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Fighting Her Good Fight : Hazel Johnson battles those who want to turn her Chicago housing project into a toxic dump. ‘The people who made this mess know me, and I won’t give ‘em a minute’s peace,’ she says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hazel Johnson loves to show off the neighborhood. But she gives tours with a twist: As the car pulls away from her home at the Altgeld Gardens housing project, visitors are told to shut the windows tight.

“The stink gets pretty bad, and some folks take sick,” she says with a bitter laugh. “So, just mind what you breathe and take in the view.”

Crossing a moonscape of brick rubble and scraggly weeds, Johnson points out steel mills and aging factories spewing smoke into a frozen winter sky. Off to the right are dozens of landfills, contaminated lagoons, a huge chemical waste incinerator, steel slag beds, buried metal drums and piles of loose trash.

When the car passes a busy interstate, Johnson stops on the banks of the Little Calumet River, a foul-smelling slush of green, black and brown. It gurgles by yet another dump, and leads to a sewage treatment plant where the stench from sludge is overwhelming. Nearby, a row of metal-plating shops and paint companies dots the highway like tombstones along a country road.

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They call it the “toxic doughnut,” here on the far southeast side of Chicago. It’s one of the nation’s most polluted urban zones, and it surrounds the 10,000 African-American residents of Altgeld Gardens. Crammed into an isolated project, they’re plagued by high rates of cancer, puzzling birth defects, and the strong belief that nobody else gives a damn.

“Why did they build homes here in the first place?” Johnson sputters, as the car tour ends. “And why doesn’t anybody do something about our health problems? I’ve been here 26 years, and I’m still trying to figure out why.”

For a growing number of scientists and activists, the answer is environmental racism.

Simply put, the poor and people of color bear the brunt of pollution in America. According to one report, three out of five blacks and Latinos live near toxic sites, and the numbers are even higher in congested urban areas, like Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and New York. To those who study the phenomenon, Hazel Johnson’s problems are extreme--but nothing new.

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“This is something that minorities have known for years,” says Robert Bullard, a professor of sociology at UC Riverside and an expert on the subject. “Now the rest of the country is waking up to the fact that people of color are dumped on, literally and politically. Lots of folks are realizing that it’s time to fight back.”

For Hazel Johnson, the fight started long ago. But it’s been a frustrating, uphill struggle, and after years of battling industrial polluters, she’s no closer to a solution. Weaker souls would have given up and moved away, yet Johnson continues to search for answers--even as an estimated 26 million pounds of hazardous air chokes her neighborhood each year.

It all began when her husband died inexplicably of lung cancer in 1969, and she learned that dozens of neighbors also had cancer. Her anger grew when she asked questions and got the runaround from bureaucrats. It erupted when studies showed that more people died of cancer in Altgeld Gardens--a sprawling complex covering 17 blocks--than in other areas of Chicago and the rest of the nation.

Today, Johnson has become a leader of the fledgling environmental justice movement and a thorn in the side of the hazardous waste industry. Last year she won the President’s Environment and Conservation Challenge medal, the nation’s highest such award, and she also hosted seminars at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. She’s traveled across the country, teaching other activists to wage battles against pollution.

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“Hazel is the grandmother of toxics resistance in America and a voice of conscience from the grassroots,” says Gary Cohen, who directs the National Toxics Campaign Fund in Boston. “You don’t get more authentic than her. She’s the real thing, someone who inspires people to take action.”

Even if she can’t get out of bed some mornings. Johnson is poor and in failing health. She doesn’t have a car, and the pipes in her apartment still leak after 26 years. Her seven children are grown, but she’s still torn between her responsibilities as a mother and an activist.

Although prominent organizers welcome her across the country, Johnson struggles to keep the attention on people in Altgeld Gardens. Battered by crime, crack and unemployment, most of them have trouble putting food on the table and don’t worry about landfills.

“Hazel? Yeah, I know Hazel,” says a young mother, dragging three kids through the project to a doctor’s appointment. “But I don’t have time for what she does. It’s all about air, right?”

