Stop Community Genocide of Pembroke Township: Land Versus Lives
Pembroke Township is located just one hour south of Chicago in a rural area of Illinois. Twenty miles to the west of Pembroke is Kankakee, a large suburban city where one can find almost any good or service. Pembroke Township, however, is a struggling community of 3,000 individuals burdened by poverty and poor infrastructure. It is considered one of the poorest areas in the entire Midwest (Fountain, 2002). 55% of Pembroke Township residents live below the poverty level, 44% live without running water, 98% of the children qualify for free school lunch, and the community groans under a 50% unemployment rate (Ghosh, 2011; Miller, 2010; Warwick, n.d.). Very few small businesses exist in the community and precious gas must be used to make the long trek to find groceries. Roofs and floors are decaying and while many have no running water in their homes, water is more than plentiful in all the wrong places when the inevitable Midwest rains saturate unpaved roads, basements, and yards. In the midst of these conditions is a community of individuals who, despite their oppressive conditions, have grown close in their shared struggle and social connections to each other. Many residents have family roots that go back several generations and a relative of the infamous Emmitt Till still resides there. The original Potawatomi Indians were exiled from the area to west of the Mississippi River, where they were given land, money, and supplies to resettle. Pembroke then became part of a trade route and eventually a terminal on the Underground Railroad. As such, it became a rare multiracial community during the late nineteenth century. More African-Americans began to settle in Pembroke Township during the Great Depression and throughout the twentieth century as an attempt to flee the horrors of the inner-city ghettos (Warwick, n.d.). Some families were resettled in Pembroke Township after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The current Mayor of Pembroke Township’s only village, Hopkins Park, reported that he, like so many residents of Pembroke today, grew up in this rural landscape hunting snakes and possums and riding horses all throughout the town. He loves Pembroke Township and the people that commune with him there (M. Hodge, personal communication, December 2, 2015).
Efforts to assist Pembroke Township are too numerous to account for. Federal, state, county, local, church, and individual assistance efforts have attempted to raise the living standards of the community. Efforts to improve housing, encourage small business developments, offer food beyond the limits of food stamps, and improve the infrastructure have offered little more than “Band-Aid” care for the many systemic issues. The community is used to surviving on little. What it is not prepared for is the giant foe it currently faces that threatens community genocide: land conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy is a massive private land preservation group whose overall mission is noble: the preservation of precious land in the United States. The Conservancy seeks to obtain land that will be forever designated as conservation land. In a great many area, conserved land means that it can be maintained in its natural state for generations of Americans to enjoy and serves to restrain over-development across the land. The Nature Conservancy, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and a private investor, have been systematically purchasing land within and around the town of Hopkins Park in Pembroke Township. These groups, however, do not typically target an entire community. Rather, they focus on conserving critical pieces of relatively untouched land. Pembroke Township is an exception to that rule, having been targeted for procurement since 1997 as part of a plan to designate a 30,000 acre refuge in the area (Themer, 2015).
Property owners living under the poverty threshold, farmers, or owners from outside of the community who rent to community members own much of the land in Pembroke. Many of these owners have been enticed by the conservancy groups to sell land at higher than market rate prices. In addition, these groups often purchase land at annual tax auctions. The community has worked hard to work together with conservancy groups, attempting to collaborate so a fair amount of land is rightly conserved for future generations while the community can remain sustainable, however, the groups have maintained their commitment to purchasing a large expanse of land in Pembroke Township and includes the town of Hopkins Park. Currently, conservation groups own random plots of land throughout the entire Township, verifying a plan to take over the entire community.
Owners of land purchased for conservancy have the benefit of paying a property tax rate that is much less than that which residential property owners pay (S. White, personal communication, December 2, 2015). That means that each piece of property purchased by the Conservancy reduces the amount of property tax paid into the community, which currently manages on a shoestring budget. However, decreased property taxes does not simply mean that the community takes in less money. Because property taxes are assessed based on a formula of need, when taxes go down in some areas, they go up in the other area: the residential properties. Therefore, two scenarios are imminent for this community: a.) property taxes on remaining residential properties will rise to unmanageable rates and they will have to relinquish their properties to auction, or b.) conservancy groups will eventually buy all of the land from land owners, forcing residents in rental properties off the land.
Without policy intervention, Pembroke Township residents will be the next Potawatomi Indians, only without the parting “gift” of land, money, and supplies.
Without intervention, the residents will be subject to community genocide.