Green in the City

Altgeld Gardens is no garden—yet

By Safiya Merchant and Bri'anna Moore

Photo by Billy Montgomery


On a dry-erase board in the office are the words: “Our mission: to enhance the quality of life of low-income residents affected by environmental pollution.”


But this is only part of what Altgeld Gardens’ People for Community Recovery (PCR) is about.


PCR executive director Cheryl Johnson is a force to be reckoned with. Then again, so was her mother, Hazel, who founded the PCR in 1979. She was inspired to do so after her husband died of lung cancer. He was, in Cheryl Johnson’s words, a light smoker and did a lot of construction. Hazel was also inspired to form PCR after she found that it “seemed like behind every door someone had cancer or was in remission.”


She was called “the mother of the environmental justice movement,” said daughter Cheryl Johnson.


According to Johnson, Altgeld Gardens was originally a housing project for African-American veterans coming home from WWII. It became a public housing unit in 1962.


The community was built on a liquid sludge dump and about 50 documented landfills are in the area. About 206 companies and four incinerators outline the Gardens. Moreover, 11 out of the 18 miles of water sources that surround the housing project are unfit for human consumption and recreation, according to Johnson.


“Dumping is usually done in poor neighborhoods, ones that nobody know nothing about…and [that have] economic and social issues. They put it out there, let it hurt you first, and then take it away,” said Johnson.


Johnson’s crusade is still about getting the toxins out of the community, the effects of which are still there. And the health perils of such dumping and poisoning are well known.


To the west, south and north of the 190-acre Gardens, several landfills, sewage plants and coke ovens spread their refuse. In the middle is Altgeld Gardens, the hole of the “toxic doughnut,” aptly named by mother Hazel.


Tracking down the sources of the dumping is challenging but sometimes gets results.


One case of dumping that contributed to the “environmental situation” in Altgeld Gardens came to a head in the 1990s. It involved the Sherwin-Williams paint company, which has been in the area for more than 100 years. Runoff from the company seeped into a local retention pond. Instead of cleaning the pond, the company decided it was cheaper to pay daily fines, said Johnson. Eventually it was forced by the Environmental Protection Agency to pay $5 million in civil penalties. It was also required to clean up the pollution in their Chicago site, said Johnson.


In 1987, according to The Chicago Reporter, an investigation by the EPA discovered that operators were turning off smokestack monitors to obstruct federal requirements at the Chemical Waste Management Inc. incinerator on Stony Island Avenue. A group of EPA-trained community members found even more violations.


As a result, in September 1990, the company agreed to pay $3.75 million in civil penalties and spend $350,000 for new monitoring equipment.


So PCR fights on, on many fronts.


The CHA is renovating apartments in stages and people are moving back in. But recently the library was shut down, so that is another problem to be dealt with.


One major priority of the PCR is to educate the community members on topics ranging from first aid and CPR to health care and the pollutants in their own homes. For her dedication to educating populations about the negative impact of environmental pollution in urban areas, Hazel Johnson received the President’s Environmental and Conservation Challenge Award in 1992.


Her daughter, Cheryl Johnson, and her dedicated staff continue to educate, advocate and investigate and even collaborate with industries who are owning up to their environmental responsibilities, all to make the community livable and survivable and sustainable.

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Bushra Kabir, Northside College Prep

Bri'anna Moore, Waukegan High School


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Vivianna Galvan, Farragut Career Academy

Daniela Jurado, Farragut Career Academy

Safiya Merchant, Lane Tech High School

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