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Outside Altgeld Gardens, Johnson gets flak from hazardous waste officials, who charge that she’s distorted and sometimes invented cancer statistics to attract attention. Some politicians call her a puppet of radical groups and bitterly attack her antitoxic crusades. And while community leaders in neighboring towns largely praise her involvement, some complain that Johnson has dominated the spotlight, taking attention away from their pollution problems.

“Can’t please everybody,” she mutters, walking into the small office she runs out of a storefront in the project. “I think we’ve done good stuff. And we started from scratch. We’ve had to fight for everything.”

It shows. After a decade of activism, Hazel Johnson is a tired woman who looks older than her 57 years. She’s learned that environmental wars go on forever and that people who expect miracles burn out quickly. She’s resigned herself to the waiting game: Waiting for toxic studies to be completed. Waiting for government to act.

And she’s had some modest victories.

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Since 1982, Johnson and a handful of followers have joined with other groups to block the enlargement of neighborhood landfills. Aided by daughters Cheryl, 32, and Valerie, 25, she’s pushed for a moratorium on new dumps. She’s demonstrated against a chemical waste incinerator in the district and been arrested twice.

Funded by private donations, her organization, People for Community Recovery, runs on a $50,000 budget and has acquired a national reputation for its grass-roots focus. More important, the group has shown that blacks and whites can work together on the environment. Johnson has built bridges to some of Chicago’s most powerful white neighborhood groups, and she stubbornly refuses to let race become a dividing issue.

“We all breathe the same air,” she says simply. “And everybody has to live on this planet. So if the air is lousy where I live, sooner or later it’s gonna get to your home too.”

It’s a cutting-edge concern, one that wins increasing media attention. But winning the war is something else.

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“Oh, we’re down in the dumps, that’s for sure,” Johnson says, chuckling at her own joke. “But the people who made this mess know me, and I won’t give ‘em a minute’s peace.”

Persistent Pattern

It’s early on a frigid morning, and as a TV blares a soap opera in the office, Johnson offers a visitor some black coffee and cheese doodles. She’s a large woman and moves about the room with difficulty because of arthritis in her chest. Some days, she feels like she’s having a heart attack. But that doesn’t stop her from telling jokes about herself. Pretty soon, the whole room is laughing.

“Mercy, it’s cold!” she exclaims. “If I laugh anymore, I’ll bust.”

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Some people, however, don’t think Johnson is a joking matter.

Officials at Waste Management Inc., the nation’s largest hazardous-waste processing company, are openly skeptical about her organizing tactics. They believe she spreads false rumors about their Illinois-based company and relies on malicious gossip instead of scientific data to win converts.

“I listen to Hazel talk at community meetings about babies who died from horrible birth defects, and she just automatically connects that to our company,” complains Mary Ryan, a spokeswoman for the firm. “I say, ‘Hazel, where are your facts? Where is your proof?’ And she doesn’t provide any. She just keeps telling the same old stories. She doesn’t have the facts.”

Maybe not all the facts. But Johnson and others point to a growing body of statistical evidence that they believe shows a persistent pattern of pollution and racism--not only in Chicago, but across the United States.

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There are more than 500 sources of potentially hazardous pollution in southeast Chicago, according to the early results of a study by Gary L. Fowler, a geography professor at the University of Illinois. By one count, some 31 landfills and 22 factories are spewing chemicals like benzene and toluene into the air, plus metallic elements such as arsenic and cadmium.

All are considered cancer-causing. For Johnson, that explained a 1984 study where Illinois officials concluded the area had an excessive rate of prostate, bladder and lung cancer. U.S. government scientists, however, have refused to link the air pollution to life-threatening disease, saying factors like work exposure, ethnicity and smoking habits also could play a role in the data.

Nationwide, the data about race and environment are equally disturbing.

In a 1987 study, the Commission for Racial Justice, an agency of the United Church of Christ, reported that 60% of blacks and Latinos live in communities with uncontrolled toxic-waste sites. Subsequent studies have confirmed the findings, according to Bullard.

