Like countless other elected officials across the country, 10th Ward alderman John Pope is deeply interested in the idea of rebuilding the local economy and bringing “green” jobs to the region. He’s even been reading The Green Collar Economy, the book by activist and Obama adviser Van Jones that offers ideas on how to do it.

But Pope has already reached one conclusion: “There are no green jobs if there aren’t jobs.”

Given the dire state of the economy and the rising threat of climate change, policy-makers, business leaders, and activists are having all kinds of debates about what should come first, the green or the jobs. The Obama administration and other advocates say both. But lots of on-the-ground leaders like Pope aren’t so sure.

“Let’s say ‘green’ is fixing up a home with shingles made from recycled materials,” Pope said in a recent interview. “But if there aren’t any roofs to repair, you can’t do it. So we’re trying to get some ‘green’ into our other projects”—by incorporating green standards in new construction, for example.

Pope’s perspective is important, because the 10th Ward would almost certainly have to be a significant part of any effort to rebuild Chicago’s manufacturing base with sustainable industries. At the very least, it’s going to offer prime examples of what’s doable.

The ward [PDF] takes up the far southeast corner of the city, straddling Lake Michigan and the Indiana state line from 83rd down to the city limits at 136th. For a century it was the heart of Chicago’s heavy industrial machine, a network of steel mills, manufacturing plants, supply warehouses, rail spurs, and shipping docks. The difference now is that most of the big mills and factories are closed, and functioning facilities are surrounded by huge plots of open or abandoned land—Pope estimates that the ward has at least 1,000 acres of unused industrial property.

“It’s a big opportunity,” he said. “And when I say ‘opportunity,’ I mean there’s lots of space, it’s relatively cheap, it’s equipped with infrastructure like gas and utility lines, and it’s close to the expressways, railroads, and port.”

He also emphasizes that the neighborhoods on the southeast side are full of experienced workers, including tradespeople, and that large chunks of the ward are in tax increment financing districts and state enterprise zones that can offer economic “incentives” to new businesses.

But there are only so many businesses that are interested—and none of them so far is making solar panels or wind turbines.

Pope refers to himself and his staff as brokers, and he’s eager to point to the places where business activity has returned to once-idle land: the 600-acre US Steel site that’s slowly being converted into a new residential neighborhood; the old mill property on South Torrence that now serves as an equipment facility for Walsh Construction; the former loading area on the Calumet River that’s become a yacht storage lot. 

“That site used to have 1,000 jobs; now it’s got about 100,” Pope said of the yacht yard. “That’s been one where we’ve said, ‘We’re not getting all the industrial jobs back.’ You’ve got to be selective, but not too selective.”

Especially since there’s so much other property that’s still not used, and much of it needs extensive cleanup before it even could be—such as the former coke facility that sits on 106 acres on South Torrence. When Acme Steel declared bankruptcy a few years ago, most of its property—down to the bricks in its buildings—was sold off at auction. But not the old coke plant. Pope said the structure and the property around it were too contaminated; in 2007, state officials determined [PDF] that the toxic mix of chemicals at the site “poses a public health hazard to trespassers.”

Activists have lobbied to preserve the site, perhaps to turn it into a museum or park dedicated to the area’s industrial history. Pope said that’s not likely because of the high cleanup costs, which can’t be recovered from Acme since it’s no longer in business.

“This is a challenging one here,” he says.

Pope grew up on the southeast side—he’s the son and grandson of steelworkers—and remembers when people simply accepted pollution as a byproduct of prosperity, if they thought about it at all. He still finds it a little surreal to talk about what could possibly replace the mills. “My dad never thought they would close—he said that losing the mills on the southeast side of Chicago would be like losing the lake….

“But things change. This area didn’t develop quickly—it took decades. And it’s not going to come back quickly either.”