“I want a dyke for president. I want a person
with aids for president and I want a fag for
vice president and I want someone with no
health insurance and I want someone who grew
up in a place where the earth is so saturated
with toxic waste that they didn’t have a
choice about getting leukemia.”
So begins Zoe Leonard’s 1992 protest poem “I Want a President”. The poem is a call for the US electorate to realize that the disenfranchised are rarely represented in legislative bodies, even as many constituents face the conditions mentioned in the poem — living without healthcare and money, survivors of sexual assault and rape, unemployed, living with HIV/AIDS and growing up in places of severe environmental injustice and racism.
Environmental racism is defined by Wikipedia as “socially marginalized racial minority communities which are subjected to disproportionate exposure of pollutants, the denial of access to sources of ecological benefits (such as clean air, water, and natural resources), or both.”
It is a sobering fact that in the US, race is a better predictor of living proximity to a hazardous waste site, rather than income.
Only 60 years ago, for example, the Lower 9th ward residents had to endure “stagnant water, cesspools and outdoor toilets”. The Lower 9th ward, (once one ward, it was slashed in two by the industrial canal after city officials decided that no one lived there — though of course, people certainly did) was the last in the city to receive a sewage system. In 1955 a group of citizens complained to the city of a set of conditions so bad a city councilman declared the account almost unbelievable. Basic sewage, drainage, and water infrastructure were not brought to that part of the city until the 1940’s, and the area continued to struggle for adequate sewage and water mains for the next decade. Such neglect is nothing less than willful disregard for the health of low-income people and people of color.
Unfortunately, as the concerns of Lower Ninth Ward residents were finally being addressed by the city (winning a battle in the war to get the city to care equally for its residents), a new environmental injustice was beginning. In 1969, the City of New Orleans broke ground on the Press Park neighborhood, which was to be marketed to the city’s African American community as affordable housing. Press Park was owned and developed by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and included a rent-to-own program. According to The Wrong Complexion for Protection, a book that documents the injustices faced by the African American community in the wake of disasters, this was the first public housing project built in New Orleans as part of a new federal initiative to encourage homeownership.
Perhaps, the city could have made good on its promise to afford working-class African American residents a chance at homeownership, and inter-generational wealth through the housing development — if they had not put the homes directly on top of a former landfill.
Known as the Agriculture Street Landfill, the dump was in use from 1909 to 1952. The site frequently caught fire, probably because of flammable waste and anaerobic decomposition, which produces highly combustible methane emissions. This hellish vision earned it the nickname “Dante’s Inferno.”
The city government of New Orleans thought this undeveloped tract of land was the ideal environment for families to live in. Or, more likely, the officials who knew about the landfill were not bothered by the risks, which would, after all, only be leveled on the African American community. Incidentally, following Hurricane Betsy, the landfill continued to be used for three years as an emergency dump, to clear away debris from 1965 to 1968.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhoods of Press Park and Gordon Plaza were developed, with Morton Elementary school at the center of the development. A fresh layer of soil was laid over the compacted trash — now decades of waste that lay 20 feet deep beneath the freshly painted homes and their neat, new gardens. The city was, of course, aware of the tract of land’s history as a dump site, but claimed that its proximity to the Desire Street housing was a good way to attract potential buyers, who fit their idea of who would benefit most from the development.
In 1994, after the EPA tested the soil the site was declared a Superfund Site, meaning that the EPA designated it as extremely contaminated and in need of remediation. Millions of pounds of soil was carted away in 1998, a permeable mat was laid over the remaining soil and waste, and fresh soil and sod were laid. The mat was not meant to keep toxins from leaching up through the soil; it merely served as a marker for where the new soil ended and the remnants of the dump began.
It is important to note that though the EPA did remediation work over open areas of soil, they did not perform remediation work on areas that lay below impermeable surfaces — roads and foundations of homes. After Hurricane Katrina, much of the top layer of soil was washed away. Despite a nearly 400-page document showing multiple instances of high lead, arsenic, and benzo(a)pyrene that exceed health guidelines set by the EPA, the EPA concluded that the levels did not pose “significant” harm. The emails from the EPA to the Residents of Gordon Plaza Inc are polite but unhelpful.
Though the residents at the time of the original cleanup were lobbying for relocation, they were not able to secure a buyout from the EPA for the value of their homes. The over $40 million cost of the remediation exceeded the cost of a buyout.
In the years since the EPA declared the site a Superfund site, community members — one as young as 16, named Sandra Lewis, have continued to die of cancer at exceedingly high rates. The Vice President of Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc., Joshua Allen, has throat cancer. He is 33 years old.
One of the Gordon Plaza community’s demands is that the people of New Orleans come to Gordon Plaza, and see the true destruction that HANO and the city of New Orleans have wrought on their lives. Before last week, I had never been, though I had been very close to Gordon Plaza many times before I learned of the community’s existence.
