Living Without Nature: Interviews from Chicago’s South and West Sides

(First in a series)

It wasn’t until college that I learned about Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s not a medical condition, but more a syndrome from the withdrawal of nature. It suggests that there is a correlation between a lack of greenery and obesity, attention difficulties, and emotional and physical illnesses. This is especially prevalent in lower-income communities, which typically do not have access to the same forms of natural resources like parks or woods as wealthier ones. Take where I grew up.

The south and west sides are predominantly black and brown areas (African-American and Mexican-American) of Chicago. I grew up between these areas where, instead of green space, there are abandoned buildings and lots, riddled with weeds and trash. It’s not the type of place to go and contemplate nature. Even if there were some natural area, say a park, it is not often utilized. Growing up, I was lucky to live near a playground, but my mother never let me visit it because it was known that gang members congregated there. Such restrictions like this were common where I grew up in Little Village; sometimes, I wasn’t allowed at certain ends of the block because of the danger. It wasn’t as if my parents could simply take us to a safer area either; they both worked 12-hour days, coming home tired with little time or money to spare for family trips. So, how is anyone in this environment meant to get some time in green spaces? And is there even awareness that a lack of natural areas is a potential health hazard?

I interviewed 30 people spanning different neighborhoods from the South and West sides of Chicago. I wanted to learn about the experience of green space for residents there, if any; has it gotten any better since I was a child, or is the lack of nature still negatively affecting these communities?

Pilsen, Chicago: Courtesy of Northwestern University

The interview that follows (translated from Spanish to English) is with a woman who lives in Pilsen, which is, coincidentally, where my mother grew up. The interviewee has requested to stay anonymous.

Q: How long have you been living in Pilsen?

A: Since… I came to America, maybe 30 years ago? I was 17.

Q: How often are you in some form of nature (i.e., park, garden)?

A: I have a plant in my apartment, does that count? No? Well… not often. I will say that. I don’t really have the time, you know? I work, cook, clean… You know how it is.

Q: How far is the nearest park or nature (i.e., forest preserve, community garden, etc.)?

A: There is one pretty close to me, but like I said, I don’t have time to go take a walk or anything and I won’t go after work because it’s just not safe. My husband works long hours, too, and honestly we’re both just too tired after working all day to do any of that.

Q: Do you have children? If so, do you let your children play outside? Why or why not?

A: I do, but they’re all out of the house now. When they were younger, of course not. It was dangerous. I do feel guilty because they basically stayed inside most of their childhood, but I worked so much, there was no way I could leave them outside alone! It was harder when they got older because, of course, they want to go out with their friends… but I still worried because it was dangerous, especially for my son. He would tell me how the gang members would approach him often but I couldn’t do anything because I was working.

Q: Do you know what nature deficit disorder is?

A: No. What is that? Ah, I see. That’s scary to be honest! It makes me worry for my kids and the kids in the neighborhood today. Especially with COVID, we’re just stuck inside all day because of circumstances.

Q: How do you think this has affected you or your family?

A: Not going outside? I feel like I kept them safe… But I know it’s good for kids to be outside… My oldest does have a hard time paying attention and has struggled with obesity his whole life. Maybe if he got to play outside more, he wouldn’t have struggled so much. My daughter also has a really hard time paying attention to things and she’s always fidgeting. That does make me feel guilty… I know I did my best but as a mother, you want to shield your kids from everything!

Q: Are you aware of any safe locations to enjoy some form of nature?

A: Umm…Not really, but with all these new people moving in, I’m sure they’ll make some. The city never cares when it’s just us, but as soon as white people start moving in, they start fixing and cleaning the things we’ve been complaining about for years. I probably won’t even get to enjoy it. They’re raising rent prices and pushing us out. These are the same people who would refuse to set foot in Pilsen, but now it’s “popular… It is frustrating and it’s unfair, but it always happens.

RCC Fellow — Jennifer Coronel — Northwestern University

RCC Fellow Jennifer Coronel is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Human Dimensions, along with two minors in Sustainability and Business. She is pursuing her Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern University.

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