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Reporting Fellowship

Do Residents Believe Their Aldermen Will Represent Their Interests in the Obama Library Plan?

We interviewed folks at a recent community meeting, hoping to gauge how constituents feel about City Council and the Black Caucus.

Obama CBA meeting at St. Philip Neri Elementary School (Photo: Charles Preston)

It’s always surprising when folks show up for something of a civics lesson after work.

On a balmy Wednesday in August, the crowd at St. Philip Neri Elementary School looked thin just minutes before 6 p.m., the start time for a community meeting about sustainability and transportation around the planned Obama Foundation library and golf course in South Shore.

But just on cue, people flocked in, dutifully took fliers at the door, and filled the rows of tables and metal folding chairs in the cavernous gym.

For City Bureau, we have spent the past several weeks working on a project about City Council, specifically examining the actions of the 18-member aldermanic Black Caucus after the video of Laquan McDonald was released in November 2015. As the city has sought to address issues affecting African American communities — a soaring crime rate, an exodus of residents from many African American communities and a loss of trust in the mayor and politics in general — we wanted to see how politicians had responded by taking a closer look at the caucus’s actions. We also wanted to find out what happened behind the scenes during this period of political turmoil, talking to politicos and aldermen about their roles and why proposals for stricter, more community-oriented police accountability legislation had failed.

And while we’ve had some success exploring some data and talking to political players — stay tuned for the results — we hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to regular folks, voters and would-be voters, about some of the basics: What did they think of City Council? How did they feel about their aldermen? In the political doldrums of August, the one month without a City Council meeting, political activity tends to take a pause before school starts. The Obama Foundation meeting on August 16 seemed like a rare chance to chat with people about some of these issues.

One of the first people who bounded into the meeting was Paula Robinson, who murmured something about the heat — a fan in the back of the room seemed to simply stir the humidity — before finding a spot to sit. Before we could ask about her feelings on City Council and the Black Caucus, she wanted to discuss the Obama library. (The reason for the meeting, more specifically, was to talk about the environmental sustainability of the project, transportation concerns, and ensuring that the project would bring jobs to nearby residents.) Robinson is a community developer and a member of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, and she believes developers should work more closely with communities.

“The city should say to any developer … that they are going to need to support these community plans, community visions,” she said.

Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Park, which is pushing for the preservation of park land, wondered aloud into the microphone as part of a group of panelists: “Is this just a done deal? Is this planning process just a charade?” Several other attendees expressed similar skepticism—especially since Obama Foundation officials were not present to answer any questions, though organizers said they had been to previous meetings. (Incidentally, the Sun-Times enshrined this angle with a cover headline: “Obama library details: Shhhhhhhh!”)

Thomas Petty, a 21-year-old who said he was there to make sure locals get jobs that come along with building and maintaining the library, said it didn’t occur to him to go to City Council for answers or leadership. “It depends on us,” he said. Other attendees said they were worried the development would eventually price long-time residents out of the area.

The organizers of the meeting, including Anton Seals, with Grow Greater Englewood, have pushed for a Community Benefits Agreement, a legal document that would bind the city to certain goals proposed by a coalition of community groups. Seals said he believes the city isn’t sharing its intentions with the public about the Obama library, and he’s not expecting much help from City Council.

“A plan is done and they’re not being really open about it,” Seales said. They’re all Obama-ites. [City Council] is not going to challenge Barack. And they don’t challenge Rahm.”

The Chicago Reader reported in July that Obama’s library plans are indeed on the fast track and that officials do not intend to sign a Community Benefits Agreement. This, despite foundation officials releasing a statement last year to CBS, saying that they agree with locals’ goals: “Our efforts are focused not only on ensuring that residents aren’t displaced, but that they feel the economic benefits of the project.”

Jeanette Taylor, an organizer with the advocacy group Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), bolted from the meeting early—she wasn’t the only one to leave in frustration. “When have they ever stood up?” she said of City Council.

