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Environmental Health

New Housing near Highways Threatens Community Health

The landscape at 14th and Wood streets in West Oakland has quite a story to tell about reclaiming a community’s future from industrial pollution.

Fourteenth Street, which runs through the downtown office district, ends at the sound wall bordering one of the busiest interchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearby, a historic train station that community activists fought to preserve from profit-driven redevelopment shows telltale signs of neglect: litter, broken windows, overgrown grass. The panoramic view of diesel trucks on the freeway framed by large gantry cranes at the Port of Oakland contrasts sharply with the new market-rate housing development next door.

The developer’s website offers a provocative vision for this newly rebranded area: “Once the end of the line for transcontinental rail passengers, Central Station will soon become a new kind of urban community: diverse, stimulating, and welcoming.[1]” But environmental justice activists have a cautionary tale about the politics of infill redevelopment and smart growth that are ushering this neighborhood into a new era.

In a converted trucking facility across the street from the new housing development on 14th and Wood, a small but mighty community-based organization goes toe-to-toe with developers in the fight for the future of West Oakland.

History, Smart Growth, and Health
Margaret Gordon, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), has long been a key community voice in redevelopment planning for the properties outside her office window. “The community has been through two different planning processes with the City around the train station development, and now we are on our third process,” she says. “Now the people in that new development next to it have different ideas. All these new residents see is an abandoned building... they don’t know about the baggage wing in that train station where the Pullman Porters did all their organizing because that was the only place that African-Americans were allowed to do so. We had to fight the City to not allow developers to tear it down and to put local hiring in place to make sure that residents will benefit.”

Los Angeles Coalition Wins Health Clinic and Jobs from Developer

When you walk into the yellow building of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, you are greeted by bright paintings done in the Diego Rivera and José Orozco muralist styles. This office and the brick warehouse down the street, which houses the UNIDAD[1] Coalition are the sites where one of the first community benefits agreement (CBA) fully funded by a private developer was negotiated.

“This agreement with Palmer provides South LA residents with health services, jobs, affordable housing, small business development, and transit-oriented development (TOD) planning—all desperately needed in this historically underserved community,” notes Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of SAJE.[2]The developer, Geoffrey Palmer, calls his own projects “fortress-like” and in 2003, pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of illegal demolition.[3] His ornate, market-rate (high-rent), Italian-named complexes are designed to draw affluent professionals to the urban core. In 2009, Palmer won a case in the California Supreme Court against the City of Los Angeles’ attempt to mandate affordable housing in his luxury developments. Despite his political and economic clout, the UNIDAD Coalition[4] and a team of community lawyers[5] was able to negotiate a groundbreaking deal with Palmer in just over three months over the Lorenzo Project, which includes:

The San Francisco PUC: Working for the Community

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water, sewage services, and municipal power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is also a huge job generator. When I joined the Commission in 2008, I identified three priorities: (i) achieving stronger local hire outcomes; (ii) adopting an environmental justice policy; and (iii) creating an agency-wide Community Benefits Program.

In 2002—following a bond measure approved by San Francisco voters that November—the SFPUC embarked on one of the largest water infrastructure projects at a cost of $4.6 billion dollars. The Water System Improvement Project (WSIP), which includes more than 80 projects, is working to repair, replace, and seismically upgrade deteriorating pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, storage tanks, and dams from San Francisco to the Central Valley by the end of 2015.

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Young Activists Revitalize EJ Movement

On an Eco-bus tour of Detroit during the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, 17-year-old Janice Nyamakye strives to capture everything with her video camera: the tour guide’s comments, the city sights, as well as the ‘sites’—a dirty incinerator, salt mining operations, and power plants—all located in low-income communities of color. The tour informs Nyamakye’s own work in environmental remediation back home in Worcester, Massachusetts where she has been involved with Toxic Soil Busters (TSB) for the past four years.

