Tag: Community Voicebox

The air we breathe… is disgusting

Read the companion article on Grid Chicago

My friend Bill Vassilakis, and his partner Jeff Munie, won the 2011 Design Makes Change competition, The Air We Breathe.

This happened in June. I showed up in the evening during 2nd Fridays in Pilsen for the opening gallery, at 1915 S Halsted, to see Bill and Jeff’s competition entry. I had no idea at the time that they had won. I was impressed by the “Community Voicebox.”

What is the Community Voicebox?

From the project overview (PDF):

The “Voice Box” project claims that local environmental health issues are not solely a result of point source emissions, but a combination of political, economic and environmental issues, which combine to create overall inequalities in environmental health and morbidity.

The Voice Box project is focused around a mobile community forum where information is recorded and exchanged. The local knowledge of the community would be recorded and shared with others in the community, the general public and decision makers via a real time online outlet. This online website will serve as the ‘voice’ of the community and as a record of local knowledge. The Voice Box would be a built upon a mobile trailer with a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, which open to create an inviting area for residents to relax, respond and exchange.

Two major components of Community Voicebox are the four-wheel, pedal-powered vehicle (acquired in July). The second part is recording audio and video and sharing it on their website. Bill and Jeff were able to purchase these things with a grant from the competition.

What are the environmental health issues?

In as few words as possible, ancient coal power plants in Chicago, namely Fisk and Crawford generating stations, owned by Midwest Generation. I’ve written before about these major pollution sources on Steven Can Plan where I cited a 2002 Harvard study (PDF) that found the power plants combined caused 41 premature deaths per year.

Did anyone else think that smokestacks created clouds?

Digging deeper into the Community Voicebox concept

I wrote about the Community Voicebox quadricycle on Grid Chicago – here I talk to Bill about the community and environmental aspects of the project.

How did you find out about The Air We Breathe (TAWB) competition?

Posters around town (at school, the library, restaurants, etc)

What made you decide to enter the competition?

The quality of air in Pilsen has been a topic of conversation among my friends and roommates as long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood (about 5 years).  I was excited to hear about The Air We Breathe competition as a chance to bring everyday quality of life issues into focus in front of anyone walking down Halsted Street.

Did you have your idea for the entry (Community Voicebox) before or after knowing about the competition?

Although we developed our proposal specifically for the contest, we included elements we are familiar with and interested in.  We wanted it to be pedal powered, to directly engage the neighborhood and to present the community’s situation to the world via the internet.

Why did you create the Community Voicebox? What do you want to accomplish with the final product?

We created the voicebox because we wanted to bring the issue to everyone in the community, regardless of whether or not it is a priority for them, and document what they have to say about it.  Ultimately, we hope to use this documentation of the community’s various experiences and perspectives to inform local policy and to serve as a conduit for sharing solutions with other places that are similarly situated, in terms of environmental health issues.

Can you describe how and when the Community Voicebox is being built? (think logistics, materials, partners, designs, etc…)

We’re designing the Voicebox to be as adaptable as possible so that when we turn it over to student organizations or community groups, it can be modified to serve as many purposes as possible.  That said, the primary goal we hope to accomplish is to create a fun, comfortable space in which to offer an opportunity for anyone and everyone to tell their stories through whatever means they wish. This will happen on and around a four-wheel pedal car.

Aside from education, awareness, and exchanging information with the community, do you think Community Voicebox will help bring about a more visible and tangible change when it comes to pollution in Chicago?

Absolutely!  At minimum I hope that making the Voicebox a visible presence at Pilsen’s many community events (as big as Fiesta Del Sol and small as block parties on Miller Street) will help keep air quality on the local policy agenda.  The ideal outcome would be the a leveling of the playing field, in terms of environmental health.  Residents of Pilsen are exposed to levels of pollution that would never be tolerated in any other parts of the city. Basically we want to foster dialogue between the many communities of the neighborhood about pressing local issues.  Environmental health seems like a good place to start.

