Low-income communities of color have long struggled with racist, discriminatory land use practices that diminish health, safety, and quality of life. It is not uncommon to see residential areas opened up for industrial development, houses located next to freeways and toxic polluters, and new freeway development and truck routes targeted at these communities.
The question is: Do these communities have the
power to change these zoning practices and revitalize their
neighborhoods? How can they leverage their needs against developers and
decision-makers seeking to gentrify their communities?
Empowering the Poor
The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has worked for nearly 30 years to empower poor communities to become meaningful participants in their neighborhood’s policy decisions and development processes to:
* ensure healthy neighborhoods
* maintain and create affordable housing
* preserve community character and culture
* promote sustainable communities.
The explosive growth of urban centers worldwide has forced government and civil societies to grapple with the question of how to manage population growth without destroying the environment, while simultaneously ensuring economic prosperity. The quest for this balance is commonly captured by the phrase “sustainable development.” By any measure, achieving sustainable development is a significant challenge. However, when you try to make New York City—the world’s financial and entertainment capital—sustainable, you need more than chutzpah; you need environmental justice (EJ).
In the late 1990s, the community garden movement was thriving in New York City. In hundreds of locations, community members had cultivated gardens of all kinds on city owned land. The gardens presented a cornucopia of vegetation—with flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Some gardens were only a sliver of land wedged between buildings, while others were contemplative or artistic, but all were social centers where life literally bloomed.
The Giuliani administration decided to sell off the 114 city-owned lots for development despite the protests of members who had created these oases of green and community. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), is a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving land for people. When it became unclear whether litigation could save the gardens, TPL stepped in and purchased a little over half of the gardens, with Bette Midler purchasing the remainder through the New York Restoration Project.
TPL’s 1999 acquisition of 62 community gardens slated for destruction was the single largest nonprofit initiative in America to preserve urban gardens. (Since then, other gardens were added to bring the total protected by TPL to 70.) Some of the gardens have been turned over to the city’s Parks Department, others needed to be taken over by the community to ensure that they would be adequately stewarded over the long term. (The deal provided that the land would revert to the city if it ceased to be used for gardens).
We had a sense of power. People saw they could make changes. People who got jobs through the Committee would come back to give something back to the community. People on the street knew… that this Committee was doing something for them. I learned things in the Mission Coalition Organization that I’d never have learned anyplace else. And they worked other places, too.” So said the late Rich Sorro, executive director of the Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit job placement agency in San Francisco’s Mission District, in a 1996 interview shortly before his death.
Over 25 years ago, Rich Sorro was a leader in the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO)—an important organization in the history of the neighborhood and the city. The MCO grew out of the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR), formed in 1965 to either control or stop a plan to make San Francisco’s Mission District an urban renewal area. San Francisco’s low-income communities had already experienced the bulldozer approach of federally-funded urban renewal and had learned that early community action was the only way to halt the bulldozers.
When the city’s Redevelopment Agency began eyeing the Mission, organizers and activists were ready. The urban renewal proposal for the Mission was defeated in early 1967 by a slim 6-5 majority in a combined city council/county board of supervisors meeting. MCOR suffered the fate of single issue organizations—it won its victory and disbanded. But many of its leaders and organizers remained in the Mission.
Then in 1968, Mayor Joseph Alioto announced his intention to include the Mission District in San Francisco’s Model Cities application to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if a broadly-based group of Mission District leaders came together and asked him to do so. Afraid that this might turn into a Trojan Horse for urban renewal, veterans of MCOR banded together early to provide leadership for the coalition, which was called the Temporary Mission Coalition Organization (TMCO) and recognized as the neighborhood’s voice in Model Cities planning. The leaders, however, agreed that the organization, unlike the MCOR, would be multi-issue in character and would not limit itself to participation in the Model Cities effort. After a founding community convention was attended by over 800 delegates and alternates, “Temporary” was dropped from the name.
In Texas, when they talked about “smart growth,” they said it would limit suburban sprawl but it was just gentrification. Sprawl hasn’t stopped. As they began to develop downtown, they pretended that there were no people of color downtown. Those people who were supposed to be our allies are running us out of our communities.
In East Palo Alto, we’ve realized that it’s not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Just because technology is in place doesn’t necessarily mean people will find value in it,” states Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, executive director of One East Palo Alto—an organizational member of the East Palo Alto Digital Village Program. “Working alongside groups who provide essential services to local residents has helped us to partner with individuals who have not participated to become familiar with the technology and develop their own value for it. You really have to build that whole base of value within a community for people to access technology.”
Ever wonder what it would be like to build a city from the ground up? To create a vibrant and diverse neighborhood with parks, schools, community centers, libraries, transit stations, businesses that serve every income level, and employment centers that are accessible to all? In the Coyote Valley region of San Jose, a community-initiated planning process is making this vision of equitable smart growth a reality.
Despite Katrina causing the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units—an 82 percent reduction. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all decisions are made in Washington D.C. HUD plans to build an additional 1000 market rate and tax credit units, which will still result in a net loss of 2700 apartments to New Orleans. The new apartments will cost an average of over $400,000 each.Affordable housing is at a critical point along the Gulf Coast. Over 50,000 families still living in tiny FEMA trailers are being systematically forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners in Louisiana are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds from the so-called “Road Home” reconstruction fund. In New Orleans, hundreds of the estimated 12,000 homeless have taken up residence in small tents across the street from City Hall and under the I-10.
Imagine cities as places where working people can afford to live and raise their families, where there is concern for clean air, water, and land. Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather. Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.
Moving the Environmental Movement
For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities. It started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.