[Note from BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: For a variety of reasons, the Washington Post article reposted here does not include the original’s full complement of excellent photos. If you subscribe to WaPo I recommend you read the article there. Non-subscribers may encounter a paywall. –N.C.]
City planners targeted a Black community for heavy pollution. Can the damage be undone?
Washington Post, by Darryl Fears and John Muyskins, May 7, 2023
OAKLAND — Proud but beleaguered, West Oakland is easy to spot on a map.
This Black enclave — not far from the stately Bay Bridge and just downslope from the mansions of the East Bay hills — is sandwiched by three major freeways. Each day, the trucks and cars that travel these concrete corridors spew toxic pollution into yards and homes, where roughly 45,000 people live.
West Oakland is an example of how government leaders purposely deployed infrastructure to disenfranchise people of color. Starting in the 1940s, urban planners deliberately located heavy industry and truck corridors around the area’s historically black neighborhoods, according to a sitting city planner and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, along with federal and state documents.
Sheng Thao, the city’s new mayor, said it is well known that West Oakland residents were the victims of discriminatory planning.
“They definitely bore the brunt of thoughtless, damaging and absolutely racist policy decisions that were made by previous city leaders and economic interests over the course of decades,” said Thao, who campaigned on a social justice platform and was elected last November. “And we are still dealing with the fallout.”
The city is now attempting to undo that damage. Last year, Oakland announced a general plan update that, for the first time, makes environmental justice a top priority in the planning of future development. In March, the city started taking public comment on those proposed EJ policies, which are aimed at reducing pollution and increasing opportunities in West Oakland and other neglected neighborhoods.
Thao said the city is also taking action on the ground, moving two West Oakland recyclers out of the neighborhood, working with the Port of Oakland to reduce truck idling, and seeking funding to plant thousands of trees in areas afflicted by pollution and a lack of shade.
Despite these efforts, it will take many, many years to address the damage of past decades, local environmental justice advocates have said.
“Ships, trains, cargo handling equipment, trucks are now all concentrated in one place,” said Margaret Gordon, a longtime community activist and founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Residents in West Oakland continue to bear a burden, she said, because they “have the most vulnerability, the most impact.”
The freeway segregation of Oakland was consistent with the U.S. government’s playbook of that era. The Federal Housing Administration prescribed building roads and other infrastructure to separate White communities from “inharmonious racial groups.”
“A high speed traffic artery or a wide parkway may prevent the expansion of inharmonious uses to a location on the opposite side of the street,” the FHA’s guiding underwriting document advised in 1938, “When a neighborhood is developed with “good housing practices,” the document said, it would be protected “from adverse influences.”
On top of that guidance, a group of all-White city leaders and state transportation officials designed the freeways of Oakland to prioritize the safety of White neighborhoods.
These planners allowed diesel trucks to freely use Interstate-880 — which runs near majority Black West Oakland — but they banned diesel trucks from a stretch of Interstate-580 that runs past the East Hills and the city of San Leandro, which were nearly 99 percent White at the time.
“The intentional planning of these uses … was historically racist,” said Jonathan Fearn, who sits on the Oakland Planning Commission. “The planning profession has to reconcile that because they have been complicit in this whole issue, not only in Oakland, but in cities all across the country.”
But West Oakland is hardly the Bay Area’s only example of blatant segregation and environmental inequity. Two other areas — Richmond, Oakland’s neighbor to the north, and Hunters Point, a neighborhood a few miles southwest in San Francisco — join it in forming a triangle of pollution in a region that has long touted its progressive credentials.
Richmond is where Black southerners fleeing Jim Crow segregation flocked to take jobs in the shipping industry during World War II. Oil and gas refineries and a large shipping port, where mountains of coal are exported, dominate the landscape.
Hunters Point housed a former Navy shipyard storing ships that participated in nuclear tests. The soil is deeply saturated with radiation, uranium and other deadly chemicals near where Black, Latino and Asian residents live.
While many communities nationwide bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, in the Bay Area, the environmental injustices stand out. Residents of Richmond, Hunters Point and West Oakland cope with a legacy of pollution amid some of the most affluent and desirable real estate in North America.
‘All my kids have asthma’
On a Monday afternoon with a pretty blue sky, Gordon carefully prepared her apartment to entertain guests.
