COVID-19 Across Chicago: South Chicago

South Chicago and other neighborhoods on the city’s Southeast Side have long battled environmental issues and pollution from heavy manufacturing in the area. 

Now, the neighborhood is facing the additional threats of both COVID-19 and long-term property destruction after many businesses were looted last week. 

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

On Commercial Avenue, the community’s main commercial strip, nearly every building was still boarded up Tuesday, many of them entirely wiped out from looting. Some also sustained structural damage from fires. 

Interactive: More from our series, COVID-19 Across Chicago.

Area business leaders say food establishments were largely spared – but retail was wiped clean.

“We had a number of businesses, 16 retail merchandise businesses that were broken into, and quite honestly the looting was almost complete. The stores were virtually empty,” said David Price, of the Commercial Avenue Special Service Area #5. 

Hyman’s Hardware Store and Auto Body has been in the neighborhood for 93 years. Owner Dave Hyman says police were able to stave off a complete emptying of the shop.

The same can’t be said for the Mission Cannabis Dispensary just across the street. 

Employees say bands of looters showed up and stole their entire inventory of marijuana. Owners say the losses are in the six figures, but they do have insurance and hope to reopen later this summer. 

Still, when they got word that the neighborhood was starting to see looters, they knew their store would be a target. 

“Bats, tire irons, axes, hatchets … anything that they could use to get into the facility, and ultimately they were successful,” said Gabriel Mendoza, the dispensary’s vice president of operations. 

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward) described a scene of “utter chaos.”

“It wasn’t a protest, it wasn’t an uprising, it was just complete anarchy,” said Garza, who represents South Chicago in Chicago’s City Council. “People throwing bowling balls through windows, cars driving through the bank, squad cars on fire. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen before.”

Video: We speak with Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza.

At the same time, area leaders are praising efforts by the community to come together and clean up the damage.

But with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, many residents are doubly on edge. South Chicago’s zip code has seen 1,122 confirmed coronavirus cases, a relatively high number compared to other neighborhoods. 

The local Chicago Family Health Center has been testing around the clock in the community, and says nearly 100% of their patients have underlying conditions, like hypertension and diabetes, that can make COVID-19 more serious.

The property destruction and pandemic come on top of a decadeslong struggle for environmental justice across the Southeast Side. 

One of the most recent flashpoints has been the relocation of the General Iron to the area, a scrap metal recycling company slated to move later this year near 116th Street and Burley Avenue along the Calumet River.

Local activists opposing the move say their neighborhood isn’t just being ignored by elected officials, but actively used as a “sacrificial zone.” 

“We’re not here to be a part of revitalization but to accommodate revitalization. And so that’s exactly what we’re doing. Our community has not been revitalized at all,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force. “We get the eyesores, we get the polluting industries, we get the truck traffic, we get everything that no other community would want.” 

Video: Watch our full interview with Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Follow us on Twitter: @paschutz / @rquinnmyers

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors