"The Forgotten 10th Ward"

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

Ambrelyn Rodriguez, a resident of the 10th ward of Chicago, knows all too well of the unheard struggles of her community.

“Our neighborhood has always gotten the short end of the stick,” she said. “It's the biggest ward in Chicago but everyone always calls us ‘the forgotten 10th ward,’ because if I talk to anybody and tell them where I'm from, they have no idea where that is.”

However, the nearly 70 industries that surround this community and use it as a dumping ground for harmful pollutants know exactly where the 10th ward is.

The 10th ward has always been the industrial hub for the Midwest. The steel mills, specifically, were the industries that breathed economic life into the community. Thousands were employed at livable wages, and although the environmental repercussions were nowhere near the consideration of citizens or government entities, the quality of life in these neighborhoods was good. When steel manufacturing left for overseas in the early 2000s, what came to replace it was an array of companies that not only hired far fewer locals, but also released extremely harmful pollutants such as petroleum byproduct (petcoke), lead and manganese. These minority communities like South Deering, East Side and Hegewisch not only became impoverished but also became sick from the chemicals in the air and soil.

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

The physical evidence pointing to a major environmental catastrophe in the area is pervasive throughout the ward. Just a few blocks away from a community baseball field, huge piles of bright yellow sulfur are stacked yards high. Children are told to leave their shoes outside to prevent tracking manganese from the soil into their homes. Bike trails run through grass-covered landfills and along the notoriously polluted Calumet River. Getting an aerial view of the 10th ward, it seems as if the industrial yards and smokestacks go on indefinitely.

Not only is the physical evidence expansive, but there is a copious amount of health-science research which exposes various health defects associated living in these industrial areas. Dr. Gail Prins, the co-director of the Chicago Center for Health and Environment, has researched environmental health issues in Chicago for years. She focuses mainly on the effects of exposure to heavy metals such as lead, manganese, arsenic and mercury.

“When people are exposed to higher levels, there is strong data that indicates a lot of these compounds can trigger diabetes, pulmonary diseases, certain cancers and asthma,” Prins said.

These health problems, consequently, affect low income, minority individuals who live in these industrial areas more than wealthy, mainly white communities. As these health problems become common knowledge for these historically disenfranchised communities, the biggest struggle for the Hispanic and African American residents of the 10th ward is getting their voices heard to inspire change.

A majority of the activism in the 10th ward is due to the work of community organizations who monitor these factories, alert local government and educate citizens. The Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), run by Peggy Salzar since 2010, is one of many organizations that has worked tirelessly to represent the best interests of their community since 1989. However, due to a small staff of eight members, some of whom have more than one job, spreading awareness “is hard to do because there are only a few people working here,” Salzar said. Since its foundation, SETF has worked alongside government entities to protect the natural lands in the 10th ward as well as to regulate and close down industries that were harmful to the health of the community.

What frustrates community leaders, however, is the fact that industrial corporations continue to migrate to the Southside, further adding to the already congested industrial corridor.

“If [industrial companies] can meet the requirements to get a permit, and they meet all the other local requirements, there’s nothing that's going to stop them from an EPA standpoint,” said Alan Walts, director of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurances in the Environmental Protection Agency.

This inability to stop the industrial development of the 10th ward leads some community members to believe that the federal government does not care about their community.

“I think the federal government has taken the position that to make a couple of bucks now is okay to pollute the world to the point where we’re all sicked by it,” Prins said.

Salzar echoes this sentiment. “[The EPA] has regulations in place, but they aren't strict enough as far as what we would need to put pressures on these industries to either move or correct the situation,” Salzar said.

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

While the future of “the forgotten 10th ward” remains uncertain, Rodriguez summed up the sentiment echoed by its community members when she said, “The only one who will save us is us.” The Southeast Environmental Task Force has been working together with Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, who participated in the March to Ban Petcoke in 2015 and the citing of industrial companies S.H. Bell and Watco for releasing over the regulated amount of manganese in the air.

Salzar urges further government involvement in the ward’s industrial corridor.

“Currently, our community is gradually getting worse because we are not getting the reinvestment and revitalization that is necessary for a thriving, healthy community,” Salzar said. “Our schools continue to decline, our streets get a little less safe, our business districts are suffering, and we have many empty storefronts. We will not have a vital community if we cannot control what is going on in that industrial corridor.”

She hopes that the work her organization is doing with the city government will eventually drive out the polluting industries and bring in environmentally friendly companies that bring in more jobs, improving the quality of the community.

One thing that remains clear for the future of this community is the unabating dedication and hope shown by these activists in protecting the locality with the intention to make the 10th ward considerably less forgotten.

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission

Photo by Terry Evans / Used with permission