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Seven years ago an explosion in Evanston’s southwest Ninth Ward rocked the homes of some nearby residents. Highly flammable and combustible materials were densely packed behind the Home Depot plaza, particularly along Pitner and Hartrey avenues. Residents in this area, already subject to heavy air pollution, truck traffic, litter, and toxic fumes, worry about the possibility of another explosion.
The 2014 explosion occurred in the lot of North Shore Towing, a company the City of Evanston hires to tow cars. The company’s lot is loaded with cars, parts, and equipment. During the incident, two cars exploded, and other nearby cars caught fire. In response, nine fire departments from the surrounding areas, including Skokie, Chicago, Wilmette, Winnetka, and Niles, swarmed to the area to aid the Evanston Fire Department, said Ninth Ward resident Lorraine Williams.
“If the first responders know that it’s so bad over there that they’ve got to have nine different municipalities on call for when things happen, then why is our City comfortable with that high a concentration of dangerous materials 15 yards away from a residential area?” said Ms. Williams.
North Shore Towing’s business neighbors include mechanics, asphalt and concrete-mixing companies, body shops, and tire shops. In addition to storing hazardous materials, these businesses are “bad neighbors,” residents said, and Ms. Williams counted 22 different businesses responsible for a number of issues she and her neighbors face. Rick Nelson, co-chair of Citizens Greener Evanston’s Environmental Justice Evanston (EJE) committee, said he counted close to 10 different environmental justice violations in the area.
Residents endure smells and fumes, and a chimney emerging from a business emits billowing black smoke, said resident Michael Schram, whose family has lived in the same house for 66 years. Mr. Schram has no sense of smell, but he said his neighbors complain about the stench of the smoke, and he suspects whichever business the chimney belongs to is burning tires, though he does not know for sure.
Due to the fumes, Ms. Williams said, after spending time in her backyard she must change her clothes because they stink from the air pollution. If she sits down on any upholstered furniture without changing clothes, the furniture will smell too.
The neighborhood also receives a lot of truck traffic, which creates vibrations and noise. Concrete trucks, forklifts, and bulldozers occasionally drive down her alley, said Ms. Williams. Cars spill from the lots of nearby auto shops and mechanics into Hartrey Avenue, where they line the street and cover the parkway.
The east side of Hartrey Avenue is a residential neighborhood, while the west side is commercial. Robert Eliacin, whose mother, Adelina Eliacin, has lived in the Ninth Ward for 40 years, said these vehicles are stationed right outside his mother’s house. Mr. Schram said many of these cars have broken windows, missing engines, and abandoned auto stickers on them. Vehicles are often dropped off in the middle of the night, disturbing the neighborhood. Mr. Schram said these cars are an eyesore, and he believes they could be a fire hazard.
The area is extremely windy at times. Dust and debris blow from the site of the City’s south water standpipe at Hartrey Avenue and Cleveland Street, where the City also stores gravel.
The wind blows trash, such as bottles, wrappers, and cardboard into the residential neighborhood. Mr. Eliacin said he believes much of this trash comes from the nearby shopping plaza on Oakton Street and ends up in his mother’s backyard. She has approached the City countless times about putting up a fence behind Aldi, but nothing has ever been done, he said. Mr. Eliacin said workers in the area drink beer and leave cans and bottles along the street.
Ninth Ward Council member Cicely Fleming said she believes the businesses causing these issues have adopted bad habits. “They’ve gone for so long, well before my term, being able to operate and do things that otherwise we would not allow,” she said.
After decades of fighting for a clean and trash-free neighborhood, several Ninth Ward residents said they are exhausted. Many residents have lived in the area for a long time and have completely given up, said Ms. Fleming.
When asked about her experiences in the neighborhood, Ms. Eliacin said she is too exhausted to speak about the issues after years of being ignored, and she asked her son to speak on her behalf. “She resigned herself,” said Mr. Eliacin. “She’s been trying for so long and no one has ever done anything. It’s like talking to the wind.”
Mr. Schram said he believes these issues would not happen in wealthier Evanston neighborhoods. “You put this in North Evanston – those residents with the higher tax bracketed homes and all that – I don’t think they’d sit for what we’ve been sitting with down here,” he said.