The Community Voicebox will be interviewing residents, and recording stories, in these parks and neighborhoods in the Lower West Side. 

A page from the project overview document showing a sample of the project’s research materials, mostly centered around the evidence of pollution in the Pilsen and surrounding neighborhoods. 

Let’s get Chicago off coal

Updated May 26, 2011: Added new photo and video; new information about arrests and bail.

Activists working with Greenpeace climbed hundreds of feet into the sky on the Fisk power plant’s smokestack this past Tuesday morning. They hung banners that say “QUIT COAL” and painted the same message vertically on the side of the smokestack facing the Stevenson highway.

The Chicago city council continues to delay a final vote on the Clean Power Ordinance which would force the Fisk (1111 W Cermak in Pilsen) and Crawford (3501 S Pulaski in Little Village) to either shut down or clean their emissions. The coal-fired power plants can legally spew so much toxins into the air because they were grandfathered into the EPA’s regulations. The presidents of Midwest Generation and Edison International will tell that they’re cleaning up the act and reducing mercury emissions, but the laws applicable to this plant are already so lax. So this cleanup is still insufficient.

The action was timed to go along with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing on Tuesday, May 23, 2011, at which the EPA discussed “proposed rules that would regulate toxic emissions, including mercury, from coal-fired power plants for the first time.”

It’s insufficient for the hundreds of local residents who’ve prematurely died because of the polluted air they breathed.

It’s too bad the pollution fighting bike lanes on Blue Island down the street from the Fisk plant can’t mitigate the spew.

Since I took the above photo on May 24, 2011, the QUIT COAL message has been amplified with a red outline. It must have happened overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday, as the activists came down Wednesday morning (and were arrested) by waiting Chicago Police. The Chicago Tribune reports:

The eight Greenpeace anti-pollution protesters who were arrested Wednesday after climbing down from the smokestack of a Pilsen coal-fired plant were charged this morning with felony criminal damage to property.

The three women and five men were also charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, police said. They are scheduled to appear in bond court later [Thursday].

Bails for the “arrestees” was set between $15,000 and $30,000.

Photo by Greenpeace USA.

Video by Greenpeace via Good.is.

Chicago aldermen are complicit with Midwest Generation and its parent company in polluting Chicago and harming its citizens for everyday they delay passing the Clean Power Ordinance.

Pilsen pollution

Pilsen is a neighborhood in Chicago’s Lower West Side that is made mostly of Mexican immigrants and descendants. It’s sister neighborhood is Little Village, which is close by to the southwest. I lived here for two years from 2006-2008.

When I moved in, the smoke from a nearby, but yet unseen, exhaust stack was quite apparent. An uninformed or malicious local offered that it was a heat generation plant for the nearby public housing homes. This seemed unlikely, and only slightly plausible, but I didn’t question it.

Both neighborhoods have coal-fired power plants. There is Fisk Generating Station at 1111 W. Cermak in Pilsen (which I mentioned above and pictured above), and Crawford Generating Station at 3501 S. Pulaski in Little Village. Both are owned by Midwest Generation

It was not long until I read several news reports in the major Chicago newspapers about the actions of local social advocacy organizations trying to bring awareness about the danger the Fisk plant was causing for the minority residents in Pilsen. The problems became well-known in 2001 after a group of five researchers from Harvard and two private consulting agencies (one for wind, and one for environment) studied coal-fired power plants in the Midwest exempt from the provisions of the Clean Air Act. See “More information” below for a local group’s opinion on these plants’ impacts on health using information derived from the study.

The most recent call for action was from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who, in August 2008, demanded that Mayor Daley close the Fisk plant on Cermak.

Now, the Sierra Club magazine is reporting on a new and younger organization ready and willing to fight alongside LVEJO the battle to fix the pollution problems in Chicago’s west side Latino neighborhoods. I recently read this article at work in our “office lending library” – this along with the fact that I pass by the station quite often prompted me to write this blog entry.

More information: