less green space than any other neighborhood in the city – and a higher proportion of young people. The park’s of appearance is unique in that that one must climb up several steps to get to it. As we know we have very few natural hills in Chicago. The steps exist because the park rests on a cap of concrete covering the site’s highly contaminated soil.
The EPA offered to come in and remove the soil. However, Little Village community members did not want to send the waste from their neighborhood out, only to poison another neighborhood. Instead, they opted to cap the space and create a park on top of it. La Villita, whose name itself is the product of a community consultation process, is now the largest park in the United States to be built on top of a superfund site.
The park is an oasis of peace and includes many community designed features, such as a skate ramp. Fittingly, the view from the park includes the Crawford coal-fired power plant which the community work so tirelessly to have closed, in concert with community groups across the city. Unfortunately, the community is once again embroiled in a battle with local developers and Alderman Munoz regarding the fate of the site. It was recently sold to Hilco Inc, which plans to establish a large warehouse on the site. Warehouse jobs are often low-paid and dangerous, and warehouses dump unhealthy amounts of diesel emissions into the air in this community, which has a disproportionate number of young children.