Should the city of Chicago stop cutting down trees in Jackson Park and the area surrounding the South Shore Cultural Center?
That was the question posed to voters in a smattering of South Side precincts on Tuesday, in the form of a non-binding advisory referendum.
An overwhelming number of ballots — 82% — were cast in the affirmative, according to unofficial totals from the Chicago Board of Elections.
Jeannette Hoyt, rallier-in-chief of the Save Jackson Park movement, acknowledged the referendum lacks the force of law and as such, the victory is largely symbolic. But a message has been sent, she said.
“I hope that when communities speak up, someone will listen,” Hoyt said. “You would hope the politicians would represent the concerns of the people who elected them.”
In Jackson Park, hundreds of trees were cut down to make way for the Obama Presidential Center, and still hundreds more could be lost as part of roadwork tied to the center, she said. Should plans for a proposed Tiger Woods-designed golf course ever move forward in South Shore, thousands of trees would be on the chopping block.
“It’s a huge amount of trees. Some of them are 100 years old, they’re legacy trees,” said Hoyt. “These are mature trees, in their prime oxygen-making years.”
Getting rid of so many trees — and with them the shade they provide, the carbon they store and the air they clean — is an environmental justice and a public health issue, said Hoyt, a long-time educator who also has a master’s degree in public health.
It was the public health aspect, specifically the high rates of asthma among children on the South Side, which compelled Hoyt to spend her weekends knocking on doors and passing out flyers to raise awareness of the ballot measure.
“We just kept pushing. At least now I would hope our aldermanic candidates and mayoral candidates are concerned,” she said.
With Ald. Leslie Hairston having announced her retirement, the Fifth Ward, which represents parts of Hyde Park, South Shore and Woodlawn, will be up for grabs in 2023. Hoyt would like to see candidates participate in forums focused on the environment.
“It just becomes, when do you value trees and when do you not?” she asked.