Robinson, for her part, is more hopeful about the library’s prospects for partnering with the community.

“We have a 99-year eclipse [coming],” she said. “All things are possible.”

It’s good to be reminded that the state of politics is in the eye of the beholder.

Case Plods Along for Man Who Sued ICE, County for Civil Rights Violations

The waiting game continues for Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, his wife and children. Here’s our dispatch from a recent court date.

Celene Adame, wife of Catalan-Ramirez, spoke with reporters and supporters at Dirksen federal court building last week. (Photo: Geoff Hing)

Navigating the legal system involves a lot of waiting. In the lobby of the Dirksen federal courthouse in Chicago, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez’s children tried their best to pass the time before their father’s court date on Tuesday. The youngest played on a handrail and ran toward the courthouse’s revolving door before being called back by adults and eventually sitting to play with a fidget spinner. The oldest sat silently, staring at a phone. The middle child buried her head against her mother, who was discussing the upcoming hearing with supporters.

Their father’s case alleges that Immigration Customs and Enforcement officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights and used excessive force when arresting him. It also claims that Catalan-Ramirez was mistreated by corrections officers and provided with inadequate medical care at McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility after his arrest. Since he was detained in late March, it’s the second time his children have been to court.

The children understand what’s going on with their father’s case, but not in great detail, Celene Adame, the children’s mother and Catalan-Ramirez’s wife, said. Faced with an incarcerated partner, “I really have no choice but to keep on going,” Adame said, “My family needs him, my kids need him.”

Before the hearing started, Adame found out that Catalan-Ramirez would not be able to attend his court date; she had hoped the kids could see their father as it’s difficult for the family to travel to McHenry County for visits. Instead, he would remain at the detention facility.

During the hearing Judge Joan Lefkow ruled that the six ICE agents listed as “John Doe” in the lawsuit will have their names revealed, as the 7th Circuit court rarely allows anonymous defendants, she said.

Lefkow also urged Catalan-Ramirez’s attorneys and Jana Brady, attorney for Correct Care Systems, to reach a settlement over claims involving Catalan-Ramirez’s medical care at the county facility, which Correct Care provides. Catalan-Ramirez has ongoing medical needs as a result of a drive-by-shooting; he is partially paralyzed and requires pain medication, and sustained additional injuries during his arrest, according to his suit. Brady asked the judge to sever the claims against Correct Care Systems into a separate case as her clients would not agree to the medical demands made by Catalan-Ramirez’s attorneys. “That ship has sailed,” Brady said, referring to the possibility of settling out of court.

There were six defense attorneys present in court, an indication of the complex relationship between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement. In addition to ICE and Correct Care Systems, the lawsuit also names defendants that are part of the Chicago Police Department and the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department.

The lawsuit alleges that Catalan-Ramirez was arrested without judicial warrant or suspicion of being involved in a crime, a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. His arrest was a result of being included in CPD’s gang database even though he has never been a member of a gang, the lawsuit alleges. While Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance generally restricts collaboration between CPD and ICE, gang affiliation is one of the exceptions that allows cooperation between the two. The suit also claims that Catalan-Ramirez suffered a shoulder injury and loss of eyesight during the arrest, which means he now needs help with tasks like eating and getting dressed.

Speaking to supporters after the hearing, Adame said Catalan-Ramirez was struggling with the length of the case and the uncertainty of the outcome. The next hearing in his case, which his lawyers expect to be a brief status hearing, is scheduled for September 6.

This summer, City Bureau reporters are investigating the agencies and policies that make up immigration enforcement in Chicago. If you have any experiences with immigration enforcement to share, please reach out here or at

How Do Illinois State Police Cooperate With Immigration Officials?

At a recent Pilsen town hall, residents spoke with a state police officer about the agency’s policies.

“Know Your Rights” signs in Pilsen. (Photo: Geoff Hing)

Last Thursday, a coalition of neighborhood and immigrant rights groups hosted a town hall to discuss how Illinois State Police interact with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Though a representative from ISP answered questions at the meeting, organizers — who said they are seeing heightened levels of fear and anxiety in their community due to the Trump administration’s focus on deporting undocumented immigrants — said they left without additional clarity on the issues that matter most.

According to the organizers, the meeting was spurred after two people connected to St. Pius V Parish, where the town hall was held, were taken into custody by ICE after separate driving incidents. In the Illinois-based incident, the driver, who is an undocumented immigrant, was allegedly rear-ended by another driver, who then called the police and state troopers arrived at the scene. He was later deported.

Rafaela Guillen, a member of the congregation, said she believes the state troopers informed ICE about the driver’s immigration status. At the meeting, organizers and audience members repeatedly asked Gutierrez if the state police would report undocumented immigrants to ICE.

Illinois State Police Major Luis Gutierrez said ISP policy prohibits officers from detaining someone based on suspicion of their immigration status. However, Gutierrez said the law requires the state police to contact ICE in certain situations, including when someone is being arrested for a felony charge or sex offense, is suspected of participating in human trafficking or is a “documented gang member.” The state police is also required to contact ICE if there is a National Crime Information Center hold placed on an individual, he said. (NCIC is a database that contains information on stolen property as well as individuals who are missing or have outstanding warrants, including administrative warrants for being “immigration violator[s].”)

“We have a responsibility to law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities, just like we do with every other agency in the state and in the country,” Gutierrez said.

When pressed about the case highlighted at the meeting, Gutierrez said the man who was deported had an NCIC hold. When pressed further by the audience, Gutierrez said that Illinois State Police did not detain the man. “We didn’t hand him over to anyone. He went home,” Gutierrez said.

An ISP spokesperson said via email that officers contact ICE if a person has records in the NCIC immigration file from a prior deportation or an administrative immigration warrant. (Unlike warrants in criminal investigations, immigration warrants are not issued by a judge and do not have the same probable-cause standard. Administrative warrants authorize ICE agents to detain someone based on an immigration violation.)

The deported man’s story highlights to complicated collaboration between local and state law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, even in places labeled as “sanctuary” jurisdictions, such as Chicago. Attendees asked Gutierrez if the agency would limit its cooperation with ICE.

“It’s not as easy as yes or no,” Gutierrez responded.

Anna Gonzales, a Pilsen resident who attended the meeting, said she wasn’t satisfied with the Gutierrez’s answers. “I really feel like he didn’t answer the question exactly the way it was given to him,” Gonzales said. Rather than explain how someone went from a traffic crash to deportation, Gonzales said the state police just stated their official policy. “I think we can look that up on the internet,” Gonzales said.

In recent months, immigrant rights advocates have increasingly drawn attention to the ways law enforcement data collection and sharing can lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants. In May, attorneys representing Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department and other government entities claiming that his inclusion in CPD’s gang database led to a raid by ICE agents. Attorneys representing Luis Vicente Pedrote-Salinas also filed a lawsuit over his inclusion in CPD’s gang database. The gang database is one of the “carve-outs,” or exceptions, that permit cooperation between the police department and federal immigration authorities, in Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, that activists are pushing to close.

Rita Aguilar, vice president of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, one of the groups that organized the event, said immigration enforcement has contributed to a sense of fear in her neighborhood. Fewer people are showing up to “know your rights” trainings, some families have kept their children home from school and some are skipping health care appointments, she said. They worry that, “If I share my information, will I be at risk of deportation?” Aguilar said. At the meeting, coalition representatives tried to convey that undocumented residents were safe to participate in these kinds of daily activities.

Gonzales also feels a change in Pilsen as a result of the Trump administration’s focus on immigration enforcement. “The milieu in Pilsen has always been a place of happiness, a place of hope, a place of caring,” Gonzales said, “and I think some of that now is changed, because I think people are afraid to meet other people now.” However, she also sees these challenges in the context of the community’s strength.

