Oscar Sanchez became a local organizer to encourage young people to improve the Southeast Side of Chicago.
- Chicago’s Southeast Side has dealt with pollution from heavy industry for generations.
- Neighborhood advocates hope changes to zoning and land-use rules could curb some polluters.
- “If you take away our health, you take away our wealth,” one activist told Insider.
- This story is part of “Advancing Cities,” a series highlighting urban centers across the US that are committed to improving life for their residents.
As a kid, Oscar Sanchez remembers his brother wearing a special mask to help him breathe at night. He was among many residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side with asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The community is home to Chicago’s largest industrial corridor and is among the most polluted sections of the city — the legacy of landfills, chemical-incineration plants, scrapyards, now closed steel mills, and other environmental hazards. It’s also predominantly Black and Latino.
Sanchez, 26, became a local organizer to encourage young people to improve the Southeast Side. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that included passing out testing kits and setting up vaccination sites, as well as educating people about the connection between air pollution and respiratory conditions that made people more vulnerable to the disease.
“If you take away our health, you take away our wealth,” Sanchez, a community planning manager at the Southeast Environmental Task Force, told Insider. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you should be treated poorly.”
Sanchez soon found himself at the center of an environmental-justice movement ushering in major changes in Chicago, including a historic settlement in May with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development directing the city to overhaul its land-use and zoning policies that for decades pushed polluters into the Southeast Side. He and other advocates hope that remaking some of the arcane but powerful scaffolding that shapes how Chicago develops will curb the pollution that’s harmed residents in poor neighborhoods.
Under the settlement with federal officials and a city executive order, Chicago by September must identify neighborhoods experiencing the greatest health effects from pollution and use that study to inform changes to land-use, permitting, and environmental-enforcement policies.
The first-of-its-kind settlement with HUD could be a model for environmental justice advocates in other cities. Robert Weinstock, an attorney representing two environmental-justice groups who’s also the director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said that structural racism exists everywhere he’s looked in the US, but it is baked into policies in different ways.
“What’s really precedent-setting in this agreement is that it has a focus on process. Many of the provisions required the city to improve community-driven processes to understand the impacts of the current policies and laws to generate structural reforms,” he said.
Trying to block a scrap-metal company from opening near a school
The settlement followed a yearslong fight by groups including the Southeast Environmental Task Force to block a scrap-metal recycler with a history of environmental violations from opening across from a high school. The opposition campaign included a 30-day hunger strike led by Sanchez and other organizers, as well as a federal complaint in 2020 that challenged the city’s role in relocating the metal-shredding business from Lincoln Park, an affluent and mostly white part of Chicago.
Courtesy of Cheryl Johnson
The complaint sparked an investigation by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which last July accused Chicago of violating the civil rights of its residents by shunting industrial sites into Black and Latino neighborhoods already overburdened by pollution and health issues. If the city didn’t agree to address environmental harms, it risked losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing money.
“This is a historical time for us,” Cheryl Johnson, the executive director of People for Community Recovery, told Insider. “Now all levels of city government have to listen to us and develop policies that are protective of public health.”
Johnson grew up in a community on the Far South Side of Chicago that her mother in the 1970s dubbed the “toxic donut” after surveying the hazardous sites that surround it for miles. More than 40 years later, Johnson is leading the organization her mother founded.
Factories, sorting facilities, and recycling plants sit alongside the Calumet River. The Southeast Side of Chicago is home to the city’s largest industrial corridor.
Jamie Kelter Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images
“This fight has always been a majority women,” Johnson said. “We understand that we have to protect our babies. Don’t make our babies sick.”
Changing which businesses get to operate next door
In the Calumet industrial corridor, which runs through the Southeast Side, businesses that handle hazardous waste don’t need a city permit. They can operate by right, said Weinstock. Communities also don’t have the legal authority to challenge land-use approvals, he said.
Weinstock said these are the kind of policies that might change because of the settlement with HUD.
Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Environmental-justice advocates are optimistic because they have allies at the highest levels of city government, including Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May after making the issue a key part of his campaign. The administration in June published a 52-page draft action plan.
Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, grew up in the Southeast Side. She told Insider it was “refreshing” to have a mayor who understands that environmental-justice initiatives have to reflect the overlapping factors that create inequality and be drafted in collaboration with the communities experiencing them.
“We have to center race and class and gender as we’re thinking about how to mitigate these disparities,” she said. “What we’ve seen over time is zoning policies that didn’t consider real estate. Homes surrounding industrial zones often have lower price points and are more accessible to low-income communities of color, so we need to think about the negative impacts of that both historically and now.”
Though it appears changes are afoot in Chicago, the scrap-metal site could still open in the Southeast Side. A judge earlier this year reinstated its operating permit — overturning a denial the city’s health department issued in February 2022 after finding the business would pose an “unacceptable risk” to local residents, who have higher rates of chronic illness than Chicago’s overall population and are among the most vulnerable to air pollution.
The judge said that the health assessment was an added step and that the city wasn’t following its own permitting rules. Johnson has appealed the ruling.
Sanchez said the case underscored the importance of updating city policies, because administrations come and go.
“I see Mayor Johnson as a friend, but we hold our friends accountable,” Sanchez said. “Unless we have policies in place that protect lives, it’s going to be business as usual.”