‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: West Chicago


In DuPage County, the COVID-19 case rate among Latino residents is more than two times higher than for non-Latinos. Certain pockets of DuPage County have been hit harder by the pandemic than others.

Near the top of that list is West Chicago, a community where half the residents are Latino.

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What’s now West Chicago was once Turner Junction. The town was established where early railroad routes converge.

West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda said back in the day, livestock raised in the area were transported via rail to Chicago’s stockyards. Today the old livestock area comprises the 358-acre West Chicago Forest Preserve.

“It’s one of the largest natural prairies in the state of Illinois and one of the largest prairies in the country, so it has a lot of native plants from Illinois, so it’s just beautiful,” Pineda said. “So it went from a stockyard to one of the most glorious and beautiful prairies that you can imagine.”

Pineda is nine years into his term as mayor and 60 years – all but his first years of life – into living in West Chicago. That means he’s surely attended his fair share of Railroad Days, the city’s annual celebration of its beginnings, held each July.

On Monday he announced that out of concern for the coronavirus, West Chicago is canceling both Railroad Days and the downtown garden festival Blooming Fest, which would typically be held in May, this year.

West Chicago has an active garden club. The community's also part of an effort to save pollinators, including monarch butterflies which have a special connection to the town.

“A lot of our population is from Michoacan and that’s where the butterfly migrates to every year,” said Pineda.

As for COVID-19, West Chicago was hit hard with nearly 4,000 cases in the 60185 ZIP code. The mayor says it wasn't until recently that the positivity rate dropped below 10%.

But he’s working to turn that around. On Wednesday, West Chicago hosted a mass vaccination clinic, and some 2,000 residents got their first shots.

State Sen. Karina Villa says the reason for that high caseload of COVID-19 is because residents are the workforce for nearby warehouses and manufacturing facilities.

“Many of the employees of those manufacturing companies come right here from town. It’s something we’re very proud of to contribute to our economy in that way,” Villa said. “But as you know some of these factories were bad actors. They did not take care of their employees.

She didn't call out specific bad actors.

A lot of businesses are located here. Those Fla-vor-ice popsicles? They're from West Chicago’s Jel-Sert. Ball Horticultural Company ships seeds around the globe. And the mayor says after local governments got together with an incentive package, a tech park is now bursting.

Lakeshore Recycling Systems already has a facility in the industrial part of the city. But there's talk of an expansion that LRS plans to build a waste transfer station.

The company is keeping quiet, saying only: “We have nothing to discuss at this time regarding our West Chicago facility as we have not filed for an application and have not made a decision whether or not to do so.”

But a well-organized group of opponents are fighting it.

Among them, Maria Correa a longtime resident and realtor, who’s concerned that it'll decrease property values and scare off would-be homebuyers.

“People who want to move in they usually check everything: the schools, what else is in West Chicago and looking at a second transfer station – garbage transfer station. That will definitely have an impact – negative impact for people who want to move in to West Chicago,” said Correa.

Eduardo Lopez says he’s worried about the odor. There’s another waste transfer station already, Groot, and Lopez says it smells.

“(West Chicago) is getting garbage from other towns,” Lopez said in Spanish.

Lopez asks why LRS isn’t looking at communities like Glen Ellyn and Oakbrook, but answers his own question. He says it's because they wouldn't stand for it, and because West Chicago is heavily Latino.

But Villa says she’s done her research and she supports the expansion, as it'd mean solid, good-paying jobs.

“The thing that’s really important is that people should note it’s a transfer station. The garbage that comes in is going to be sifted through – recyclables will be sent to be recycled – and the other materials will immediately be put in containers and shipped out,” she said.

Villa is full of pride for the town in which she was born and raised. She says she plans to advance bills to help constituents most affected by COVID-19, including workers' right legislation.

Meanwhile, the mayor's next missions are revitalizing downtown and focusing on the next generation. West Chicago is home to an early childhood center that serves families within 100% of the federal poverty line.

“Our mission is to prevent the achievement gap that’s between different socioeconomic classes,” said Marcela Sweeney of Educare West DuPage. “So we serve the most under resourced children and families because we believe all children deserve quality access in the first five years of life.”

Educare takes a comprehensive approach, including family engagement and support for parents like resume building and help getting access to food. It’s a dual-language school with two out of three teachers in classrooms are bilingual.


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.

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