“I think that meetings like this are giving people encouragement, and giving people hope back, and giving people the ability to have a voice still,” Gonzales said. “Pilsen has always had a voice and as long as I can remember in this neighborhood, we have fought for everything that we’ve gotten.”

This summer, City Bureau reporters are working to document the infrastructure of immigration enforcement in Chicago — in other words, the many ways that immigration officials can affect the lives of Chicago residents. If you have a story or tip to share, please reach out here or at

5 Things We Know About the New Court Opening in North Lawndale

City Bureau will be reporting on restorative justice on the West Side this summer. Here’s what we know—and you can tell us what we need to find out.

By Jennifer Simeone-Casas, Resita Cox and Sarah Conway

(Photo: William Camargo)

Court officials and North Lawndale community members gathered Thursday at the Nichols Center (3605 W. Fillmore St.) to cut the ribbon on a new type of court that doesn’t hand down prison sentences: Illinois’s first Restorative Justice Community Court.

This summer, City Bureau reporters will follow the progress of the court—one of 10 restorative justice projects nationwide supported by the Department of Justice—and document community attitudes toward the program. Here is what we know so far:

1 — It’s not a traditional court

Like its name suggests, the court operates off principles of restorative justice, an alternative to the country’s standard incarceration system.

“This is about the community,” said Judge Colleen Sheehan, who will be presiding over the court. “The community has the power to determine how to heal the harm from crime and conflict. It is the community that has the wisdom and humanity to do this.”

This resolution is decided within a “peace circle,” a conflict resolution technique with a long history in American Indian culture—and a strong presence in Chicago, especially the North Lawndale neighborhood. Trained North Lawndale residents will facilitate the court’s circles, creating a nonjudgmental space of mutual respect where victims and community stakeholders can explain how the crime impacted them, and the accused can share what led them to commit the crime. The goal is to reach a solution that will restore both victim and offender to the community.

“Once the harm has been repaired, the case will be dismissed,” Sheehan said. “This court provides a way for the defendant to take responsibility for the harm they have caused without losing opportunities that often come with a felony conviction.”

Sheehan and the court’s Social Service Department will make decisions on community-based sentences and treatment for the defendants.

2 — It will only try nonviolent crimes

The new court’s defendants must be between 18 and 26 years old, live in North Lawndale, charged with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, have no violent criminal history and be willing to accept responsibility for harm done.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans said court organizers chose to focus on young adults who are not eligible for juvenile court but are still cognitively developing. “They suffer from the same syndrome that plagues our juveniles — they often embrace risk-taking activities and don’t consider the complications that flow from those kinds of sensation-seeking activities,” he noted.

While the court only pulls from a small candidate pool in North Lawndale, Evans hopes to eventually expand to other neighborhoods like Roseland and Englewood.

3 — It will be temporarily housed at UCAN

The Restorative Justice Community Court has yet to find a permanent home, but for now it will be housed at the Nichols Center, headquarters of Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network. UCAN, which moved to the neighborhood in 2015, is a social service agency for youth who have suffered trauma.

“The hope is to have another location in the neighborhood,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said. “The only way that this works is if it is easily accessible to the people who will use this court and those are the people in the neighborhood.”

4 — The court will open on August 31

After three years of planning, the court finally has an opening date. “It has been an ever-evolving process: Where are we going to find the building? How do we staff the building? How do we screen the cases?” Foxx explained.

Cases have yet to be selected, but court officials said they expect to serve about 100 defendants in the first year. It doesn’t sound like a lot, admitted Cliff Nellis, the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. “[But] this has never been done before. The court will only be operating one day a week; it’s not like we’re going to jump in and take 1,000 cases the first day. It’s going to be a trickle because we really want to learn as we go.”

5 — For the next year and a half the court will be funded by a federal grant

The Circuit Court of Cook County received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund the court. It was one of 10 similar grants from the federal agency, totaling $2 million in assistance across the country.