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Critics charge that these figures are misleading, saying the locations of hazardous waste operations are chiefly determined by geographical suitability and the cost of land. Whites live near toxic dumps too, they argue, and many minority communities grew near hazardous sites long after they were built.

In Altgeld Gardens, people want to fight back. Yet after 10 years, some wonder what they’re fighting for. Do they want government officials to rid the air of pollution or reduce it dramatically? Or is it a hopeless case, one that can only be solved by finding new homes for 10,000 people?

A Great Migration

More than 100 years ago, the question never even surfaced.

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With its proximity to Lake Michigan, nearby rivers and a major rail system, southeast Chicago became one of the world’s great steel manufacturing centers. It also became an industrial dumping ground for the Midwest.

As the Windy City grew, hundreds of landfills were built in the marshlands just miles from the Indiana border. The area was lightly populated until World War II, so the fumes didn’t seem to matter. But then the metropolis changed.

Between 1940 and 1960, more than 300,000 blacks moved to Chicago, most of them from the South. They were drawn by the promise of jobs, and as their numbers increased, city officials faced a housing crisis. Fueled by massive federal aid, the Chicago Housing Authority began a postwar construction boom.

Yet charity went only so far: Most of the subsidized units were built near black communities or in undeveloped areas, far from whites. It was an ugly issue, and the city was periodically racked by racial violence over housing. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court would rule many years later that Chicago had deliberately kept blacks in segregated areas, the damage had been done.

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When it opened in 1944, city officials said Altgeld Gardens would house factory workers, most of whom just happened to be black. Nobody worried that it was built on a dump once owned by the Pullman railroad company. Billed in one brochure as the “Garden Spot of America,” the 141-acre complex offered “good family living” and “neighborliness.”

It was also in the middle of nowhere, miles from shopping centers and downtown Chicago. And that was by design, according to urban policy experts.

“From a public-policy standpoint, construction of Altgeld Gardens was very questionable,” writes attorney Devereux Bowly in “The Poorhouse” (Southern Illinois University Press), a history of Chicago’s subsidized housing. “It reinforced and extended the precedent of government action to segregate Chicago’s black population--in this case, an isolated location far from established residential sections of the city.”

Eventually, U.S. industry began a steady decline and steel mills started closing in Chicago. But the new arrivals kept coming. In 1962, they included Hazel Johnson and her husband, John.

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Anatomy of An Organizer

“I was always an outspoken kid, with a good independent streak,” Johnson recalls. “People told me to watch my mouth from an early age.”

Born in New Orleans, Hazel was the only one of four siblings who survived beyond the age of 9 months. A headstrong child, she once infuriated her grandmother by declaring that most churchgoers were hypocrites. The word spread fast.

“My daddy didn’t like it no way,” Johnson says with a laugh. “He said, ‘I know you, Hazel. You’re 11 years old. You better watch what you say.’ ”

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Both her parents died when she was young, and Hazel moved with an aunt to Los Angeles when she was 12. She attended Thomas Jefferson High School and returned to New Orleans five years later, living with her grandmother. Less than a year later, she met her husband, a construction worker, and the family eventually moved to the Woodlawn district on Chicago’s South Side, where Johnson’s activism was born.

One day community organizers knocked on her door and persuaded her to join a grass-roots campaign against housing segregation. Although her husband disapproved (“He felt there were too many men at the night meetings,” she jokes), the work excited her. When the family moved several years later to Altgeld Gardens, she plunged into politics again.

But it only lasted a short while, because Johnson clashed repeatedly with project officials. She was a maverick, friends say, and couldn’t get along with bureaucrats. Besides, she had to raise a family, and the would-be activist kept a low profile until tragedy struck in 1969.

John Johnson, a burly man in his 40s, was only an occasional smoker. When he came down with excruciating back pains, doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. But they were mystified as to how he had contracted the disease. His painful death came less than two weeks later, and his widow was dumbfounded. How could he have wasted away so quickly?

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Neighbors sympathized, and soon Hazel Johnson began hearing about other cancer victims in the project. There were other lung ailments, cases of asthma and a rash of sore throats. Mothers told of children with birth defects and an alarming number of miscarriages. On hot summer nights, the stink from nearby dumps was unbearable, and some kids came down with hacking coughs.