Ms. Williams said she hopes one day she can spend the summer sitting outside without getting a sinus infection or intense headaches. She said she is not surprised that the environmental injustices she and her neighbors face are concentrated in this area. The neighborhood has historically housed many people of color and low-income families and has not received much attention from the City, she said. “This area has really been abused and neglected,” she said.
An Ominous Reminder of the 1973 Rust-Oleum Fire
The neighborhood has faced environmental justice issues for decades. In 1939, a Rust-Oleum plant opened near where the Home Depot is now. In 1973, the plant exploded, sending up a 300-foot column of flames and black smoke, according to Associated Press archives.
“From my window, you could easily see the flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air,” said Mr. Schram, who was 23 when the fire occurred. Gary Kipnis, who was a volunteer at the Skokie Fire Department during the time, responded to the 1973 fire. He said he remembers seeing 55-gallon barrels and other combustibles explode from the heat and project into the air. He was assigned to aim a hose at a large propane tank that stood several feet from the fire. “They were afraid if that propane tank blew, it could take out a good portion of Evanston at the time,” said Mr. Kipnis.
The more recent fires serve as a reminder that another dangerous explosion could occur at any moment, said Ms. Williams. She and her wife have an evacuation plan ready.
Kicking Out the Businesses Is Not the Solution
Council Member Fleming said she learned about the environmental injustices in this neighborhood at the start of her term. In addressing these issues, she said she wants the business to be respectful neighbors. “The goal is not to put anyone out of business,” she said.
Ms. Williams said she agrees that stripping the neighborhood of these businesses is not the answer. Most of the businesses that residents are unhappy with are small, many owned by immigrants and people of color. Ms. Williams said she worries that cleaning up the area might have overtones of racial injustice. “We’d like to try and get some of the cleaning up and property standard changes done in a way that does not cost people jobs, but makes it a safer environment,” she said.
Businesses Are Not Complying With City Codes
Ms. Fleming said that at the beginning of her term, she tried to work with business- owners so that they could remedy their behavior on their own, but compliance was limited, she said. Now, she and City staff are developing a more comprehensive plan of enforcement.
Deputy City Manager Kelley Gandurski is also working to change the ways businesses operate in the area. Part of the issue, she said, is that landlords are renting space to smaller businesses that are not complying with local ordinances. Landlords are not taking accountability for these businesses, and some landlords are out of state and do not know what is happening on their properties, she said.
After several residents complained about a business that repeatedly lit and extinguished fires, the City led a targeted multi-department investigation and found that the business was operating without a license and was improperly lighting fires, said Ms. Gandurski. With this information, the City declared the business, located at 2221 Keeney St., a nuisance, and the business owner will be held accountable for any more violations, she said. Labeling a business a nuisance helps the City allocate resources to that area, said Ms. Gandurski.
“We need businesses to be operating legitimately and in a healthy way,” said Ms. Gandurski. “We cannot tolerate violations of the law, illegal burning, throwing things into the environment, not maintaining your property, because that has a downhill effect for the rest of the residents.”
Council Member Fleming said it is evident which businesses are being good neighbors and which are not. For instance, employees at Vogue Fabrics, 618 Hartrey Ave., are working to beautify the front of their warehouse, she said. The Vogue Fabrics retail location and warehouse are consolidating, and co-owner Rogie Sussman Faber said Vogue Fabrics’ back lot, which previously stored wooden planks and old equipment, was cleaned up recently, so the space can be used as a parking lot. Ms. Faber also said Vogue added some landscaping and constructed an ADA-accessible pathway. Mr. Schram said he is also happy with Vogue, and he welcomes more retail into the neighborhood.
Council Member Fleming’s Recent Progress
In a recent email to Ninth Ward residents, Council Member Fleming listed a series of first steps, which, she wrote, are long overdue, that the City will take in addressing the area’s environmental injustices. Ms. Fleming’s email said the property at 600 Hartrey Ave. has been declared a nuisance. At this property, renters occasionally shot off fireworks and hosted parties from the building, which is not intended for residential zoning, residents told the RoundTable. Ms. Fleming’s email states that after recent changes, the operator must meet with City departments in order to continue operating.
Cul-de-sacs along Hartrey Avenue will be cleaned to provide a buffer from the commercial area, Aldi is implementing a clean-up plan, City staff must clean up the water standpipe, and the City departments will continue inspecting the area, Ms. Fleming wrote in her email. For residents who have spent decades fighting for change, these are good first steps, though they target only a few of the complaints that residents have.