She played jazz and opened the windows to catch a light breeze coming east from the bay. But by throwing open the windows, Gordon also invited an unwanted visitor into her home.
It looked like a coating of dust atop a lamp hanging in Gordon’s kitchen. “It ain’t dust,” she said. “It’s diesel particulates. It’s dark because of the diesel particulate matter.”
Her white walls were also dark near the ceiling. “You see that gray line up there? That gray line is diesel particulates,” Gordon said, from 2.5 million freeway truck trips per year.
When she was younger, Gordon hopped on a three-step ladder to clean the residue. Now, she said, “I’m not getting on too many ladders at 75 years old. I know better than that.”
Fine particulate matter is dangerous, health officials warn. When exposed to it, people can be stricken by asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. “All my kids have allergies and asthma,” Gordon said, “myself too.”
Emergency room visits for asthma in West Oakland are 76 percent higher than the county average, according to the Alameda County Health Department. Hospitalizations are more than 85 percent higher, and death from heart disease is nearly 35 percent higher.
Emissions from heavy-duty trucks alone result “in the largest contribution to the overall potential cancer risk levels in the West Oakland community,” a California Air Resources Board study said in 2008.
When all the pollution sources are added, the “estimated lifetime potential cancer risk for residents of West Oakland … is about 1,200 excess cancers per million,” the study said.
CARB has since taken aggressive steps to reduce pollution and lower the risk of poor health and death. But health officials and activists say the substantial buildup of pollution continues to take a toll, six decades later.
‘A disaster in slow motion’
Gordon has lived in every part of the Bay Area’s pollution triangle.
She was born in Richmond, where her father and mother moved from racially segregated Arkansas when the shipping industry was booming. They wanted jobs that didn’t involve a plow.
When the shipping economy waned after World War II, the family moved to Hunters Point in San Francisco when Gordon was about 8.
They joined a diverse community that spread out from the 866-acre Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Today Hunters Point, also known as Bayview, is 25 percent Latino, 26 percent Black and 36 percent Asian with a growing number of White residents, currently at 8 percent, relocating there.
Gordon’s former neighborhood was home to the shipyard for nearly 30 years ending in 1974. For 12 years ending in 1960, the shipyard was joined by the Navy’s largest nuclear testing lab.
Ships that were targets of nuclear blast exercises were hauled to docks a few feet from a thriving community. More than 600,000 gallons of nuclear fuel was burned there.
The Environmental Protection Agency listed the abandoned shipyard as a toxic Superfund site in 1989. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory’s activities “contaminated soil, dust, sediments, surface water and groundwater with petroleum fuels, pesticides, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),” the agency said.
The Navy disputes that the site harms the health of area residents. Doctors who launched an effort to test families for exposure disagree.
“It’s getting to where we can look at someone’s urine and tell they’re from Bayview,” said Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a doctor whose office in the community is plastered with maps and pins showing the locations of people who tested positive for a variety of chemicals.
“The toxic burden is the same in the community whether among White women, Chinese American males or African American women,” Sumchai said.
Arieann Harrison, one of Sumchai’s patients, pressed her nose against a fence at the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard near her home.
Harrison believes the bay’s strong winds have blown trace amounts of contaminated soil from the base throughout her community. Sumchai and another doctor tested her urine and detected several of the chemicals found at the shipyard.
“We’ve got people like Arieann who have eight, nine, ten chemicals in toxic concentrations,” Sumchai said.
For years, Harrison’s mother, the late civil rights crusader Marie Harrison, claimed that the site was “a disaster in slow motion.”
The Harrisons lived on Quesada Street. Arieann’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, Sumchai said. Her father suffered from prostate cancer and died of colon cancer. Her mother, a nonsmoker, died of pulmonary fibrosis at age 71.
In 2018, lawsuits started to fly. A class-action lawsuit seeking damages of $27 billion swelled to 3,000 plaintiffs. Buyers of condominiums and townhouses built near the site sued the developer for failing to disclose the extent of the contamination.
The developers erred in relying on a faulty soil analysis to press ahead with the project. Tetra Tech, a New Jersey engineering firm hired by the Navy to analyze the site and remediate any ground that was radioactive, faces numerous lawsuits.