Johnson didn’t connect the dots, however, until a television news story in 1979 reported that southeast Chicago had a higher rate of cancer deaths than the city and the rest of the nation. It was time to speak out.

“I wondered why all these things kept happening, and I knew it couldn’t be right,” says Johnson. At a local Environmental Protection Agency meeting, she demanded to know what officials were going to do about pollution. They had no quick answer, but urged her to circulate questionnaires so she could document health concerns in the community.

They handed her 10 forms to fill out, but Johnson photocopied 1,000 copies and distributed them quickly. She came up with stunning results: Hundreds of neighbors reported problems ranging from cancer deaths to respiratory problems. When she presented these findings in public meetings, the media took notice. The EPA, however, demanded more evidence. What Johnson was asking them to do--study an entire area for toxic contamination--was virtually unheard of.

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The government kept hearing from Altgeld Gardens. Soon, Johnson launched People for Community Recovery and began learning the lingo of environmental politics.

“I started out reading in my bedroom at night, and then it got to be so much I moved into the kitchen,” she recalls. “My kids didn’t care much at first, because they said I didn’t know what I was talking about. But when the media began coming around, they changed their mind.”

So did politicians. In 1986 Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, visited the housing project at Johnson’s urging. He promised to ban future landfills in the neighborhood, and progress began.

But the central problem remained.

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“We never got that one study which showed us how the pollution around here causes all the cancer,” says Johnson. “We’re still waiting for it.”

Playing the Waiting Game

On a freezing night, the wait continues.

Johnson and members of other community groups have gathered at a local bank to meet with federal officials and discuss the area’s health problems. It’s been two years since the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control, first responded to pleas for more toxic research. Now, officials say, it might be another two years before they finish an estimated $400,000 study.

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The news hits the people in the room with a thud.

“Can’t we do something more political to get this thing moving?” complains Salim al-Nurridin, a member of the citizens’ advisory group studying the problem. “If this was dinner, I’d be starving by now.”

Johnson sits quietly, saying little. But when officials talk about plans to monitor pollution, she speaks up.

“You make sure they do this on the weekends and not just during the working days,” she insists. “That’s when all the polluters around here do their real work. When they think nobody’s watching.”

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“See you in four months,” says an official, referring to the next scheduled meeting. “We’ll have more information then.”

“Yeah, right,” sighs Johnson, sinking into a neighbor’s car.

The wait continues into the next day, this time at the Chicago Housing Authority. Officials there have heard that Johnson won a medal from the President of the United States. They’d like to congratulate her. Could she spare an hour and come downtown?

Along with daughter Cheryl, Johnson is ushered into the office of Robert Whitfield, the authority’s chief operating officer. With embarrassment, he tells her that he didn’t know much about her work until recently.

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That’s all she needs to hear. Johnson tells him the whole story, beginning with her husband’s death and leading up to the current impasse. Can he help the people at Altgeld Gardens? What’s he willing to do?

“The environmental problems at Altgeld are longstanding,” he answers. “And we’d like to support any kind of inquiry as to what the full nature of the problem is. It certainly isn’t a typical living situation.”

The two women exchange glances, then press on. They need to guarantee funding for the federal study. And what about the contaminated soil in the project? Will there ever be an improvement?

Whitfield offers no quick solutions. After all, these things take time.

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“It’s hard to get folks out there concerned about all this,” he explains. “They say, ‘Forget about the damn environment and fix my water pipes.’ They may not get involved until they see people dropping dead in front of them.”

The meeting ends and Whitfield shakes Johnson’s hand. He promises more meetings and invites her to address housing officials in the next few weeks. If there’s anything else the city can do, he adds, please call.

Out in the lobby, Johnson puts on her coat with difficulty and stares at the floor, lost in thought. It takes an eternity for the elevator to arrive.

“I’ve been waiting 10 years for a meeting like this,” she says, sounding exhausted. “And what do I get out of it? Another meeting, that’s what.”

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