Chicago through the eyes of an environmentalist


By Peter Schwartzman


It is great to back in the ‘Burg—my home for the past eight years. From mid-January to late May, I spent the majority of my time in Chicago during my sabbatical—a “leave” of absence every seven years taken by professors to give them time (usually absent of teaching) to focus on aspects of their professional work. Though I had visited the Windy City on occasion over the years, I have never stayed there for an extended period. Though a newcomer to the “City by the Lake,” I decided to locate there (rather than in Costa Rica, which was another option for me) because, after considerable thought, getting to know my regional environment was deemed more important than learning about distant lands. Chicago had a lot to offer an environmental thinker and I was happy to have the opportunity to be an observer as well as participant during my stay. In the following remarks, I will elaborate on a few of my observations. Perhaps some of them will provoke and prompt readers to reconsider what urban environments have to offer and where some of their challenges remain.

         While in Chicago, I dedicated most of my time to an environmental justice organization located in a community about 5 miles southwest of the downtown area. This volunteer work constituted my new 9-5 job (usually more like 10-5, as it was sabbatical, remember) three to four days a week.  My evening hours in Chicago (say 7 PM to 1 AM) involved carrying out additional research on many of the subjects that have piqued my interest recently (e.g., the food industry, nutrition, air quality, alternative energy forms, and national sex ratios). This research resulted in several Zephyr essays, a book review, website contributions, and substantive changes to my yet-unpublished book. When not “working,” I definitely spent a good deal of time studying and playing Scrabble® as well as writing a puzzle book for enthusiasts of the game. Otherwise, sadly to some, little of my Chicago experience was spent in characteristically “cultural” centers—such as, playhouses, coliseums, museums, or cafes.  Nevertheless, I had a very fruitful experience and one that rejuvenated me for the long trek ahead before my next opportunity to explore.

         Transportation. For more than half the time that I was living in Chicago, my car was in Galesburg. Thus, I availed myself of the public forms of transportation (PFTs)—bus and subway (run by the CTA, Chicago Transit Authority), and train (know as the Metra)—and walked a great deal as I navigated myself to, through, and in many of Chicago’s seventy-seven official communities (neighborhoods). Prior to my Chicago stint, I had had a great deal of experience riding subways and buses (more of the former) while growing up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. However, I had only ridden the Chicago subway system a few times and I never had taken a bus or the Metra there. Upon reflection of my nearly one-hundred hours of riding PFTs in Chicago (in addition to a fair bit of experience attempting to get around in my car), here are my conclusions: (1) In terms of transit time, PFTs, in general, often take longer, perhaps twice as long as personal vehicles. During “rush” hour, PFTs may often provide faster service because highways are often backed up and city streets are nauseatingly stop-and-go as well. This delay in PFTs has more to do with a lack of trains and train spatial coverage than due to anything inherent to public transportation.; (2) In terms of quality of life concerns, public transport is preferable. Trains and buses are clean and less nerve-racking than cars that tailgate and/or weave in and out of traffic or trucks and SUVs (of all shapes and sizes) that dominate the roadways. Also, while on a train or bus, I was able to do an immense amount of reading and thinking, something not possible in the “heat” of traffic; (3) the plethora of trucks and oversized personal vehicles make it virtually impossible to use bicycles (despite their being the most efficient form of transportation known to humans); (4) aspects of Chicago’s PFTs are decidedly discriminatory. Recently efforts by the CTA to reduce fraud resulted in eliminating the paper transfer method (which enabled passengers needing more than one bus or train to use paper transfers to continue on their route). Now, for those that don’t have a credit card, a PFT rider has one of two choices—buy cards that can only be recharged at a limited number of locations (fewer in poor neighborhoods) or pay cash. But here is the catch. The paying cash option, which is by far the easiest, least invasive method forces riders to pay an extra quarter to ride a bus (than the card holders) and, worse yet, forces them to pay full fare each time they transfer. And since the “cash” users tend to be the poorest and recently immigrated residents of the city, it hurts those that are least able to able to afford it. Additionally, an effort is underway to reduce subway service to communities of color by way of diverting service to communities that are gentrifying, i.e., getting richer and whiter. “Public” hearings held by the CTA to assess the needs of communities are public only in the sense that regular people can be seen but few are heard; so much for a working democracy; for more on this issue visit:

         Environmental Organizations. Working with the Chicago Clean Power Coalition (CCPC; provided me an opportunity to witness first-hand how environmental organizations vary from one another. Large organizations, which have thousands of members nationwide, tend to focus their attention and energy on persuading state and national politicians to support a particular position, platform, or policy by providing cogent, well-supported arguments. They appeal to their membership primarily for monetary support. On the other hand, smaller, grassroots, community-based organizations attempt to educate local citizens in hopes that they, once enlightened, will organize, “take-to-the-streets,” and force politicians to support policies and platforms that protect residents immediately. Each of these two strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. In short, the larger organizations are often forced to settle for a compromise position and can be corrupted by a political system that cajoles them to negotiate in the first place. They will get something done but the “something” may be a weak position. Additionally, large organizations also often forget which communities are most impacted by their recommended changes; hence, it is imperative for the organizations involved find out what the local people really want, rather than figuring out what is best for them independent of their voice. On the other hand, the grassroot groups often expend a lot of energy building a movement (albeit locally) that may or may not materialize. When a movement forms, it can be very influential in eliciting significant change. Grassroot organizations also reflect the spirit of democracy in a very tangible way—people becoming educated, participating in decision-making, and demanding progress. As a member of a coalition consisting of both types of environmental groups, at times, I found it painstaking to get these groups to work together. Yet, the CPCC was able to accomplish some things and its efforts over the next few months may determine the future of clean air in Chicago and elsewhere.

         Air Quality. As I detailed in my last Zephyr column, Chicago air has much to be desired. Air pollution is an everyday problem (although the “warnings” are only issued when things really get out of hand). Sources for pollution abound, from the thousands of cars, buses, and trucks that weave through (or sit endlessly in) traffic, from the numerous industrial emitters in and around the city, and from the two coal power plants located just  a few miles from the Million Dollar Mile (i.e., Michigan Avenue downtown). Chicago also gets a fair bit of pollution from Joliet (located only 33 miles SW) where one of the largest coal power plants in the state operates (along with hoards of other industrial factories; Will County, where Joliet is located, ranks 6th worst—out of 80 counties—air pollution producer in the state; Cook County, where Chicago is located, is ranked 2nd worst; Knox County is ranked 40th worst).

         Yet despite this situation, many people I spoke with (outside of my coworkers) didn’t seem to think much about the danger they face each and every day just by breathing. Contrastingly, the fear these same folks expressed on the issue of violence was substantial. However, according to the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago, more people die each year because of the filthy air in Chicago than do because of all forms of homicide. Apparently such statistics haven’t yet registered with the public. If they did, we might have thousands of EPA officers in the streets of Chicago writing citations and making arrests of polluters. Wouldn’t that be something that we could benefit from?

         And not all communities or people face the same pollution levels. Those that live on the south and west side of Chicago have much greater exposures to pollution. Whether from a large manufacturing plant, a giant landfill, a steel drum cleaning and processing plant, a bus depot, or even a facility that culls the “valuable” recyclables out of the public waste stream, people living in low income neighborhoods must endure much more by way of stench and poisonous fumes. If clean air is a human right, then there are many, many violations of human rights occurring among the nearly three million residents of Chicago.

         Immigration. Over the past few months, this country has witnessed some the largest marches in its history. While anti-war protests have been numerous and sizeable, recent Pro-Immigration marches, especially in Chicago, have even been larger. On May 1, 2006, at least 400,000 people peacefully walked through the streets of Chicago demanding that immigrants be treated with respect and humanity (nationwide, participants in similar marches numbered over 2 million that day). Fortunately, I had a chance to witness and participate in this event and as a result came to the following conclusions.

         Immigration has occurred on this continent for millennia. Most American citizens today descend from immigrant families that came to the United States after its founding. Currently, ~69% of the population growth in the United States stems from newly arriving immigrants (both legal and illegal) and the children that they give birth to while here. Yet surprisingly, in 2000, only 10.4% of the U.S. population consisted of immigrants, whereas in the first three decades of the 20th century, the proportion of immigrants were a few percentage points higher. In summary then, this country was (and is being) built with the backs and the sweat of immigrants, something that will likely continue in the future.

When we think of what compels people to come to the United States now, especially from countries to our south, it is imperative we consider the impact of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Starting in 1994, NAFTA has resulted in the growth of larger industrial farms across the border which has forced (by economic necessity) many farmers to seek work in urban metropolises (such as Mexico City). Finding little work there (due to the rapid increases in population size), some of these agriculturalists (and their families) have decided that it is worthwhile to take the substantial risk involved in entering the U.S. rather than continue to face NAFTA-induced economic hardship in their country of origin.

         As a worker in a largely immigrant community—Little Village on the southwest side of Chicago—I was able to interact with recent immigrants on a regular basis. I found them to be hard working, moral, and family-oriented people. Watching them function in new surroundings was heartening to me because I often wondered what life was like for my great-grandparents (on both sides of my family) that came to the New York area in the early 1900s from Eastern Europe. I am grateful that my ancestors found refuge here and were able to build a life that I am currently benefiting from. Thinking that they might have been sent back home on their ship (or worse) because this country would have deemed them “superfluous” (pick another pejorative term) seems outrageous. Obviously we must come to recognize the social and economic pressures that exist on the planet today (in part due to environmental damage and excessive takings of resources) which creates the situation that we find ourselves in. Bigger walls, more guards, better sharpshooters or booby traps may appear to be the easy solution, but certainly one that ignores the real sources of modern migration and the humanity involved.

         “Green” Mayor. Recently, Chicago’s Mayor, Richard Daley, has received accolades for being “green” (i.e., environmentally-conscientious). And while Mayor Daley deserves some recognition for his environmental record (including, the reforesting of parts of Chicago, the conversion of Miggs Field into a park, rooftop gardens downtown, a plan to put wind turbines on select buildings; for more on what is being done in Chicago, go to:, he has failed the city in some critical ways. First and foremost is the continued operation of two coal power plants in the city limits which can (by law) ignore all pollution reduction measures called for in the 1977 Clean Air Act (because they were built earlier and, therefore, grandfathered out of the law). Efforts to clean up these plants by Chicago Alderman have fallen on deaf ears in the Daley camp. Without his support it is unlikely that the city will make progress in this area. While these plants cause death of many and declining lung function for thousands all across the Chicagoland area, they have a particularly damaging impact on the communities—Little Village and Pilsen—in which they are located.

         The recycling program in Chicago is a joke—something I heard over and over again from people throughout the city. Supposedly, materials are being recycled and residents are encouraged to put recyclables in “blue” garbage bags. In fact, some materials are being recycled (with the dirty and smelly task of sorting taking place in poor neighborhoods). However, the percentage of the Chicago waste stream that is actually recycled is abysmal. Yet, the city uses propaganda to mislead its residents. A city cannot be considered environmentally-conscientious if it doesn’t have a state of the art recycling program underway.

         Brownfields abound throughout the city of Chicago. These “abandoned or underused industrial or commercial properties” suffer from environmental contamination which can be extremely toxic (as is the case in the Celotex site in Little Village which has dangerous levels of the carcinogenic compound benzopyrene in its soils). Others are just are fenced off eyesores that greatly diminish areas available for playgrounds, parks, or urban gardens. Forty-four (of seventy-seven, or 57%) of Chicago’s communities have less than 3% park coverage. For these contaminated sites to go uncleaned for so long and for so many abandoned parking lots to be left fenced off from the public, speaks to the lack of dedication and commitment of its political leaders.

         So until Mayor Daley makes a demonstrable effort to clean up the coal plants, to expand recycling aggressively, and to clean up polluted brownfields and increase neighborhood parks (all three activities that disproportionately affect people of color and economically-challenged communities), he will be deserving of only very lukewarm accolades from me connected to environmental stewardship.

“News” Media.  One of the most striking things that occurred to me during the five months in Chicago definitely had to be the horrible quality of the press. In the area of air pollution, of which I was centrally focused, the mainstream press was repeatedly contacted by well-known and highly respect civic organizations—to inform them about a press conference, public hearing, or a recent scientific study—and repeatedly the press paid little or no attention to them. Yet, the press seemed to have an insatiable desire to report on any occurrence of violence. On occasion, environmental subjects did get some treatment in the main Chicago newspapers but even when this occurred, the presentation was relegated to deep within any given newspaper section. The radio coverage wasn’t much better. Though NPR Chicago interviewed me for over 20 minutes on the phone, only one sentence of the interview aired. Yet, on the same 1-hour program, a 15-minute interview with a local music conductor aired. In order for a community to be informed of the environmental dangers and options they face, publicly available media needs to aggressively and visibly provide information that the public can use. With the environment in the shape that it is in, if we, the people of this nation, continue to accept the status quo of our media, one can expect continue degradation of our neighborhoods and our health.

I hope readers will reflect on my observations and offer theirs as well. A healthy democracy requires the active exchange of ideas by its citizens.


Peter Schwartzman (email: is associate professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. He is a climatologist with publications in the area of climate change and human population growth. An avid Scrabble® player, he is also the founder and maintainer of a website dedicated to peace and empowerment (, natural spaces (, and clean air and energy (