While working in Americorps, my organization (Rebuilding Together) worked on a cluster of houses on Kendall Drive. On the other side of Almonaster Avenue, unbeknownst to me or anyone else on the team, lies Gordon Plaza and Press Park. Because the railroad tracks lie between the neighborhood and the rest of Downtown New Orleans, and because it is removed from Gentilly by the tracks and the overpass, it is easy to think that this part of the city — already on the outskirts even without the overpass and traffic that makes walking or biking in difficult — does not exist at all.
Lining the streets going into the old Agriculture Landfill site are vacant lots full of lush, overgrown flowering weeds and vines which choke the stop signs and “for sale” signs that line the lots’ edges. It was evening as I biked in, the light beginning to take on a golden quality, and I could smell the greenery around me; grass, moldering leaves, and pollen, interspersed with a less appealing scent; something sour and almost burned. The quiet of the cracked streets, where weeds sprouted and the almost pastoral way that the cattails waved in the breeze brought to mind something I’d read of Chernobyl, years before — that the place is now a haven for animals, that the forest has regrown and wolves stalk deer and bison amongst the ruins. The spiders spin strange, crooked webs and the DNA of the insects has been altered by the radiation, but it has the look of a place reclaimed by nature.
New Orleans’ own Chernobyl.
What does it mean to live knowing an invisible evil is present in your home? That your very existence is threatened as your body battles foes with strange names, and your only clues that your cells are deteriorating are malaise, chronic illnesses that you are told can never be conclusively tied to a known enemy? When you know others would never trade their existence for yours, but refuse to admit guilt – or indeed that anything is wrong at all? How does it feel to know you may be knowingly condemned to a slow and painful death, for no crime at all but the color of your skin, and the sin of being poor in America?
I spoke with Shannon Rainey, one of the first residents of Gordon Plaza and the president of Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc., who has lived in the community for almost 40 years. She still remembers how she felt when she discovered that her new home had been built on tainted land.
“It was terrifying, it was horrible. You thought you’ve bought your dream house and… you find out your house is on a toxic landfill. After that, you don’t have that spark about your house because you’re worried about what you have to go through. How long are you going to be living? What are you going to catch? You worry about different rashes on your body. You worry about cancer. You worry about what you’re breathing. It’s a nightmare. Your dream just shatters.”
Rainey raised her children in Gordon Plaza, and her son went to the school the city had built, Morton Elementary. The school was closed in the mid-90’s after the soil tested positive for known carcinogens. The school is surrounded by grassy lots – Rainey told me the yard was never paved over.
Though her children are grown, as are the original children of Gordon Plaza, Rainey’s 11-year-old granddaughter lives with her now, and some of the other residents have children living in the community as well. When I ask Rainey about the incidence of cancer in her community, she responds that about 20 residents have died of cancer since Katrina, and some members of the housing board are living with cancer now. There are multiple instances of young people in the community developing cancers, including one of a 12-year-old with breast cancer. A study showed an instance of breast cancer 60 percent higher in Gordon Plaza and the Agriculture area than the surrounding areas.
The graffiti around the former Morton Elementary school is incredible – when I tried to take a picture, a black terrier came bounding out of nowhere, barking at me and chasing me as I pedaled away furiously on my bike. When I slowed, the terrier raced up to me once more, barking its head off. I have never been bitten by a dog and would like to preserve that record, so I pedaled off, around the corner, where lie the remains of Press Park.
The buildings that remain were rent-to-own; the rest were razed by HANO. The owners are still paying property taxes on their homes. All the homeowners at Gordon Plaza still must pay property taxes, mortgages, and utilities on their homes. None of the residents have received funds to assist with medical costs.
Press Park was not closed until after Katrina when residents – including those who were rent-to-own – were not allowed to return.
“If you’re closing the school down, you’re closing Press Park down, why are you allowing the homeowners to stay here? Something is wrong, the land is toxic.”
Though the EPA now claims that the soil tests show that the area is safe, because of the soil contamination, Cox will not allow its workers to dig and install or maintain cable lines. The residents must use satellite for internet. When I asked Rainey how the city handles working on the roads and water lines, a common sight in New Orleans, Rainey laughed.
“The city don’t come out and do nothing. Don’t you see that grass out there? It’s taller than you, what, two, three times?”
She was right.
After Katrina, when most of the residents applied for aid from FEMA, they were informed that their homes’ location on a Superfund site put them on the “red list,” making them ineligible for money to repair their homes. Rainey made repairs on her house through RoadHome, though it did not cover the full cost of renovations.
In 1994, the residents began a class action lawsuit. It would take over a decade for the court to reach a ruling, and the case still has not been completely settled. In 2006, Judge Nadine Ramsey ruled in favor of the residents, ruling that the city owed the residents the full market value of their home and up to $50,000 in emotional distress. She also ruled that children who attended the school were entitled to $2,000 for every year that they attended the school.
