For two Chicago neighborhoods devoid of playgrounds and open space, the completion of La Villita Park is a dream come true. The new park provides 22 acres of recreational activities, including basketball courts, soccer fields, a skate park, walking trails and large playground filled with all the latest, totally cool equipment for children. Coming on line in the near future will be a softball and baseball field.
This fantasyland is a huge departure from its heyday as the site of Celotex, an asphalt roofing factory, warehouse and market. In 1989, the Illinois EPA made note of the excessive amount of coal tar that was leaking into the ground. Things did not improve though, and ultimately the property gained the distinction of being listed among the most notorious of the Federal EPA’s Superfund sites. Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, a cancer causing agent, was detected in the soil at the site as well as in several backyards of nearby neighbors.
For decades, until the Park’s opening on December 14, 2014, the contaminated site remained an eyesore for the Chicago neighborhoods. It may have stayed this way, except for the tireless efforts of community action groups, such as Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who succeeded in drawing attention to the site and never ceased demanding that it be cleaned up. According to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the transition to urban park is one of the largest conversions of a former Superfund site in the US. The Park cost $19 million which was covered by state grants, city funds and the Chicago Park District.
According to Antonio Lopez, Executive Director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, this project is much more than just a playground for the city’s youth. He says the key issue is that an “environmental injustice and public health nuisance” has been corrected. Lopez adds that the group is not finished with La Vallita Park. Next job is to generate funds to build indoor sports facilities so that the park can serve kids year-round.
One thing is for certain, memories of Celotex, and the environmental damage it caused, is fading away, replaced by the happy voices of kids who finally have a safe place to play.