Yet another demolition will test the mettle of Little Village

Hilco Redevelopment Partners and city officials had better get it right for a neighborhood that has withstood many hits.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot says another building that is structurally unstable must be demolished soon at the old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says another demolition must go forward at a shuttered coal-fired power plant in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, for safety’s sake. If that’s the case, Hilco Redevelopment Partners and city officials had better get it right this time.

On April 11, three weeks into a stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus, a botched implosion of an old towering smokestack at the site covered the neighborhood in smoke, dirt and dust.

It was yet another slap in the face to a neighborhood that has suffered many blows in recent years.

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The latest setbacks for Little Village include the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state.More than 2,600 people who live in the neighborhood’s 60623 zip code have tested positive for the virus.

And this is happening as a hospital that serves the community, Saint Anthony, struggles to keep its doors open. The state has fallen short with its share of funds since the days of former Gov. Bruce Rauner. Saint Anthony CEO Guy A. Medaglia told me in an email that donations and federal coronavirus relief funds are keeping the hospital going.

This Mexican American community can’t catch a break.

The neighborhood is well known for its 26th Street business corridor, one of the city’s leading revenue producers with its many Mexican restaurants and shops. After the Great Recession, it took years for 26th Street to regain its vibrancy. But it made a comeback despite the neighborhood’s struggles with violence.

Now Little Village faces another tough recovery, one that will be made all the harder because of continued threats of immigration raids by the president and his contempt for people with brown skin.

City Hall’s decision to allow the April demolition to proceed, at a time when people were stuck at home because of the pandemic, showed callous disregard. After the implosion, the Chicago Fire Department wrote on Twitter: “CFD provided support on demolition of stack at the old Crawford power generation plant near the ship canal and Pulaski now being cleared for new development. Occured (sic) at 8 am April 11. No problems.”

No problems?

Maybe not at the demolition site. But try telling that to the people forced to breathe in the thick cloud of dust that engulfed the neighborhood.

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A photographer on a bike walks though the dust cloud descending though the Little Village neighborhood after the Crawford Coal Plant smokestack was imploded April 11.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Since then, city and state officials have tried to do damage control. They’ve gone after Hilco and the demolition company with citations and fines.

But that hasn’t made residents of Little Village feel any better.

“It was our worst nightmare, but it wasn’t too surprising,” Antonio Lopez, senior adviser and former executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said of the implosion. City officials and the developer, he told me, hadn’t been forthcoming with information beforehand.

“There are so many layers of disrespect,” he said.

Lopez sees failures all around, from the building and health departments that allowed the work to proceed to new Ald. Mike Rodriguez, who knew a week ahead of time about the implosion but didn’t warn people for days. Rodriguez, who tried in vain to delay the demolition, has apologized.

Rodriguez told me Wednesday that officials are making a “compelling” case about another building’s instability and the need for another round of demolition. The hideous structure looks perilous as you drive past it on Pulaski Road. The city has narrowed northbound traffic to one lane, citing a potential danger.

Lopez has little confidence that the city and developer would get the next demolition done right.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization led a 12-year grass-roots effort to close the coal plant that spewed pollutants. It shuttered in 2012 under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The environmental group participated in a redevelopment task force for the site until Hilco got hold of it, Lopez said.

This seems like a good time to mention that in 2015 Hilco gave the “Chicago for Rahm Emanuel” campaign committee a $50,000 contribution. That no doubt helped to smooth the way for the Northbrook-based company.

Redevelopment plans call for a logistics and distribution center to be built. Diesel-powered trucks will come and go.Lopez and others aren’t happy about it because it will mean more pollution.

“It could have been such a different story, a shining example of how we build healthier and safer neighborhoods,” Lopez said.

I spoke to Rodriguez, the alderman, about the repeated knockdowns Little Village has endured. He emphasized the neighborhood’s resilience.

But everyone has a breaking point.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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