The case changed hands several times as Ramsey changed jobs and a second judge was recused from the case. Tiffany Chase was the judge left to manage the actual settlement.
As Rainey explained, with a sheaf of court documents and transcripts in front of us on her kitchen island, how the case was settled, the ethics… become murkier and murkier.
First, though Rainey was one of the earliest residents organizing for the lawsuit, she was not included as one of the original nine plaintiffs in the suit. The suit was broken down into three tiers—though Rainey says that the distinction between the tiers seems arbitrary.
“This woman, she passed, and this woman, she never did live back here, I don’t know why she’s on this list…”
The settlement for emotional damages was later slashed, and the city’s assets (in this case, HANO and the school board) are protected by the Louisiana constitution. By suing the insurers, the lawsuit was able to collect $14.2 million in damages.
Chase then appointed a “special master” to distribute the funds. There were over 5,000 people eligible to collect damages, from working, living, or attending school in the development. Chase appointed Paul Valteau, a local attorney, as special master.
It just so happens that he is rumored to be her godfather, and worked on one of Tiffany Chase’s campaigns for public office. Both he and the other attorneys took home roughly one million dollars from the settlement, leaving the other half to be split 5,000 ways.
And not evenly.
In tier one, which consisted of the nine “original” plaintiffs, the plaintiffs were awarded between $97,000 and $240,000 each.
Tier two plaintiffs received checks from a few hundred to a few thousand, and tier three plaintiffs have never received any money from the lawsuit.
During the last mayoral administration, Mitch Landrieu visited Gordon Plaza after the residents successfully campaigned to have him come and see the site for himself. Mayor Cantrell has yet to come to Gordon Plaza; after verbalizing support for fully funded relocation on the campaign trail, the residents I spoke to described her silence. She will not return their calls and emails.
“She said that she would help us to relocate. And now that she’s in office… she’s not responding to us, or doing anything at all,” says Rainey.
“I think it needs to be against the law for candidates to lie to the public just to get in office, and not do what they’re supposed to do, and say what people want to hear… and then when you get in office, everything change.”
Residents are asking for “fair value relocation” from $375,000-$400,000 for each home.
“We want what this house would be worth if they picked it up and put it on Filmore, Saint Anthony, anywhere that isn’t toxic,” says Rainey.
“Landrieu come and before he do relocation he built a jail. Now Cantrell is in there… see, everybody want to spend money on stuff other than trying to save lives. Nobody wants to save lives. They want to do other things. They want to incarcerate you, they don’t want to save the lives of black families back here.”
As the residents of Gordon Plaza admit, it was not Mayor Cantrell or Landrieu’s administration that perpetrated this crime against their families – that was the administration of Mayor Dutch Morial, whose administration marketed and sold the homes, specifically targeted at “striving African American families.” However, it is within the city’s power to make this right. There are currently 54 homes that are still inhabited on Gordon Plaza. If the city was to give the residents funds to buy new homes, at market rate within the city – the city where they still pay property taxes and other municipal fees – the total cost would be less than the 40 million dollars spent on installing security cameras all over the New Orleans, giving our fair city the strange distinction of being simultaneously the most surveilled city in the country with one of the highest murder rates in the country.
The homes are currently worthless, and as such the residents, some who have small children living alongside them, cannot afford to move. The city has literally trapped them in a toxic cage, and some residents describe the endless legal battles as the city’s plan to wait out paying them, until the last residents of Gordon Plaza are dead, and no one can remember the initial hope the homeowners felt upon buying their homes. Until no one cares why the ruins of Press Park, the HANO-owned development across the street, the collapsing elementary school and other buildings owned by the city, are right next to the still-standing Gordon Plaza.
“But,” some are saying, “but – the city is protected from paying out damages, like that awarded to the Gordon Plaza plaintiffs.”
Perhaps the city’s inaction, its silence and even indifference, are indeed legal, even if they are actions which refuse the residents’ very humanity. This leads us to question – do we want leaders who do what they are obligated to do, or who are willing to actually lead? We as inhabitants of the 21st century can choose from any number of historical examples to remind us that what is legal is far from always right.
It is up to the people of New Orleans, who fund our government, who elect our officials, to remind our government what is owed to the people of Gordon Plaza. It was wrong for the city to build housing and a school on the site, and it was wrong for the government to remain silent as the residents died, some of whom will never see justice. But it is not too late for residents like Rainey to see the justice she has fought so hard for, to be done. It is not too late for her eleven-year-old granddaughter. If the people of New Orleans call their government, email their mayor and representatives and DEMAND fully funded relocation for the residents of Gordon Plaza, then it will not have been too late.
Do we want a city that will spend money to watch us, but not on measures that will keep us safe? Our days here may certainly be numbered, as the seas rise and hurricanes strengthen, as the streets literally crumble beneath us. When we are telling our descendants of our Atlantean memories, what sort of society will we tell them of?
You can contact the city about this issue at:
1300 Perdido St
New Orleans, LA 70112