Altgeld Gardens’ Environmental Issues


An Altgeld Gardens resident and longtime environmental activist says residents of other public housing developments should be concerned about potential health hazards from the demolition and redevelopment of their communities.

“CHA doesn’t hold contractors responsible when they’re doing demolitions,” said Cheryl Johnson, director of People for Community Recovery. “Maybe due to a lack of knowledge of environmental health concerns.”

For many years, Johnson and other Altgeld Gardens residents have been very concerned about potential health hazards because they live in a former industrial area on the far South Side.

Altgeld Gardens’ boundaries are 130th Street on the north and 138th Street on the south, from the Calumet Expressway on the east and the Calumet River on the west. Altgeld Gardens is located near numerous manufacturing plants, former steel mills and waste dumps. The residents have a growing concern about the number of deaths annually from cancer and other diseases. The residents fear numerous deaths may be related to their environment.

Altgeld Gardens was named after Democrat John Peter Altgeld, who was the governor of Illinois from 1893-1897. Altgeld Gardens opened for occupancy in September 1944. Altgeld is a low-rise housing development consisting of approximately 1,400 row houses. It was built on land at the edge of the city so many amenities had to be built for the residents, such as schools, stores and medical facilities.

People for Community Recovery is an organization that deals with these environmental issues. PCR was founded in 1979 by Hazel Johnson, a long-time resident of Altgeld Gardens. Johnson has over 20 years of history with environmental issues. In 1984, Hazel Johnson was joined at PCR by her daughter, Cheryl, who is now running the organization since her mom retired several years ago.

Hazel Johnson started her campaign to get more information for herself and her community. She noticed that all over the South Side, there seemed to be higher incidences of cancer and other illnesses than in other areas.

Hazel Johnson’s husband died of cancer in 1979. He was a light smoker and it was not medically proven that the environment he lived in gave him cancer. But Hazel Johnson believes the environment could have been a contributing factor to her husband’s illness.

Johnson’s efforts drew the attention of Dr. Reginald Jones, who was the director of the city health department. He was amazed at Johnson’s interest in environmental issues so he began to help her. He gave her information and referred her to various agencies and other sources of information.

Johnson has received commendations from many sources for her hard work and diligence in trying to inform her community of their environmental surroundings, including a gold medal from the first President George Bush – the father of the current president.

President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice on Feb. 11, 1994. The Executive Order gives all citizens the right to information about their environment. Residents of low-income and minority communities must be informed and have the right to know of potential environmental hazards. However, Cheryl Johnson said the executive order does not allow any enforcement.

“Once you get the knowledge, you can’t sue,” Johnson explained. “That’s messed up, isn’t it?”

Cheryl said PCR is still disseminating information to residents. She said that cancer and other types of illnesses still seem to be common, everyday occurrences in Altgeld Gardens. In October 1999, current and former residents of Altgeld initiated a lawsuit against CHA. The residents are alleging that CHA did not do enough to address their environmental health concerns. Neither side will comment on the lawsuit.

Johnson said PCR is aware of other hazards such as the demolition currently going on in CHA communities such as the Robert Taylor Homes.

Johnson said there is a lot of lead, asbestos and other pollutants in the air during demolition. CHA does not hold the contractors responsible enough when they are tearing down those buildings, Johnson said. The demolition puts dust and other toxins in the air that are not good for people with any type of respiratory problem. Johnson said a lot of those airborne pollutants can cause skin rashes and other health problems.

Johnson said CHA has not been very vocal about the health issues that might be present in Altgeld. “CHA is in denial,” she said.

Johnson said that in Altgeld and other CHA properties, the agency did not consider the land’s prior use and the surrounding areas. Even people who purchase homes in communities near Altgeld such as Riverdale and Dolton should be informed about the environment before purchasing property.

Johnson said Altgeld and the near South Suburban area are part of the Calumet Industrial District. According to Johnson, this area is a “multi-media,” meaning that there are contaminants in the air, water and land. There have been factories, manufacturing facilities, steel mills and other industrial businesses located in the general area. On the near South Side, Johnson said that demolition makes many contaminants “airborne,” which can affect any neighborhood in the area.

Johnson said that PCR is still giving out information about environmental hazards but they handle related issues as well. They have a lead awareness program where they try to inform residents about the hazards of lead and how to deal with it.

Johnson said people should take precautions to protect themselves from environmental hazards. She said there are special cleaning procedures that people should follow. Dust is a serious pollutant that must be taken care of, especially by cleaning window wells.

Coming in from outside, a person can bring in a lot of pollutants on their shoes and clothes. So they should wipe their feet thoroughly and take their shoes off. People who work outside in water or soil that could contain pollutants should change clothes and wash them separately from their regular laundry.

Victim of Her Environment?
Near Johnson’s office is the Dorothy Gautreaux Day Care Center. It is named for the Altgeld Gardens resident who sued CHA and the City of Chicago for housing discrimination. Her case lead to the landmark Gautreaux Decision.

It is ironic that while Johnson and other residents feel CHA is denying the affects of environmental pollutants on residents’ health, Gautreaux died of cancer at age 41 before her case was heard in court.

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