Help From the Environmental Justice Evanston Committee
In September of 2020, a resident informed the Environmental Justice Evanston Committee of Citizens Greener Evanston of the issues in the Ninth Ward. After speaking with residents and observing the neighborhood themselves, committee members put together a document that lists the business in the area and the issues they are causing for residents. The committee asked residents to review the information, and committee members recorded their own observations, but otherwise the document has not been verified.
City staff, EJE committee members, and residents struggle to connect specific issues, like trash, traffic, and fumes, with specific businesses because most of the businesses are hard to identify or contact. Few of the businesses have websites, phone numbers, or even signs with names. For instance, Pitner Avenue is packed with car lots, but residents said they do not know where one business ends, where the next starts, or what exactly these entities are or do.
Despite the uncertainty over the businesses, the EJE committee’s document helps organize the information collected so far. EJE co-chair Mr. Nelson said he hopes residents can use the document and share it with the City and anyone else in order to fight the injustices in their neighborhoods. The committee also created a playbook, providing residents with steps, links, contacts, and other resources to take action. “Beyond that, we would be certainly supportive of them and answer questions,” said Mr. Nelson. “But in a sense, next steps are really going to be more in their ball court.”
The EJE committee shared the document outlining the Ninth Ward issues with the Evanston RoundTable. With information from ward residents, business owners, City staff, and details from EJE’s document, more details regarding the area’s environmental justice violations and the businesses causing them are included below.
Abandoned Cars on Hartrey and Pitner Avenues
One of the major issues residents on Hartrey Avenue face is the overflow of broken, abandoned, and stolen cars. The property labeled number 5 on EJE’s map is one of several auto shops that overflow with cars. Vehicles fill up the business’ lot, but they also spill out onto the parkway and along Hartrey Avenue, where they are parked without the necessary parking permits.
“There’s an abundance of cars for these auto body shops,” said Mr. Schram. “They should have enough spaces on their lot to accommodate these cars.” The lots in front of the body shops are already packed, bumper-to-bumper, and Mr. Schram said he thinks these businesses should store only cars for which they have room. The number of abandoned cars parked on residential streets should decrease with the Hartrey Avenue zoning changes that Ms. Fleming addressed in her email.
The properties west of Pitner Avenue, labeled 11 and 12 on the map, are also filled with junk cars, and Ms. Fleming said she wants to start re-zoning these properties as well, according to EJE’s document. Metal plates, broken cars, and old equipment litter the property’s lots.
Wind Blows Trash and Dust
In addition to the abandoned cars, the neighborhood is littered with trash. Workers throw bottles and cans out of their windows as they drive down Hartrey Avenue, and people eating lunch outside toss their trash onto people’s property, said Mr. Schram. Ms. Williams said there has also been an increase in the rodent population as a result of the trash.
Heavy winds blow trash from the commercial plaza into the residential streets. Mr. Eliacin said garbage accumulates in his mother’s yard, and even when landscapers come to clean up, by the following day more trash is blown into the backyard. “Since they opened up at Aldi, all the garbage, like plastic bags, cardboard boxes, or whatever garbage, everything blows through our yard,” said Mr. Eliacin.
Wind also blows dust from under the City of Evanston’s south water standpipe, labeled 8 and 9 on the map. The water standpipe was originally an elevated tank, first used in 1931, which held a million gallons of water, said City of Evanston Director of Public Works David Stoneback. The tank was replaced with a 5-million-gallon standpipe in 1983. It is used to help maintain pressure in the water distribution system, and water can be pumped out in the event of a fire, said Mr. Stoneback.
The site of the standpipe is unpaved, and the ground is gravel, not asphalt or concrete. In addition to the gravel ground, the site of the standpipe also stores stones, and gravel. When there is a water-main break and a street has to be excavated, the City uses that gravel to fill the excavation site, said Mr. Stoneback.
Mr. Schram said small dust storms form when heavy equipment pulls out of the lot. Mr. Stoneback said the dust that blows into the residential neighborhood is probably from the site’s unpaved roads. “We are continuing trying to place more and more asphalt out there to remove the gravel that’s present there,” he said.