As an organization, TSB effects improvements in the lives and environments of urban youth by employing them to first test local soil for lead levels, then remediate and redesign affected environments as needed. “We are a youth-led cooperative business,” says Nyamakye proudly. “The youth do everything.” As a videographer, she uses media to connect different EJ communities and amplify the message of youth working for environmental justice. From California to Massachusetts, groups like TSB, Grind for the Green (G4G), and Third Eye Unlimited are using new outreach methods to successfully reach a new generation of information-seeking cyberkids. And increasingly, youth interested in acting for environmental change are finding outlets through national organizations like It’s Getting Hot In Here (itsgettinghotinhere.org) and SustainUs: US Youth for Sustainable Development (sustainus.org).

Transforming the Land-- One Garden at a Time

Raheem Payton used to think nothing of littering streets until he discovered his community garden. Now he is angry that he and his friends ever did such a thing. “I’m an advocate for putting your trash in the right place now,” he says, “and I try to keep my friends on the straight path, too.” Payton discovered his calling earlier than other youths through a program called Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) in the Bayview district of San Francisco. Founded in 1998 by a coalition of youth, educators, and community leaders, LEJ addresses the ecological and health concerns of Bayview-Hunters Point and surrounding communities of southeast San Francisco.

The project that Payton participates in operates a native plants nursery at a former dumpsite near Candlestick Park. The garden is the primary supplier of plant stock to two major restoration projects in San Francisco—Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and Heron’s Head Park.
Payton works three hours a day in the garden transplanting starter plants into larger pots to be taken to one of the restorations sites. Already, the 18-year-old is hooked on gardening.

“I want to major in landscape architecture [and] design gardens to encourage cities to be healthier and better looking,” he says. Community organizer for Green Action, Marie Harrison says, “These children are gaining knowledge that is quite valuable. If there ever was a disaster these children would know exactly how to sustain themselves.”

Urban Agriculture in Cuba

What will it mean to our oil-steeped economy when we run out of cheap oil? Will it mean the ruined warlike world of Mad Max or the peaceful post-industrial tribalism of Ursula LeGuin? Is there a model for a modern urban post cheap oil society? How, for example, will schools and hospitals provide nutritious meals when there is not enough fuel to haul produce to urban markets. The answer is urban cooperative farming.
Utopian though it may sound, the idea is actually Cuban. Cubans are actively using urban gardening—an after-work hobby—to help them shed an oil-dependent plantation economy and create long-term sustainability.

Building a Post–Plantation Cuba
The small island nation of Cuba has been exploited in the world economy since Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1492, beginning a process of extermination for the native populations and sowing the seeds of a plantation economy based on slave labor. For most of the last 500 years, Cubans have grown sugar, coffee, and tobacco for foreign markets: first Spain, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Detroiters Find a Way Out of No Way

Former autoworker Rich Feldman began working in Detroit’s auto plants in 1970 with a belief that labor unions were the driving force of revolution in the U.S.  Like other young activists at the time, he joined the factories to organize workers after having been involved in the radical student movement of the 1960s. Today, globalization has decimated the autoworkers. (Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in this decade alone, the number of autoworkers in Michigan has decreased from 320,000 to 109,000.)

At the old abandoned Packard plant just outside downtown Detroit, Feldman reflects: “It’s the end of the economic American dream, which was also very destructive. On one level we have to grieve, but we also have to welcome it. Now we can move on to create another kind of American dream that is based on quality of life versus a standard of living.”

Out of necessity, the people of Detroit are shaping alternatives to the urban wreckage left by the collapse of the auto industry. And new possibilities are emerging across the city: Eastside residents have transformed their neighborhood into an outdoor public art exhibit with waste materials collected from vacant lots.  Just a short drive away, a group has purchased storefronts, planted fruit trees along a few city blocks, and renamed the area “Hope District.” Elsewhere, another group has reclaimed two acres of unused and underutilized land in the city to grow produce that feeds community members. In short, the movement in Detroit is putting forth a model for creating solutions rooted in frontline communities and place-based relationships.  

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