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In Kankakee County’s Pembroke Township, race, poverty, farming, Nicor gas pipeline converge

Hopkins Park’s mayor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are pushing for a new pipeline that some oppose in what once was called the largest Black farming community in the Northern U.S.

“People here love the earth,” says Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter (left), who farms 45 acres in Pembroke Township with her husband Fred Carter. “This natural gas pipeline has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our community.”
“People here love the earth,” says Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter (left), who farms 45 acres in Pembroke Township with her husband Fred Carter. “This natural gas pipeline has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our community.”
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A few years ago, when Mark Hodge argued that bringing an immigration detention center to Hopkins Park, the Black, rural Kankakee County community he serves as mayor, would be good for the economy, people who live there said: No, thanks.

Now, Hodge is making a new development push for his town and the surrounding, historic farming community of Pembroke Township south of Chicago. He’s backing a proposal for a natural gas pipeline built by the utility Nicor that would run through a rare ecosystem to bring natural gas to the area and, he hopes, a boost to taxes and the local economy. And again he’s facing flak.

“People here love the earth,” says Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter, who farms 45 acres with her husband in Pembroke and promotes sustainable agriculture. “This natural gas pipeline has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our community. We don’t have to have it for our livelihood or economic development.”

Wright and her husband Fred Carter moved to Pembroke from Chicago about a dozen years ago, drawn by the history of what once was hailed as the largest Black farming community in the Northern United States. Through their nonprofit Black Oaks Center, they want to restore at least 1,000 acres there for sustainable family farming.

And the idea of a nearby pipeline carrying gas, especially at a time the world is moving away from fossil fuels, doesn’t mesh with their plans.

As many Illinois politicians talk about moving toward a clean energy future, Hodge has found support from U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Illinois, a number of state lawmakers and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to put more than 30 miles of natural gas pipeline in a poor, Black community in the name of economic development. It’s a debate that also has taken place elsewhere around the country.

To opponents who say it makes more sense to invest in renewable energy, Hodge says that’s too expensive. He points to one past estimate that it would cost $25 million to upgrade electrical distribution to allow for renewable sources.

He also says propane is too expensive an alternative.

Like many utilities that rely on fossil fuels, Nicor is in a race against time before supplies of those longtime energy sources are phased out. It touts its role in helping a disenfranchised community.

Hodge agrees, saying he believes gas is the key to attracting business to one of the poorest areas of the state.

“Every community around us has natural gas,” the mayor says. “Every community around us has manufacturing. They have stores and more opportunity than we have. This is a disproportionately low-income, minority community.”

“Every community around us has natural gas,” says Mayor Mark Hodge, who’s pushing a pipeline project that’s facing some opposition.
“Every community around us has natural gas,” says Mayor Mark Hodge, who’s pushing a pipeline project that’s facing some opposition.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Jackson, in an opinion piece he wrote last year, said that a Pembroke pipeline “would help kick-start other development — and in turn create jobs and generate hope.”

Hopkins Park sits inside the 52-square-mile Pembroke Township, which lies near the Indiana state line. People who live there rely on electricity, propane and, in some cases, wood-burning stoves for heat. Same goes for the broader community of Pembroke Township, though only residents of the 5-square-mile Hopkins Park and areas immediately around it would be connected to the gas line under the plan.

Pembroke is the largest township in Kankakee County. Believed to have been a terminal for the Underground Railroad, it was founded in the late 1800s and had big growth spurts in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Today, though, the populations of Pembroke Township and of Hopkins Park are declining. And though historically Pembroke’s farmers grew hemp for the Navy in World War II and supplied food to Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland through the Great Migration, its Black-owned farming operations have declined. And that has left the communities’ governments desperate for tax revenue.

Natural gas isn’t the only thing missing from Pembroke. The community of about 1,700 has no police department and no broadband internet service.

It does have bumpy dirt roads and plenty of illegal dumping.

Residents say the sewer and water systems need to be improved.

Past efforts to attract businesses failed. The now-scrapped immigration detention center wasn’t a new idea for growth. Construction actually began on a women’s prison in 2002, but that project was nixed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Johari Cole-Kweli moved to Pembroke inspired by the area’s history of Black farmers practicing sustainable agriculture.
Johari Cole-Kweli moved to Pembroke inspired by the area’s history of Black farmers practicing sustainable agriculture.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Around that time was when Johari Cole-Kweli moved to Pembroke, inspired by the history of Black farmers who eschewed using chemicals that would taint the soil. In addition to farming — she grows vegetables, raises chickens and breeds goats and cows — she has helped lead a sustainability plan for the community, published last year with the help of the Field Museum.

