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People for Community Recovery Archives

Identifier: harsh-2009-05

Content Description

The People for Community Recovery Archives documents the achievements and challenges of that grassroots environmental justice organization under the leadership of founder and president Hazel M. Johnson. The bulk of the records were created between 1986 and the early 2000s. The records document PCR's attempts to obtain safe and functional housing from the Chicago Housing Authority, its actions against the hundreds of polluted waste dumps and manufacturing plants that surrounded Altgeld Gardens Homes, and its close working relationship with many other nonprofit organizations and governmental bodies from Chicago, Illinois, the U.S., and even internationally that comprised the environmental justice movement. Perhaps most striking is the collection's display of Hazel Johnson's organizational acumen as the driving force behind PCR'S pursuit of its goals in these diverse venues. Also of interest are the many PCR programs that provided training and/or jobs for low-income residents in both environmental occupations and also the construction trades.

Materials include meeting minutes, agendas, and notes, along with correspondence and memos both internal and external to PCR, relating to the activities described above. Also illuminating are the large number of grant applications that document PCR goals and achievements and PCR's struggle to remain financially viable. Records from several PCR programs that offered occupational training in environmental careers or construction skills are included. Summaries of neighborhood surveys undertaken by PCR indicate the many health concerns arising from the area's toxic location. Dozens of PCR flyers, handbills, and other program announcements document PCR's wide range of local activities throughout this collection's date range.

Missing from this collection are records from years preceding PCR's 1982 incorporation. Few materials have survived from the period 1982 through 1986. Furthermore, gaps in the existing records render incomplete the documentation of PCR's board of directors, administrative staffing, program activities, and work with other organizations or agencies.

The PCR Archives were received by the Harsh Research Collection staff after its internal organization had been destroyed during storage in a rental facility. Consequently, the current folder arrangement of these materials has been imposed by archival processing. Files created during neighborhood health surveys or job training programs, which contain individuals' personal data, have been removed.


  • 1935 - 2007


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restriction

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

People for Community Recovery (PCR) is a grassroots environmental justice organization founded by Hazel M. Johnson and centered on the far southeast side of Chicago, Illinois. Johnson formally organized and named the group in 1979 and incorporated it officially in 1982 as a nonprofit organization. The mission of PCR centered on fighting environmental racism as it affected the residents of Altgeld Gardens public housing project. This included educating residents about their rights as tenants and about the health dangers of pollution, supporting their actions against polluters and negligent government bureaucrats, and fostering training and sustainable job opportunities for them.

Starting with Hazel Johnson's 1980 survey of Altgeld Gardens residents' cancer rates, PCR carried out a number of other surveys to determine the many effects of pollution that were not being adequately monitored by the Chicago Board of Health or other regulatory bodies. Those include a more comprehensive health survey undertaken in 1984, a massive survey carried out with the support of University of Illinois School of Public Health in 1992-1993, and a grant-funded Resident Education About Lead (REAL) canvass in 1997. All of these surveys revealed abnormally high rates of respiratory, pulmonary, and skin-related disease in addition to high infant death rates and cancer.

In its first year's PCR directly confronted corporations or government entities that were obvious polluters, such as Waste Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, while often working in cooperation with other local community groups. In a highly publicized action in 1987, hundreds of protesters blocked the gate of CID Waste Management to prevent some 57 dump trucks from discharging into the landfill. Other protests led to permit revocations for the Paxton Lagoon and the O'Brien Lock and Dam Landfills. PCR joined persistent local lobbying of EPA, helped fight the Retail Rate Law that rewarded unsafe waste incineration, testified at hearings, submitted hundreds of anti-landfill petitions, and made public statements that eventually led to a 1992 consent decree in which Waste Management agreed to hire Altgeld residents to monitor compliance. Eventually the opening of new landfills and incinerators in the Calumet region ceased.

Before 1993, Hazel Johnson testified at EPA hearings and joined an environmental task force formed to bring together the EPA, landfill operators such as Waste Management, and local community groups. In 1992 the EPA awarded PCR a grant to provide community-based environmental job training for residents of Altgeld Gardens and its environs, linking pollution control with employment opportunities. Starting with President Clinton's administration in 1993 the EPA undertook a number of initiatives that changed the ways groups such as PCR pursued their goals and, at least at first, led to some successes.