The guidelines for who can be served by the court are in part dictated by the grant’s restrictions. For example, the grant does not allow courts to hear gun cases, said Jeramey Winfield, a restorative justice practitioner at Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

But, he added, there is room for expansion: “The community and the system is so committed to the process, that after the grant has come and gone, we still anticipate continuing with the court … At that point we will revisit what types of case we are taking based on the needs of the community.”

A City Bureau reporting team will be covering the progress of this court, community reactions and related stories throughout the summer. Have a tip, suggestion or question? We want to hear about it! Let us know here, via email or call/text us at 312–361–0881.

Displacement or Development: Woodlawn’s Future Growth

My experience covering a community meeting with youth media mentees

As a part of our collaboration with Free Spirit Media, reporting fellows from City Bureau partner with student journalists to cover public meetings. Mike, Sterling and I chose to attend a community meeting this spring about the impact of the Obama Presidential Library, hosted by 1Woodlawn at Apostolic Church of Christ, a mere two blocks away from City Bureau’s office.

The group sponsoring the meeting, the Network of Woodlawn, often pops up on my Facebook feed, likely because of my community engagement work for StoryCorps and because I’m a nearby resident.

We arrived early to discuss how we would approach the meeting to accomplish our individual and collective reporting goals. Mike and Sterling needed to generate some story ideas; I needed to make sure they achieved that while also balancing my personal interest in the topic at hand. In addition, Mike was documenting the meeting as a part of our Documenters program.

I pulled out my laptop to show a video clip of Dr. Bryon T. Brazier, the church’s pastor and chairman of the Network of Woodlawn, discussing the meeting earlier that week on Fox32. Years prior to the Obama Presidential Library announcement, community stakeholders began meeting to build a community plan for “education, safety, economic development and health and human services.” The focus this night would be on displacement and gentrification, community benefits agreements and the Woodlawn Community Master Plan.

Pastor Bryon T. Brazier addresses the 1Woodlawn community meeting, April 20th, 2017.

We found it interesting that a community-led organization would invite development. It was downright impressive for 400 to 500 people to show up committed to the same idea. As a nearby resident, I had my own thoughts and questions about the course development could take; however, my job as a journalist was to understand why the community organized itself, which stakeholders had a seat at the table and what the concerns were for the vision of Woodlawn from the diverse perspectives in the room.

With an unexpected half-hour pushback in start time, the students and I sat and talked with people at the banquet tables. We began with an open-ended line of questioning, “So, why did you come to tonight?” When we introduced ourselves and why we were there, most people were eager to talk to us.

I approached this event differently from a standard interview, instead trying to facilitate a dialogue among the community members, Mike, Sterling and I. If I had knowledge of what they are talking about, I would give an honest observation; if not, I’d probe for more nuance. It was in that manner that I found out that the Apostolic Church of Christ had been redeveloping Woodlawn since the 1980s under the leadership of the late Reverend Brazier, father of the current pastor. That little detail was of tremendous value. It helped us understand why the community meeting was held at this particular church, alluding to its authority — tangible and symbolic — in the neighborhood. When Mike introduced himself, he made a point of saying he wasn’t coming in with a predetermined angle but wanted to report on what what he observed. Sterling covered the meeting on social media and also queried attendees. When Reverend Brazier and his management consultant Jada Russell made their rounds, they spoke with Mike and Sterling longer than other attendees because of their unique status as youth and press, two demographics they are looking to further include as their plans unfold.

I made a point to talk to the people around me — not just the ones formally recognized on the agenda. Many of these folks bore their own stakes and responsibilities as residents, block club members, community gardeners, parents and educators. These are faces of the impacted, too. Presenting myself as someone curious enough and humble enough to value their voices is a major part of connecting to the heart the matter, too.

Daweed Scully, an urban planner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, introduced the master plan with the recognition that for black and brown neighborhoods, development is often equivalent to displacement and gentrification. The room murmured in agreement. This master plan was to be different, he said. It was to be “a Woodlawn plan built on your ideas.”