“We inherited this community to take care of it,” Cole-Kweli says.

In her view, natural gas “should’ve been put in or introduced to the community 40 or 50 years ago. A pipeline now looks like an easy solution, as opposed to doing what is right.”

The sustainability plan, introduced to the community in town hall in March, calls for energy efficiency and sustainable food systems.

“We think food is a regenerative economic model for Pembroke,” says Carter, who supports the sustainability plan and questions Nicor’s sudden interest in the community. “The old energy systems are fighting for their lives.”

The sustainability plan embraces a rare ecosystem. Conservationists say now-protected black oak savanna habitats in the area are one of the only remnants of what Illinois once resembled. Agriculture and development wiped out most of the natural habitat across the state. But a 2,000-acre refuge owned by the Nature Conservancy is home to endangered plant and animal species.

More than 100 people participated in developing the sustainability plan, which calls for a number of quality-of-life and economic development opportunities, including repairing homes, providing support for farmers, alternative energy and weatherization, creating a recreational trail and supporting cultural and environmental tourism. The plan also champions small farms as integral to the community’s future.

Conservation areas can be a draw to the area in the future, the report concludes: “They indicate options for conservation-minded landowners who want to see this legacy preserved, and they can become destination sites for ecotourism and other ventures.”

Nearly 70% of Pembroke’s land is used for farming. But conservationists are drawn to its significant ecosystem, partly preserved as the black oaks savannah.

Hodge has contempt for conservation organizations, which have remained neutral in the debate over the pipeline. He views them as a threat to the economic growth that has eluded Pembroke and Hopkins Park.

Hodge, a former Marine who was a captain of corrections officers in California, bristles at the mention of conservation, especially efforts related to a long-planned U.S. government refuge.

His concerns are echoed by the local office of the Illinois Farm Bureau, which backs the pipeline plan.

Hodge says natural gas could help attract a company to a former food-processing site in Hopkins Park.

Janette Wilson, a senior adviser to Jackson, says natural gas is safe and clean and necessary.

“In order for the town to move into the 21st century, you have to have gas lines for residents and for industry,” Wilson says.

Stephany Hammond says the campaign for a new natural gas pipeline has been misleading. “A lot of people are living the way they want — not because they’re poor and ignorant and have no choice,” she says.
Stephany Hammond says the campaign for a new natural gas pipeline has been misleading. “A lot of people are living the way they want — not because they’re poor and ignorant and have no choice,” she says.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Stephany Hammond, who worked on the sustainability plan, says the pipeline campaign has been misleading.

“A lot of people are living the way they want — not because they’re poor and ignorant and have no choice,” Hammond says.

A lack of natural gas isn’t what’s keeping businesses and people from moving to Pembroke, she says.

“No company wants to come to a place where there’s no police department,” Hammond says. “Gas is not the top priority. I think we need internet and electrical infrastructure.”

She and other opponents, who say they’ve been cut out of conversations over the project, question what the price to consumers would be and who would be hooked up. They also question the consumer surveys Nicor has conducted.

The utility estimates the 35-mile pipeline extension will cost almost $10 million and, under bills moving through the state Legislature, would be paid by gas ratepayers across the state as it’s serving a “hardship” area.

“Availability of reliable and affordable energy is essential for economic growth and job creation,” a written statement from Nicor says. “Lack of this basic infrastructure is also a safety and health hazard.”

State Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, who is a legislative sponsor of the Nicor project, says having a gas pipeline doesn’t preclude discussions about green energy.

“Illinois is moving toward renewables, no question,” Joyce says. “The people of Pembroke Township have been waiting for natural gas for 40 years.”

Joyce says he expects the Illinois General Assembly will pass legislation within the next two weeks approving the pipeline and send it to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Nature Conservancy encouraged politicians to “consider community members’ voices to ensure a thorough public process and to consider vetting of renewable alternatives,” says Michelle Carr, the organization’s Illinois director.

Mark Bouman, Chicago region program director for the Field Museum, says he and other museum staff members will continue to work with Pembroke residents on their sustainability plan.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

A man walks toward sand dunes in Pembroke Township, home to a rare ecosystem that’s attracted the interest of conservation groups.
A man walks toward sand dunes in Pembroke Township, home to a rare ecosystem that’s attracted the interest of conservation groups.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times