Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen people to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Journalist and Author – Closing the Cloud Factories, Mayor 1% and more
Kari Lydersen is a journalist who writes about working-class issues in Chicago and has published five books. Her most recent one, Closing the Cloud Factories, chronicles the grassroots movement to close the coal plants in Pilsen and Little Village.
Kari grew up in California but came to Chicago on a swimming scholarship. While at Northwestern University, she developed an interest for writing and eventually became a reporter for the Washington Post’s Chicago Bureau.
Her tenure at the Washington Post lasted 12 years before moving on to StreetWise Newspaper. It changed the direction of her journalism because it was like “a crash course in social justice issues.” She met people who were doing effective community organizing and since then she has gravitated toward these stories. Writing about immigrant rights and other social issues “naturally led [her] to Pilsen in many cases.”
In the year 2000, Kari started hanging out at the now-shuttered La Decima Musa restaurant, a popular meeting place for Pilsen activists. She made many friends and five years later she moved to the neighborhood.
She first covered the coal plants when she wrote for the website Midwest Energy News. There she broadened her understanding of the politics of environmental justice and also learned about the joint campaign by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. “The most interesting thing about the coal plant story is LVEJO’s and PERRO’s roles and how it became an internationally-known struggle.”
As the stories of the Crawford and Fisk plants gained wider media attention, larger groups joined the struggle and caused some misunderstandings with the local groups. Kari worries that community voices may be left out of the conversation once private companies move forward with the plants’ re-purposing.
In 2014 she released the book Mayor 1% during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term, where she argues the unbalanced way the city serves working-class communities and wealthy ones. “Three quarters of the neighborhoods have been marginalized by the mayor and hurt by his policies,” she said, “And Pilsen is one of them. But Rahm has made real attempts to show that he has Pilsen’s support.”
Kari currently manages a social justice news program out of Medill’s School of Journalism to encourage neighborhood journalists to publish stories from a community perspective.
Pilsen has become her community, “I feel especially grateful that I’ve been made to feel welcome,” but she believes gentrification is a huge issue and a complex one. “To see that struggle unfolding, and to see Pilsen trying to hold on to its identity, I hope it continues to be like that and not something unrecognizable, homogenized and upscale.”
You can read Closing the Cloud Factories online for free: English / Spanish
Interview by Jackie Serrato
Photo by Jackie Serrato