Heavy Traffic Causes Noise Pollution
In addition to the overflow of cars, trucks constantly drive through the neighborhood, said Ms. Williams. Residents have linked these trucks with the nearby body shops along Hartrey and Pitner avenues, the concrete-mixing company Ozinga, labeled 13 and 14 on EJE’s map, and Builder’s Asphalt, not visible on the map.
Residents have also complained about the noise and speed of City trucks that drive through the area on their way to the water standpipe, said Ms. Fleming. In EJE’s document, residents said when City crews address a water-main break, the trucks blow their air horns for access to the lot. “Unfortunately, water mains don’t only break at convenient hours,” said Ms. Williams.
Mr. Stoneback said he spoke with City employees and reminded them to be mindful of the neighbors. He said he does not think the City trucks are the ones blowing their horns, since the drivers all have keys to the lot, but residents said otherwise.
“One of my biggest aggravations besides the dust storms is the constant beeping,” said Mr. Schram. When the City trucks back up, they make a loud beeping noise, and despite living in his home for decades, Mr. Schram is unable to drown out the noise, he said. When he is already having a bad day and then has to put up with an ongoing beeping sound, it is very frustrating, he said.
Council Member Fleming also acknowledged that the City is responsible for some of the issues resident have faced. “We need to do a better job of being a good neighbor,” she said. “I’ve been speaking to our staff about that. We have to set an example as the City.”
Black Smoke and Fumes
Chemical-smelling fumes waft through the area, and residents aren’t sure where the smells come from and which businesses are responsible. The chimney on Oakton Street that emits black smoke is a concern to several residents, who said they do not know which business it belongs to.
EJE’s document shows that residents have also blamed Ozinga for some smells. The company used to run only in the summer seasons, but in 2015, after approval from the alderperson at the time, Brian Miller, Ozinga switched to year-round production after updating some factory parts.
Ms. Fleming said she has heard from residents who are opposed to Ozinga, but she thinks the businesses is probably the best property owner in the area and may receive more blame because it is one of the larger businesses. Their space is clean, they have updated and improved their equipment, and they provide access points for the Fire Department, she said. The document the EJE committee compiled shows that residents have said the owner is responsive to complaints and is civic-minded.
Builders Asphalt and Evanston Organics, neither of which is shown on EJE’s map, have also been producing foul odors, a resident noted on EJE’s document. The organics are turned over approximately twice a year at Evanston Organics, and when this occurs, an overwhelming odor is generated that residents can smell from their homes. When the business applied to open in the area, residents were told the business would mitigate the odors, and that there would not be any odors or dust. “That is just not true,” said Ms. Williams.
Paula Silva, the office manager at Evanston Organics, said she is aware of a smell that results from the yard waste, but that trucks drive the waste away quickly. She said the company has not received any formal complaints about the odor.
Fearing Another Fire
North Shore Towing, labeled 16 on the map, is where the 2014 explosion occurred. According to the document that EJE committee shared with the RoundTable, residents said this business is not a good neighbor. The lot is dirty and loaded with old cars, and the EJE committee recorded a tank labeled diesel that is not on a spill control pad. EJE’s document shows residents suspect that not all cars in the lot are drained of fuel, so another fire would be extremely dangerous.
North Shore Towing did not respond to any calls or emails from the RoundTable.
Contacting 311 is Tedious, But Helps the City Allocate Resources
Evanstonians can call the City’s non-emergency police department number, 311, to report any environmental concerns, such as smells, sounds, or trash. Ms. Gandurski said she knows it can be frustrating to continuously call 311, but if enough calls are recorded, a business can be labeled a nuisance. She said this is an equitable system that helps decide how the City should use its resources.
Ms. Gandurski said she plans to continue to monitor the area, and she said she wants residents to know that she hears them, and that work will be done to beautify the area, such as planting flowers and ensuring the area remains free of trash. “It takes a community to work together, and we hope that the residents continue to communicate with us,” said Ms. Gandurski.
An Ongoing Fight
Ninth Ward residents, members of the EJE committee, and Council Member Fleming have spoken with business owners, documented environmental justice violations, and led and participated in community walks. Ms. Fleming said she helped some of the unlicensed businesses receive a City license, but these issues are ongoing.
“We as a City have to take responsibility and do the things that we are paid to do, and not leave it to residents to constantly be advocating for change,” said Ms. Fleming.