Little Village to Receive Long-Awaited Park

By: Carlos Acevedo

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local NewsWhen driving through the Little Village community, you notice the numerous restaurants, clothing stores, grocery stores, bakeries and banks. If you drive through the side streets, you may grin at the sight of kids playing soccer in the middle of the street.

So what’s missing?
Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) said that it has been over 75 years since a new park has been built in the Little Village community and that many local organizations became very vocal about the need for more open space. “We spent two years going door-to-door surveying what the community members wanted and most said a park. Adults and kids even contributed designs for the new park. Any place that people would congregate, we were there talking with the people,” said Wasserman.
In 2005, numerous organizations including LVEJO, 12th ward Alderman George Cardenas, Enlace and St. Agnes Church came together to advocate for more open space. They were able to get the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago to attend a community meeting in Little Village to address the issue and answer some questions.
“You can’t build a community when you don’t have a space for the community to hang out in. That is one thing that the community was very vocal about. At that meeting in 2005, they informed us that they were in fact looking at two potential places for open space in Little Village. One of them was the Washburne site on 31st and Kedzie and the other was the Celotex site on 28th and Sacramento. When they made that announcement, we were very concerned for two reasons. The first was because of the amount of traffic on 31st and Kedzie and the second was because the Celotex site was a highly contaminated site,” said Wasserman.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, the Celotex site was used for making, storing and selling asphalt roofing products. “Early on we had a discussion of where the new park would be. It was between the old Washburne property or the former Celotex site. To me, it didn’t really matter. We need the open space where people can run, play sports and have a healthy lifestyle,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas said that once the Celotex site was identified as the future home for the new park and about four years ago, the City of Chicago implemented imminent domain to acquire the property. “When the government steps in, people think they can get more money just because it’s the government, but the legal team which we hired did a phenomenal job at keeping realistic expectations. The whole process culminated this year (2011) with the final disposition of the land. The city paid $7.5 million dollars for the 24-acre parcel. It’s been a long process but the City of Chicago now owns it,” said Cardenas.

Now, the plans are to build a multi-purpose complex for the community with open space and trails.
Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local News

Clean Up Project
The Celotex site is contaminated with poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, but both Wasserman and Cardenas have assured that the site has been capped and is no longer a threat to residents of the area.
For the last six years, Wasserman said they worked with the neighbors to make sure that nearby contaminated homes were also cleaned up, and confirmed that as of two years ago the last home in that area was cleaned up.

Wasserman understands that some community residents are concerned about the new park being built across from the jail, but she said she believes that the community should look at it in a positive way. Wasserman wants the community to remember the following:
“1. No new park had been built in Little Village in 75 years. What does that say about the priorities that the City of Chicago has in providing social services to the community?
2. Is more of an environmental protection perspective. The reality is that in Oak Park or in white affluent communities, if you have a site that is contaminated, most people would not have to wait 15 years to have their homes cleaned up,” said Wasserman.

Little Village resident, Jose Mendez, 39, said he is grateful that somebody is out there thinking about these things. “I think we become accustomed to our own, daily routines that we don’t even think if a new park has been built or not. I think most people just become used to the fact that we either have a park, or not,” said Mendez.
In regards to the park being across the jail, Mendez said that he doesn’t feel bothered by it. “I think once the park is there, people are going to go it and they’re not even going to think, ‘oh, why is it in front of the jail’ – I think its only the haters who think about that,” said Mendez. “People need to understand that because we are an immigrant community, because we don’t speak English and because we don’t have a strong voting power, we are not seen as a priority. So to get simple things to happen in our community…it is a struggle,” said Wasserman.

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