1Woodlawn is set to release their completed master plan at community meeting this July. Residents are encouraged to return and share their hopes and fears then.

From Garbage to Greenery

Long-time West Side resident Sam Taylor talks about his time working at city incinerators

After three decades working at incinerator sites in Chicago, Sam Taylor now spends his time tending to 36 community gardens. (Photo: Darien Boyd)

After nearly 30 years of working operating machinery at incinerator sites for the City Of Chicago, Sam Taylor realized it was time to retire—for his health and peace of mind.

“The doctor said I’ve got to sit down, and that’s just what I’ve done: sat myself down,” the 63-year-old says.

The long-time Chicagoan went to school, married, and raised his kids on the West Side. He says he could see the smoke emerging from the chimneys of the Northwest Incinerator long before he did any work there. “All I knew was that they took garbage there and they burned it,” he says.

As a Streets and Sanitation employee from 1981 to 2011, Taylor worked primarily at the Southwest Incinerator site located at 34th and Lawndale, From time to time however he would be called up to work at the Northwest Incinerator, at Chicago and Kilbourn.

Read more: What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator?

“I went from sorter, to operator, to handling heavy equipment, machine holding, loading the garbage on the truck and taking it to the landfill,” he remembers. “I saw everything come through. I saw dead babies that people had put in the garbage. I found body parts, tons of guns. We found guns every day.”

Taylor recalls when hazardous waste would come into the sites, and admits he was often concerned for his safety.

Taylor also promotes healthy foods and works as a community organizer. (Photo: Darien Boyd)

“There were times when there would be toxic waste and they would have to shut the place down because people couldn’t breathe,” says Taylor. “They had to clear the building out. Sometimes this happened once a month.”

His wife was no big fan of his occupation—for that reason and more.

“I would come home from being around the incinerator, and my wife would say ‘stop right there,’” he says, laughing. “She had a place for me to put my shoes and your coat out there, because ‘you smell like the incinerator.’”

Though the Northwest Incinerator was originally welcomed to the area when it was built in 1971, public perception of the industrial site began to sour. At the same time, automation technology changed the workforce: people were no longer needed to sort the waste by hand. Taylor explains, “When they were doing the sorting they had like 20 people at each station... [but then] they cut down on the jobs, so maybe you got like five, two people in one station.”

Local activists worried about environmental issues formed a coalition called WASTE (the Westside Alliance for a Safe and Toxic-free Environment) and lobbied against the incinerator, which eventually closed in 1996.

“Nobody wants to lose a job. Everybody needs money. There were a few sad faces but, you know, some people got relocated, and those people they felt weren’t working out just got laid off,” Taylor says.

He stayed with Streets and Sanitation long enough to see the city implement the Blue Cart recycling program in 2007, a service that provides residents living in single-family, two-, three- or four-flat buildings with blue carts to place their recyclable trash. Taylor remains skeptical about whether this system is effective.

“My sense was that it wasn’t working,” Taylor says, “People put anything in those blue cans without even thinking about it.”

Taylor’s been retired for six years now, but he doesn’t sit idle. When he isn’t doing community organizing along with his wife, Angela, he is maintaining the couple’s 36 gardens on the city’s Northwest Side. The one he frequents the most features a greenhouse and a chicken coop in the back of their West Garfield Park home.

Reflecting on his post-retirement life, Taylor recognizes the irony of what his everyday activity has now become.

“I went from garbage to greenery,” he says with a laugh. “My focus now are these gardens and promoting healthy food.”

Podcasting a Public Figure

Real Chi Youth reporters talked to Father Michael Pfleger about the problem of violent crimes streamed on Facebook Live. The following is a conversation about what they learned about the successes and limits of this interview.

Real Chi Youth journalists Corli Tolliver and Jhordan Ruiz with City Bureau fellow Sarah Conway (Photo credit: Joshua Perez)

Real Chi Youth journalists Corli Tolliver and Jhordan Ruiz sat down with City Bureau fellow Sarah Conway to discuss their exclusive interview with local priest and activist Father Michael Pfleger.

