Medill Newsmakers: North Lawndale organizers hope to beautify the community

North Lawndale
A vacant lot filled with trash in the North Lawndale neighborhood. (Amber Cooper/MEDILL).

By Amber Cooper 

Medill Reports

Litter-Free Lawndale is a beautification campaign occurring on the West Side of Chicago. Residents and community organizers hope to beautify the neighborhood through clean-up days, gardening and the implementation of more receptacles. Littering is an issue that has plagued North Lawndale for years, and residents are ready for a change. External Affairs Manager Andrea Lee and resident Jay Simon offer their advice on what the next steps should be. 

Video Transcript: 

Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. I’m your host Amber Cooper. On today’s show, I’ll be discussing a litter-free campaign on the West Side of Chicago. Community members in the North Lawndale neighborhood have come together to turn litter-free Lawndale into a reality. Lawndale was originally home to a Jewish community, but in the 1960s during the second wave of the Great Migration, a large group of African Americans began to move into the area. At that time, we begin to see a sharp decline in investments in the community. Today, racist housing policies, crime and overall poverty plague North Lawndale. And to no surprise, littering is tied to these issues. In the next 15 minutes, you’ll learn more about community efforts and the goals of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, also known as NLCCC and what they’re hoping to accomplish. I spoke with External Affairs Manager Andrea Lee where she works with community partners to provide support. 

COOPER: Can you just tell me a little about GROWSS and NLCCC and what that all means?

LEE: Sure, so NLCCC stands for the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, and it was created in 2018 to execute the quality-of-life plan that was created by North Lawndale residents through a community planning process. So the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council is comprised of I think about a dozen different committees addressing areas of the quality-of-life plan. So the greening and open-space section is now overseen by our subcommittee, which we call GROWSS, which is short for greening, open space, water, soil and sustainability.

COOPER: So were you connected with the Litter-Free Lawndale through UCAN, or did you come up with the idea on your own?

LEE: Litter-Free Lawndale so like in the greening and open space part of the quality-of-life plan litter is like explicitly called out as part of part of our charge. So you know, we’ve been talking about it lightly for, you know, a few years, just kind of addressing other areas. We’re also working on community gardens and producing fruits and vegetables that can be given out to community members and then also packaged for value, added products that can be sold in community stores. But yeah, like we decided that we needed to really focus on the litter, like the litter is bad, like people always complain about it, so we just did it. Like we just hosted a meeting, you know, we hosted our first community meeting about two months ago and got good response, hosted a second one about a month ago and then we’ll do some follow-up. But there are so many different people who come out to say like, “We’re really interested, like, how can we be a part of it.” You know, like people from different parts of the city, like somebody from Friends of the Parks who said, “I lead cleanups all the time, like how can I be of assistance?” So it’s fun to see that one issue can like really unite a lot of people and get people like out and active, so yeah, so I think it’s going be a fun thing. 

COOPER: Yeah, and I love how you said a bunch of community members are active and really want to help out. Has the city been helpful in any way, or have you all had a chance to incorporate how the city can be helpful towards this campaign?

LEE: Yeah, it’s, um, it’s a little early to know. I know that Alderman Scott who, you know who’s the alderman for most of North Lawndale, is very interested in the topic of litter and wanting to do more, and I actually saw him last week. He was at UCAN, and I mentioned this to him, and he was like, “Yes, yeah, I’m on board.” And so he also has his like Streets and Sanitation lead who was like working in different parts of the community. They did put it in about 75 new trash cans like street trash cans, which is a good start. So they’re like trying to keep up with the trash that’s being collected there. I think there are a lot of reasons that trash is a bigger issue in North Lawndale than it might be in like, you know, Lincoln Park. I think one of it is that there are so many vacant lots and so, you know, those few people who if it was a house, like somebody living there, then they would like pick up the things that are in front of their house. But there’s nobody there right? So there’s, yeah, like there are a lot of causes. But we think that we’re going to tackle, you know, it’s going to be like a broad campaign with a lot of different facets like marketing and more receptacles, more interaction with the city, you know, asking them to like really do their part. But it’s also like behavior change, and yeah, like giving people the tools they need to be successful, like, you know, having cleanup tools or even like having reusable receptacles that people can hang on their fence posts or something that they can put in their car that they can put the little pieces in. So yeah, we’re ready for all of it. 

COOPER: I’m glad that you also brought up like the difference in the litter issue on West Side communities versus seeing them like, say, Oak Park or North Side communities, and I always wondered like, anytime I would go to Oak Park, I’m just like “wow,” like because the streets once you cross over and one street, you can automatically see the difference, and I’m just like, “Wow, I really wonder what is it like, what’s it going to take?” And I do agree that it begins with like community members. It begins with like, like you said, it’s behavioral and changing. At this point, it’s become a habit. So it’s like, how do we break those habits with people and so?

LEE: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a psychological element to it, too, because in Oak Park there are much higher rates of homeownership than there are on the West Side for like all of the reasons that we know about, like all of the laws that were in place that prevented Black people from owning things. So you know, like, if, if I didn’t own my home, then I don’t know if I would care the same way for it, right? Like I don’t think that you know, like, you just don’t have the same attention for the thing, whatever it is. 

COOPER: I also want to know, like, what are some of the goals moving forward that you have for GROWSS, and like where do you really see this? Well, if you can, the ideal end goal for this campaign, what do you envision?

