#683: A Bit of Hope by Where the River Caught Fire

September 7th, 2016

The globe is black and white, paved with little cars.

The fiddly bits around the metal plate continents were detailed in Micro Machines; larger Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars made up the infinite oceans. A man-sized statue planet Earth of old toy trucks, buses, hot rods, cement mixers, fire engines, limos — I think I saw a Batmobile in there.

The statue globe was painted checkerboard black and white. The silvery mental plate continents bore eco-friendly messages for those passing by the recycling scrapyard across the street.

Africa says “Rechargeable batteries can be used many times before they need to be thrown away. Americans throw out 179,000 tons of batteries a year.” South America says “Glass can be recycled forever but if put into the landfill it would take 4000 years or more to decompose.”

Hawaii just says “Aloha.”

And circling this planet of junk toys and reclaimed steel, red letters like you might find in a 1950s-themed drive-in. The letters, one or two of which were bent, spell out “REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE.”

The statue is a promise, a pledge that good jobs and good environment are friends here. It’s a bit of hope that things might turn out OK by the recycling scrapyard across the street.

The hope itself is, of course, hopeless.

The smelly, messy scrapyard is part of the gentrifying Second Ward, a mishmash map created in 2011 to swoop up 15 potentially redevelopable industrial sites and keep them away from longtime Alderman Bob Fioretti.

Now that Finkl steel is gone to the north and developers are sniffing around the recycling center, the city is suddenly cracking the whip on violations it let go for years.

Recycling is loud, smelly, noxious and not a good neighbor, more junk scrappers and construction workers looking for paychecks than lovely hippies, like, saving Mother Earth, man. Faced with the Not In What I Have Suddenly Decided Is My Back Yard crowd, North Side industry is being wished away to that magical “elsewhere” some seem to think life’s grodier things, jobs and people go when Mother Market decides a spot of city is gotta gotta have have.

Environmental injustice is a thing, and a horrible one. The areas around power plants, brownfields, petcoke heaps are almost homogeneously longtime low-income black and brown neighborhoods struggling for decades to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

Certain classes decide to move into an industrial area and, with a snap of the finger and the right alderman, the industry gives up, heading off to elsewhere.

But that’s not the topic. The topic is hope.

Hope requires a lot of caveats. It requires assertions you’re not na├»ve or uneducated on the topic or just plain stupid. It requires a pledge that, yes, you do understand others’ suffering is greater than yours and, yes, you do understand the size and scope of the issue at hand.

Hope has become a thing you have to apologize for before people will listen.

But I’ve got a little hope, and it’s not from that statue.

I tipped my hand more than a little bit with the title of this story. When I found the globe, I was coming back from one of the spots the Chicago River caught fire.

It was June 1899, and the second time in as many months that oily scum on the surface of the water went up in flames. June’s fire was a smaller affair than April’s waterfire, only $200 worth of damage compared to April’s $4,400. That’s $5,700 vs. $126,000 in today’s cash.

The river doesn’t catch fire anymore.

We reversed the river’s flow and rerouted whole swaths and did other damn fool things we’re still paying for today, but our water hasn’t caught fire in a long time. And that’s enough hope for me.

I just deleted three paragraphs of caveats no one was asking for but me. There were adjustments in there for Chinese factory conditions and the free market and international accords — there was even a bit alluding to competitive trade advantages in the post Clean Air Act economy.

But it was nonsense. My hope isn’t based on reality. It’s based on the human notion that if we don’t grip onto even the smallest bit of hope, we’ll say “Oh well that’s life” and wallow in our own filth, thinking ourselves savvy and wise.

I think it can get better, that jobs and steel and, yes, even rich people’s condos can find a way to coexist, if not happily then at least with a grumbling peace. I think it because I have to, because if I give up I’m ensuring the worst outcome.

So I hold onto my silly hopes, my Matchbox statues and flaming rivers. I hold onto anything to assure myself it will be OK so that there’s a shot it will be OK.

We really have no other choice.

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A man who cared about the water

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