This year, city of Chicago will study the impact of pollution on areas surrounding an industrial corridor that includes all of North Lawndale and the southwest edge of Austin. 

Officials with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Chicago Department of Public Health summarized a plan for studying pollution in the area during a hearing on Jan. 14 that was organized by the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy. 

The hearing took place as several North Side businesses move to the South Side, leading renewed concerns that Black and Brown neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by pollution, and in the wake of the fallout from the April 11, 2020 demolition of the former Crawford power station smoke stack, which sent a cloud of dust across the surrounding Little Village neighborhood. 

Chicago has 26 officially designated industrial corridors. Many of them overlap with one of the 14 Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMDs) – special zoning districts that were created to preserve industrial jobs by making it harder to add any non-industrial uses nearby.

Austin Weekly News’ coverage area has six industrial corridors and four manufacturing districts. The southwest cluster the city is studying will include North Lawndale, Little Village and several neighborhoods further south, as well as the Roosevelt/Cicero and Western/Ogden industrial corridors.

According to a 2020 study by the planning department, as of 2017, the Roosevelt/Cicero industrial corridor had 3,384 jobs that paid an average of roughly $57,000 a year. Between 2010 and 2017, employment in the corridor grew by only 0.8 percent, and it remained virtually flat between 2014 to 2017.

Between 2010 and 2017, the Western/Ogden industrial corridor has generated 1,224 jobs, which represented a 0.4 percent decline compared to the prior decade. The jobs generated an average wage of roughly $51,000. 

Unlike the Roosevelt/Cicero corridor, where there is no single dominant job category, a significant portion of the Western/Ogden job includes rail and truck freight. The corridor is also home to Cinespace Chicago film studios, which is why, as of 2017, jobs related to “entertainment” services shot up dramatically, while other categories were either flat or declining slightly.

It is not clear how many of the jobs in both corridors were filled by people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. The planning department’s presentation shared during the Jan. 14 hearing broke down where the employees working in the industrial corridors within the Southwest cluster live, and all of North Lawndale zip codes had more than a 1,000 employees living there, but it didn’t break down which industrial corridors they’re employed in. 

Kathy Dickhut, the planning and development deputy commissioner, said that her department chose to cluster the corridors together because those corridors have seen growth in the fields of transportation and logistics. 

Jamie Osborne, the department’s coordinating planner, said that there are two major factors that they will be considering: how the corridors can continue to generate jobs and how the industrial corridors impact pollution in the surrounding area. 

He shared a slide from CDPH’s 2020 Air Quality and Health Report, which looked at the “air pollution, health, and social factors to identify the areas in our city that are most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution” and broke down the data by census tract. 

The census tracks within North Lawndale and the portions of Austin closest to the Roosevelt/Cicero corridor were all marked as the most vulnerable. 

Dickhut said that, as part of addressing the impact of pollution, they wanted to figure out how to “get the trucks out of the neighborhoods [and to make] sure that semis aren’t getting too close to the neighborhoods.” 

The high volume of trucks along Cicero Avenue has been an ongoing concern among residents in North Lawndale and Austin.

During the hearing, several aldermen questioned whether the industrial businesses alone were responsible for all the pollution. 

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose North Side ward included the recently discontinued Clybourn Planned Manufacturing District, questioned the validity of the air quality report itself, saying that his own research suggested that pollution caused by longtime businesses such as the General Iron scrap metal recycler, was worse than the map.

Public health commissioner Allison Arwady repeatedly defended the report’s numbers, noting that they are based on Environmental Protection Agency data.

“The EPA measures around air pollution burdens are used across the country,” she said. “And that is the best data.