LEE: Oh, I would say that the people are like people really feel like North Lawndale is their community. So if they see somebody else littering, they would say, like, “Don’t throw that down. Like this is, you know, this is where we live. So, like, you know, find a place for that.” And I would also love to see enough places where, like enough receptacles such that if you’re walking on the street and you have like trash in your hand, that you don’t have to carry it or like put it in your bag or that there’s there is a place for that, too, because, you know, like you walked on Michigan Avenue, there are plenty of trash cans. So I, yeah, that’s what I would, that’s what I would like to see.

COOPER: I also had the opportunity to speak with a long-term resident of the community, Jay Simon, and this is what he had to say.

COOPER: As a resident, how do you feel about littering in the community? What’s your perspective on that?

SIMON: Well, I feel like, you know, it’s one, I don’t like it, first and foremost. Being from the West Side, I’m a proud West Side resident. But you know, I have a lot of friends in different areas in south suburbs, south, South Side, North Side, and always one of the jokes that they will talk about is how dirty the West Side is, you know, and that really bothers me even though I know it’s like a joke, you know that we do like. Because West Side and South Side people always compare and contrasting, but at the end of the day is like, I live here, you know, and I realize like, you know, your outside environment is it leaks over into your inside environment. You know what I mean? So it’s like, you know, when I go to other areas like Oak Park or Andersonville, I see the pride of them being like, “I’m from Oak Park,” and you know, how clean that area be. And it’s like, it makes it comfortable for people to feel like that environment or feel that vibe of like, like clean, and so cleaning up is a big deal to me. And you know, last year we did. I took some photos of like we had a campaign. Well, we had a day where the alderman had like put the word out of like a cleanup day. Everybody from around the city came out, and it was great. But my issue was that it’s like all right, a couple days later it was dirty, you know? I mean, so it’s like, how do we go from like, PR photo optics like, yeah, we cleaning it up to like now we really get to plan the action to really change the narrative and thought of these as an effective solution towards cleaning up, and I haven’t felt like anyone has presented something like that. And like hopefully, what I have to offer is welcomed by the committee by the alderman, by whoever that needs to hear it, because I really want to see a change in the West Side, and it bothers me that it’s dirty like that. And it’s like, “Well, if it bothers you, what are you doing about it to change it?” Another thing that I see is like, a learned behavior, you know, like it being dirty on the West Side is it didn’t happen overnight. Like the complex that we see with the old versus the young and blaming, like that Willie Lynch Syndrome, where there’s like, “Ooh, it’s the young people’s fault, they the ones that’s littering,” which may be true, not to take that away, but where did the young people learn it from? Right. Because those older people were young people at some point that were doing the same thing. Where do we learn these things from? So instead of bashing, it’s like what? So how do we embrace the young, how do we as elders, support, you know, their innovative ideas and get behind it and do this together? That’s really what I want to see, and I feel like us, you, me, our age group, can gel -like people that are younger and people that are older, and bring them together.

COOPER: Do you think that those are all the elements that are needed for it to make a change?

SIMON: I think that it’s really going to take a consistent effort. You know, I mean, like, a lot of times, you know, dealing with who’s the person, you know, people do things for optics, you know what I mean, like, “We did a good job, you know, like, yeah, we had a cleanup day,” but it’s like, there needs to be more than that. Like, there needs to be a consistent, you know, like one of the things that I feel is like in order to change their behavior, there needs to be a consistent effort of people seeing people clean up monthly. You know like youth, young people, parents with babies, like on a consistent basis, and then like each block we as a collective need to identify people that live on that block that say, “Hey, I want to take this up and lead the charge and make sure that we continue to do this on our block.” Like, if it’s not that, then we’ll never see — we’ll always see the West Side in the jokes about it being dirty and being junky and being unclean. Like there’s going to take that change and then like us, making a consistent effort to go out and put boots to ground and make it happen and request certain things, and so that’s really what I feel like.

COOPER: And so what would you like to see come out of the litter-free campaign? Like what’s that ultimate end -goal for you in your eyes?

SIMON: I would like to see a real thought–out plan, you know, and a consistent plan, you know. I don’t want to see aldermen or just different officials just do it because it’s something that’s cool, that’s hot, that they can get behind one time. I want to see like a three-month plan of action of like “All right which communities are we going to clean up, what days you know are we going to go out here?” You know, I want to see like it’s almost like a real marketing campaign, where you see yard signs about cleaning up. You see people passing out flyers and promo information, you see us wearing T-shirts, how cleaning up it’s a real thing like, “Whoa, what is this?” That’s what I kind of envision, you know, and then identifying like, you know, the needs of the people and what they want to see. Like my unit was talking about like a community, like market research, like feedback, where like community members can come out and talk about how they feel in different age groups, again like targeting millennials, baby boomers, Gen Y, like different age groups, to see how they feel you know about the litter. Do they litter? If they do litter, why litter? You know what I mean? Like just really engagement with neighbors and some pro-action-oriented steps.

COOPER: Littering is an issue that won’t disappear overnight. People like Andrea Lee and Jay Simon continue to bring attention to the matter. Thanks for joining me on this episode of Medill Newsmakers, I’m Amber Cooper.

Amber Cooper is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @AmbsBCooper