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Chemical (Re)actions

The Goethe-Institut Chicago presents a new project that enables artistic exchanges responding to critical sites of environmental and social conflict in Chicago. This platform transforms the toxic and educational tours given by local organizations into virtual content as a way to generate engagement with larger questions regarding pollution, industry, the environment, segregation and social equity. 


Chemical (re)actions pilsen tour square© Goethe-Institut/Rosario E. Zavala
Altgeld Gardens Desk© Goethe-Institut/Rosario E. Zavala
Altgeld Gardens© Goethe-Institut/Rosario E. Zavala

In the city of Chicago, notorious for its extensive redlining practices and the production of highly segregated neighborhoods, there is a 30-year gap in life expectancy between the Streeterville and Englewood neighborhoods, the largest in the nation. Poor public health statistics are also a measure in part of environmental injustices, when poorer and racialized neighborhoods are saddled with toxic emissions and contamination, lack of green space, heat islands, and overall disproportionate health hazards.

Grassroots organizers have responded to these abuses, and they have had many victories. In order to support their work, many organizations gave toxic and educational tours as a way to educate the public about these injustices and their campaigns. Now in the time of Covid and social distancing, when these tours have largely stopped, Chemical (Re)actions makes some of this information available remotely and invites artists, activists, designers and filmmakers to respond to these legacies and strategies as propositional methods for further inquiry on the limits and potentialities of the tactics proposed by these groups.

On December 14, 2020, Chemical (Re)actions will launch The Tactical Gardens, an open call for video essays to engage with the legacy of Hazel Johnson, the community of Altgeld Gardens and the work of People for Community Recovery. Programming will continue into 2021 with panel discussions, lectures, and virtual screenings in collaboration with selected artists, environmental rights organizations.

Tactical Garends Open Call© People For Community Recovery Archives

Chemical (Re)Actions: On Environmental Struggles in Chicago, a project by the Goethe-Institut, launches an open call for video essays to engage with the legacy of Hazel Johnson, the community of Altgeld Gardens and the work of People for Community Recovery.The Tactical Gardens is the first of three platforms exploring questions of pollution, remediation, class struggles, segregation, industry and real estate development in collaboration with environmental activist groups in the city.

The Tactical Gardens invites artists, designers, architects, writers, filmmakers, community organizers and activists to engage with the history of Altgeld Gardens and to further explore the ways in which we think and deal with environmental injustice, racism, inequality and toxic burdens for minoritized communities around the globe and in the city of Chicago.

Three works will be selected by a jury of curators and members of the community organizations and will be shown in a virtual screening hosted by the Goethe-Institut Chicago.

Open Call details and submission guidelines


On Jan 19, we discussed Environmental Activism and the Arts in South America with Argentine curator and arts researcher Leandro Martinez Depietri and Chemical (Re)actions curator and artist Alberto Ortega Trejo on Instagram Live.

Sites of Engagement

Built between 1944 and 1945, the public housing development Altgeld Gardens was originally intended for Black U.S. Americans returning from WWII and factory workers. Once promoted as “The Garden Spot of America,” Altgeld Gardens became known as ‘the toxic donut’ due to the overwhelming concentration of landfills and industrial facilities surrounding the housing project. Hazel M. Johnson founded People for Community Recovery in 1979 and began decades of work mobilizing her community and confronting both corporate polluters and the Chicago Housing Authority.

She and her collaborators successfully held the CHA accountable for asbestos removal from Altgeld Gardens and all public housing projects, brought city water lines to the residents of Maryland Manor, achieved a moratorium on landfill expansion, shutdown municipal incineration and helped to achieve a federal commitment to environmental justice principles through the signing of the Executive Order #12898 in 1994 by President Clinton. 

Throughout this time, PCR cultivated community training programs to educate residents on environmental subjects specific to living in a zone of contamination. After School Matters trained teens in culinary and horticultural skills, while Minority Worker Training taught skills for working safely with hazardous materials. Programming topics have also included photography, gardening, and lead safety. Hazel Johnson died in 2011, and was succeeded by her daughter Cheryl who continues her work and carries her legacy.  

The Tactical Gardens
Pilsen is one of Chicago’s most vibrant and thriving working class immigrant communities—it is currently a recognized center of Midwestern U.S. Mexican immigrant life and culture. It has been an immigrant working class neighborhood since the mid-19th century, with an industrial history that is a source of pride and also pollution that adversely affects the health of residents. For most of Pilsen’s history, it was dominated by the presence of the Fisk coal-fired power plant, one of only two coal power plants in the country to be located within the city limits of a major urban center (the other being the Crawford plant in neighboring Little Village). Before successfully getting the coal plant closed, residents initially banded together in 2004 to investigate suspicious emissions from a brass and metals recycling smelter. Their testing efforts eventually revealed lead levels in nearby soil to be 8 times higher than the EPA limits. Lead also turned up in former industry lots where children played, and in former railway passages, and also as an unintended byproduct of changing out Chicago’s leaded water mains—the worst documented lead line problem in the nation.

Now, this stretch along the I-55 industrial corridor has been gentrifying and shifting economies. The competing interests of heavy industry, affordable housing, retail and public health are only a few of the stakeholders who will decide the future of a neighborhood. 

Community Organizations

The project is a cooperative effort with People for Community Recovery, an original founder in the environmental justice movement in this country, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, who have fought successful campaigns against lead pollution in the air, soil and water; and Friends of the Chicago River, who work to improve the health of 156-mile Chicago River system which includes the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, widely known as Bubbly Creek.

Project concept and coordination by Joshi Radin and Alberto Ortega Trejo.

People For Community Recovery Logo © People For Community Recovery

People For Community Recovery

People for Community Recovery (PCR) is a non-profit environmental organization found by the late Hazel M. Johnson (Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement).

P.E.R.R.O Logo © P.E.R.R.O


PERRO stands for Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. It is a grassroots community group of Pilsen residents that formed in 2004 to fight the disproportionate amount of pollution in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Friends of the Chicago River Logo © Friends of the Chicago River

Friends of the Chicago River

Friends of the Chicago River is an award-winning nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve and protect the Chicago River for people, plants and animals. Friends works to make the river healthier and more accessible, while building awareness of the benefits that a clean, healthy river can bring to the surrounding community.

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