The interview is now a Real Chi Youth podcast about how Chicago youth are affected by violent crimes streamed on Facebook Live. The episode explores whether Facebook has the responsibility to curb violence on its popular live streaming platform.


Corli and Jhordan developed the podcast during a City Bureau/Real Chi Youth mentorship meet-up every Wednesday at Free Spirit Media’s office in Homan Square this spring.

Corli Tolliver and Jhordan Ruiz secured are journalists with Real Chi Youth (Photo credit: Joshua Perez)

The trio met up for cold iced coffees at Dark Matter’s Star Lounge to reflect on the high and low points of their Father Pfleger interview at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham early this month.

Sarah: Why did you choose Father Pfleger as your subject for a podcast on violent crimes caught on Facebook Live?

Corli: I saw that Father Pfleger had written about the negative effects of Facebook Live on his personal Facebook page so we felt ultimately this was a really timely interview for the subject at hand.

Jhordan: We also liked that Father Pfleger is a well-known Chicago activist and very active in the community.


Sarah: How did you approach Father Pfleger for the interview?

Corli: I asked Jeff McCarter [founder and executive director of Free Spirit Media] to connect us with Father Pfleger as we were really interested in interviewing him for our podcast. He reached out Father Pfleger by email. Jhordan and I were both really happy to hear that Father Pfleger was excited to interview with us.

Sarah: How did you prepare for the interview?

Jhordan: One of the first steps was to conduct a test run interview in our recording room [at Free Spirit Media]. But we really ended up doing the interview better live.

Corli: We also came up with questions for the interview during the City Bureau mentorship, and of course we did a pre-recording of our intro and outro.

Sarah: Looking back at the interview, what were some of the most important questions you asked Father Pfleger?

Corli: There were a few. I asked him about the first time he witnessed a crime on Facebook Live and his reaction to it — that was an important question for me. I also asked Father Pfleger if Facebook Live does more harm than good, and why people watch crimes and don’t do anything.


Sarah: Were these the most challenging moments during the interview?

Jhordan: Father Pfleger wasn’t well rounded on the topics that we brought to him, and he couldn’t provide an answer outside of what would be expected from someone of his stature as a public figure. One of the challenging moments for me was when I asked him to describe the mental state of a person committing these types of crimes on live streaming apps and he couldn’t really answer. It made me wish that we had some insight from a psychologist at that point.

Sarah: Do you feel this was a typical response that a public figure gives to a tough question?

Corli: Definitely. He’s both a public figure and an activist. You have public figures who try to save face so that they don’t get in too much trouble with public statements.

Jhordan: Yes, absolutely. I feel like for most public figures there is an image and standard that is held on them. Some of their followers might take a genuinely blunt answer and blow it out of proportion, which leads to this beating around the bush.

Sarah: In hindsight, would you have chosen someone else for your podcast?

Corli: No, I like that he is so well-known and it raises the profile of our podcast.

Jhordan: Same here. He is at the end of the day a strong public figure in this city and his voice matters to a lot to people.

What were the highlights of the interview?

Jhordan: I would have to say it was Father Pfleger’s ability to listen. I appreciated how he individualized us, and gave us his full, undivided attention to record the podcast in his church.

Corli: For me, I liked that he was invited by Facebook to attend a special panel on live streaming violence, which validates why we chose him as the focus of our podcast. It made me respect the fact that he was able to back up the level of activism connected to his name.

Sarah: What was the significance of recording in St. Sabina?

Corli: It made us feel special that he opened up this huge church just for our interview. St. Sabina is really a safe haven in my neighborhood.

Sarah: How would you improve the interview in hindsight?

Jhordan: I feel like maybe we should have had more open-ended questions. This could have made the podcast more conversational.

Corli: I agree. I don’t think I had enough time to ask all the questions that I wanted. I also think that we could have had a conversation with Father Pfleger ahead of the interview to smooth out the vision of the podcast.

Learn more about Free Spirit Media’s Real Chi Youth, a diverse newsroom where young adults develop community reporting and skills on the job.

What Do We Know About the Northwest Incinerator, a Large, Mostly Empty Industrial Site on the West…

Join City Bureau reporters as we explore ideas of development, activism and safeguarding community knowledge. We’ll start with what we’ve learned so far

The chimneys are all that remain of the former Northwest Incinerator at 740 N. Kilbourn. (Photo: Martha Bayne)

Our team of four City Bureau reporters — Martha Bayne, LaCreshia Birts, Darien Boyd, and Amber Colon Nunez — is focusing this spring on the site of the former Northwest Incinerator and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

We are intrigued that, despite the great deal of attention focused on the incinerator while it was active between 1971 and 1996, and its proximity to residential neighborhoods, community knowledge about this industrial site on the border of West Humboldt Park and Austin is so fractured. What it was once, what it is now, and what it could be in the future is, to many we spoke with, a source of mystery, confusion, or simply ancient history.

This spring we’re meeting with local groups and other stakeholders to explore not just the site itself, but what it means to shape future development, who gets that access, and how it might be expanded. To start off we’ll share five things we’ve learned so far.

1. The incinerator was a big deal at the time.

Opened in 1971 at 740 N. Kilbourn, the Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, aka the Northwest Incinerator, only operated for 25 years, but was, for a time, the largest incinerator in North America, capable of burning 400,000 tons of garbage a year. It was shut down in 1996, thanks to both pressure from local environmental activists, who responded in force after the incinerator failed Environmental Protection Agency testing in 1993, and the repeal that year of the controversial Retail Rate Law, which had provided a financial incentive to private incinerator operators. With that incentive gone, the cost of upgrading the incinerator to meet Clean Air Act standards proved prohibitive, and the facility was closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

2. People lauded how environmentally friendly it would be.

When it opened, during the long tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley, incineration of solid waste was believed to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills, and the pollution-mitigating technology of the facility was state of the art for the time. But according to witness reports, the smoke from its chimneys often smelled extremely foul. Says Marie Henderson, longtime owner of Out of the Past Records at 4407 W. Madison, “I didn’t notice when it shut down, I just noticed that the air got better.” According to DePaul soil scientist James Montgomery, who visited the site in 1993, a visible layer of soot coated the ground and windows around the incinerator.

3. Lead contamination levels are extremely high in the neighborhood.

A study by the Center For Neighborhood Technology reports that in 1994 the facility’s smokestacks emitted 17 pounds of lead per hour, and a health screening in Austin at the time found that 1,638 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. We are still seeking information about lead levels in the soil around the incinerator site, but soil testing in the neighborhood the early ’90s showed levels of lead high above EPA standards of contamination. Whether the lead came from the incinerator or from, say, lead paint chipping off nearby houses, is not known. We do know that lead levels in water fountains at nearby Orr Academy High School tested at 16 percent above EPA action levels last year; water at some area parks has tested as high as 100 percent above action levels.

4. The future of the site is in limbo.

Activists’ hopes for the creation of a comprehensive recycling or composting facility on the site never came to fruition, though for a time the site was used as a sorting facility for the short-lived Blue Bag recycling program. Today the site is owned by the city, and used as a waste transfer station contracted to Marina Cartage. As recently as 2016 proposals were reportedly circulating among West Side business owners for possible mixed-use redevelopment at the site; the status of those plans is to date unknown.


5. It’s sort of become a landmark.

The incinerator building itself was demolished in 2015 (see above video), but its towering twin 250-foot chimneys remain a striking local landmark. Said one area business owner we spoke with, “Those chimneys just say ‘West Side’.”

Intrigued? Get in touch.

What else should we know about the incinerator site? What would you like to know about it?

Share your memories of the Northwest Incinerator, and tell us what questions you want answered about its past, present and future: Text the word NORTHWEST to 312–697–1791. Or, you can leave a comment here or email us at