Further pressure from the growing environmental justice movement led to EPA's establishment of an extensive public-private infrastructure designed to involve local communities in planning for pollution eradication and sustainable economy building. In 1993 Hazel Johnson also testified before Congress on these urgent matters. In response to demands for the enforcement of environmental justice, President Clinton signed Executive Order #12898 which placed racial justice foremost in the federal government's environmental mission. Besides requiring all federal bodies to conform, the Order generated a number of EPA initiatives. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) provided a federal-level venue in which grassroots representatives could ostensibly influence policy. Hazel Johnson was invited to sit on NEJAC and actively did so for several years. Other public-private coalitions, such as the National Advisory Committee on Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT), were put in place by EPA to stimulate sustainable economic growth, assess “brownfields,” and oversee “superfund” toxic cleanups. PCR made its presence felt in many of these groups by speaking authoritatively both on critical environmental issues and also on the need for sustainable economic growth in low-income communities.

In 1998 and 1999 PCR asked the EPA (Region 5) to require verification of soil contamination at the Altgeld Gardens site from PCBs stored there by the CHA years before and later unsuccessfully removed. This PCR action led to an apparently successful attempt by CHA to remove the remaining PCBs. Regardless of PCR's relationship over time with the EPA, it continued to confront the CHA in order to obtain legally protected rights for Altgeld Gardens tenants and to enable programs, such as job training, that would benefit the residents. On the one hand, PCR monitored CHA after it was found not in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for asbestos removal; on the other hand, PCR submitted several bids, some successful, for jobs for residents that involved rehabbing apartments and providing janitorial services.

PCR worked closely with southeast Chicago's other very active community organizations either by initiating the relationship unilaterally or by joining in a consortium such as Citizens United to Reclaim the Environment (CURE). Locally, the EPA fostered the Southeast Chicago Urban Environmental Initiative(s), or SCUEI, to maximize oversight of local entities with a history of polluting. Connected to that initiative was PCR's relationship with Chicago State University and its (Southeast) Neighborhood Assistance Center which provided resources for such efforts. PCR maintained correspondence with other groups across the U.S.A. as well and participated in many pivotal conferences over the years. In honor of its tenth anniversary, PCR co-sponsored its First Environmental Conference, "Making a Difference on Environmental Issues in Minority Communities," held at Chicago State University in 1992.

Many of PCR's actions drew success from its effective public relations work with the media. Just four years after incorporating as a nonprofit, PCR was featured in a Chicago Sun-Times, series, “The Toxic Trap.” PCR protests, such as the 1987 Waste Management landfill truck stoppage, were tipped to the media in advance. In 1990, PCR invited WTTW-TV to film a community “Town Meeting.” In 1992 PCR launched its own newsletter, F.A.T.E. (Fighting Against a Toxic Environment) ,, which contained articles written by professional environmentalists and environmental justice leaders as well as features about Altgeld Gardens residents and tips on pollution prevention. It appeared occasionally until 1997 (it was published under a new title in 2004, F.A.T.E.²). National Public Radio broadcast a documentary on PCR's work in 2000, as did Northwestern University in 2001 (“The Poison Promise of Altgeld Gardens”).


30 Linear Feet (63 archival boxes)

Language of Materials



People for Community Recovery (PCR) is a community organization located in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Altgeld Gardens project on Chicago’s far Southeast Side. Founded in 1979 by Altgeld Gardens resident Hazel Johnson, PCR demanded cleanup of toxic waste surrounding the community and pressed for repair work. The organization also coined the term “environmental racism.” The archives include correspondence, organization files, programs and newspaper clippings.


The collection is arranged in 13 series: PCR history (1987-2006), Hazel Johnson biographical and family records (1935-2006), Manuscripts (1993-2001), PCR business files (1982-2006), PCR programs (1982-2006), Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) (1985-2004), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (1985-2001), Other Organizations (1986-2005), Grants (1986-2007), Conferences (1988-2005), Subject Research Files (1977-2001), Photographs (1992-2004, undated), and Memorabilia (1990s).

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Deed of gift, from Cheryl Johnson, October 19, 2009

Related Materials

Related materials at the Chicago Public Library include:

  • Brenetta Howell Barrett Papers


Guide to the People for Community Recovery Archives
Jeanie Child, Harsh Archival Processing Project, 2014; supervised by Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Harsh Archival Processing Project; Ingested into ArchivesSpace by Erik Henderson, 2023; Updated by Jordan McKenna, 2023.
October 2009
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection Repository

Woodson Regional Library
Chicago Public Library
9525 S. Halsted Street
Chicago IL 60628 United States
(312) 745-2080