As the predominantly-Mexican Little Village neighborhood continues to grapple with the aftermath of the 2020 botched demolition, Chicago Department of Buildings (DOB) Commissioner Marlene Hopkins is working on reparative measures including a forthcoming public meeting in July to address lingering concerns from the community.

Hopkins reached out to The TRiiBE on June 18 to share her side of the story for the first time, following the release of The TRiiBE’s special feature about Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Black leaders in his administration, which mentions her involvement in overseeing the demolition as managing deputy commissioner for the DOB. In March, Johnson appointed her to lead the Buildings Department; the decision was met with concern from community residents.

Hopkins told The TRiiBE that no media outlet had asked her about DOB’s role in the Hilco implosion.

“All of the articles that have been written were based on what was read and what was said [in the report],” Hopkins said. She’s referring to the 2023 report in which the city’s inspector general report recommended disciplinary action against Hopkins, Buildings Department chief inspector Jorge Herrera, and Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) assistant commissioner Dave Graham.

“No one has ever reached out to say, ‘can you tell us what the Department of Buildings role was?’” Hopkins added. 

During former mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, city leaders approved the smokestack implosion at the Crawford Coal Plant in 2020, but residents received just a few days’ notice before the demolition. The implosion happened on April 11, 2020 amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Dust from the implosion covered the neighborhood, posing a risk to residents’ health and safety.

Hilco was fined $68,000 by the city in 2020 and was also sued by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul that same year. That lawsuit was settled in November 2020 and required Hilco to pay $370,000 toward a fund to support community health and wellness.

Hopkins said the CDPH was responsible for dust mitigation after the implosion, as required by law under the Environmental Protection Agency Act. 

“Our role [in the Buildings Department] was to review the implosion plan to ensure the stack landed in the designated area,” Hopkins said. “The community is right to feel strongly about what happened because it shouldn’t have happened. There should have been dust mitigation plans in place and followed.”

Hopkins likened the process to a relay race with the Buildings Department’s leg of the race being an implosion plan and the CDPH handling the next phase, dust mitigation.

“My team would have been out there ahead of time and made sure that there was proper water on the ground and that they had proper dust mitigation measures in place, but that was not our role and that was not our responsibility,” she added. 

Hopkins empathized with Little Village residents, mentioning her father, a U.S. Air Force veteran who died as a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Hopkins said he worked at the now-shuttered South Works steel mill in South Chicago, and at the O’Hare Airport.

Chemicals that are released during steel production, including lead and arsenic, have been linked to different kinds of cancers and chronic diseases

“All of those were things had a high risk for environmental injustice,” she said, referring to his jobs working in the steel mill and at the airport. “Chemicals from the steel mill, the lead fuel, we all know lead fuel causes respiratory challenges and health problems. I am the first to empathize with them, and if the building department had any involvement or any role to play with dust mitigation, things would have been done from a different perspective.”

Today, the environmental impact of the demolition is still being felt by the community, according to Little Village resident and LVEJO senior transition organizer Edith Tovar. Prior to the demolition, LVEJO and other community groups expressed concerns about it because it was in the height of the COVID-19, which is a respiratory disease. Residents were confined to their homes due to the mandatory stay-at-home order, and toxins from the demolition were in the air. 

“Many of our neighbors have long-term health conditions. We’re hearing directly from our neighbors how they’ve developed respiratory illnesses based on how close they were living to the site,” Tovar told The TRiiBE. “Some kids developed serious conditions and this impacted other adults who already experience chronic pain.” 

Tovar learned of these experiences while providing Spanish translation services for affected neighbors who were applying for settlement claims for the class action lawsuit against Hilco Redevelopment.  Since the 2020 implosion, the city and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd Ward) has organized town hall meetings. The most recent was held in 2023. Tovar, Rodriguez and community residents demanded that CDPH and Hilco be present for that meeting, but Hilco declined.

However, LVEJO has done the bulk of keeping residents informed through its newsletter and virtual town hall meetings. It has also connected residents to resources like mutual aid networks in the wake of the implosion. LVEJO aims to build a sustainable community that promotes the healthy development of youth and families and provides economic justice, participatory democracy, and self-determination. 

In April, a federal judge approved a $12.25 million settlement in the lawsuit. Plaintiffs are expected to receive $317 per person. About 110,000 settlement claims were submitted, but after a review, it was determined that 21,600 claims were approved, Tovar explained. 

Little Village has a population of over 70,000 people, according to the Little Village Neighborhood Network, and is one of the city’s major industrial corridors. Diesel trucks are the most significant sources of pollution within industrial corridors. Black and brown residents are also more likely to live in communities surrounded by industrial plants, warehouses and distribution centers

“There have been things done to try to address it, but it doesn’t undo what happened,” Hopkins said, referring to the Hilco implosion. “The city has put together a comprehensive complex demolition process, which requires a much more comprehensive review by the Department of Public Health to ensure that asbestos abatement, lead abatement, and dust mitigation plans are thorough and detailed,” 

Hopkins told The TRiiBE that, in the days leading up to her Chicago City Council confirmation hearing in April, she met privately with LVEJO members, including Tovar, to discuss the role of DOB in the aftermath of the Hilco demolition. 

Tovar said she and others sounded the alarm on social media after Johnson tapped Hopkins as his pick for DOB commissioner. If the 2023 OIG report recommended disciplinary action for Hopkins, Herrera and Graham, Tovar said it was concerning that she would get an appointment in his new administration To Tovar, Hopkins’ appointment confirmation seemed rushed.

Hopkins approached LVEJO’s executive director, Kimberly Wasserman, to set up a meeting. LVEJO members wanted the meeting to be open to the public. Due to the timing, and lack of sizable and accessible spaces in Little Village, Tovar said, they weren’t able to host that first meeting publicly. They moved forward with a private one between Hopkins and members of LVEJO, including Tovar.

Marlene Hopkins serves as the Commissioner of the Department of Buildings for the city of Chicago. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Tovar said she left that private meeting feeling that there wasn’t enough oversight during the Hilco implosion planning process and that there were “too many hands in the pot.” 

However, Tovar said, Hopkins “was open and honest about her role.” She added that she wished the vote on Hopkins’ appointment confirmation was delayed so that residents would have the chance to learn about her role at a public meeting. 

Plans are now underway to host a public meeting in July with Hopkins, CDPH representatives and the city’s Department of Environment. An official date hasn’t been set. Tovar said she is optimistic about the upcoming meeting and hopes it will provide residents with a sense of closure and encourage more transparency and accountability from city leaders.  

“This will be the first time that the Department of Buildings, CDPH and the Department of Environment will be in the same space. We did share with folks that this is going to be a little bit of a spicy meeting because folks want to hold people accountable,” Tovar said, referring to the upcoming meeting. 

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.