Three years before owners started taking possession of the homes in 2015, whistleblowers came forward to accuse the engineering firm of fraud. In 2018, a judge sentenced two of its supervisors, Stephen C. Rolfe and Justin E. Hubbard, to 18 months in prison after they pleaded guilty to swapping contaminated soil at the site with clean soil from another.
From grandma to activist
After a second marriage to Ben Gordon, Margaret Gordon left Hunters Point for Oakland in the late 1980s.
Within seven years, Gordon would transition from being a maid who cleaned houses to one of the Bay Area’s fiercest environmental justice activists.
Gordon never saw West Oakland in its heyday. Janice Adam, a friend, could only describe it to her. Adam was one of the few Black kids who grew up in a suburb, Berkeley, because of restrictive housing covenants and rental discrimination that kept African Americans at bay.
But she spent most of her time in West Oakland. That’s where her grandmother lived in a big, three-level house with several bedrooms and a convenience store on the first floor.
“Oh my God, the backyard,” Adam said, “a real backyard that you don’t see in California anymore. It had fruit trees. She had chickens. We got eggs from there.”
Her cousin lived next door. “We played in the street until dark,” Adam said. “I remember the neighborhood. The neighbors really knew each other.”
After she left to attend Howard University in the early 1980s, West Oakland started to lose its pulse and its color.
The Cypress Freeway, which cut through the community and divided neighbors, left a deep wound that eventually drove residents away. The Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority also built an above ground station that ran along West Oakland’s center of commerce on 7th Street, turning its vibrant business hub into a dead zone.
Residents found it odd that BART trains ran underground through downtown San Francisco and under as much as 135 feet of water in a tube on the floor of the San Francisco Bay, only to rise above ground for a single stop in West Oakland. Customers stopped patronizing a jazz club because they couldn’t hear the music because of the frequent rumble from trains.
The trains immediately go back underground under downtown Oakland and Berkeley.
With the loss of shipping jobs and homeowner flight, the housing stock rotted. Drug crime moved in with deadly results. At the lowest point, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was gunned down by a suspected crack cocaine dealer in 1989.
Maceo Bell lived through it all.
Watching the decline, Bell didn’t greet BART’s arrival as an eyesore; he saw it as a blessing that brought jobs. Bell, 63, said he worked there for 17 years before losing his job.
He inherited a house from his grandfather but struggled to pay the mortgage because he couldn’t find work. “I took out a loan I never should have took, lost a job and lost the house,” Bell said as he putted golf balls in a park with friends.
His playing partner, Frank Newton, told a similar story about house he inherited. “I couldn’t get loans,” said Newton, 65. “I didn’t qualify. I was about to lose the house, so I sold.”
Margaret Gordon arrived just before a seismic event shook West Oakland. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down portions of the double-decker San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and its connector, the Cypress Freeway.
For a second time, Caltrans essentially ignored West Oakland’s pleas against rebuilding the freeway through the community. The agency vowed to build back bigger — even though in an affluent part of San Francisco, it relented to city wishes and tore down the quake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway.
While preparing the upgrades to the West Oakland freeway in 1996, workers started in a park and unearthed a colorless, carcinogenic gas called vinyl chloride — the same toxic gas that towered over East Palestine following the Ohio train derailment this year.
Surlene Grant, who worked as a community relations officer for Caltrans at the time and went on to become an elected supervisor for the city of San Leandro, said the agency sought to minimize the threat by saying the gas was common.
“I said I’m not going to do that. They said, ‘Yes you are,’” she recalled
After the story broke, Gordon attended a public hearing on it. At the time, “She was, like, a house cleaner,” Grant said. “She was not the most articulate person,” but she knew how to raise her voice.
The Cypress Freeway was not rebuilt. Activists and city officials pushed Caltrans to rout it around West Oakland.
Gordon, who trained with the Pacific Institute to understand the pollution risk throughout West Oakland, went on to co-found the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project with Brian Beveridge in 2004. In 2010, she was named to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act advisory panel, and also won a $100,000 AARP Purpose Prize honoring people over 50 who are “working to build a better future.”
In 2017, California lawmakers passed landmark legislation — Assembly Bill 617 — to address the health impact of polluting infrastructure in California’s urban communities. Gordon was ready to seize the moment.
The indicator project worked with technology companies to measure pollution block by block, when few groups did that kind of air monitoring, with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District joining the effort.
At a recent meeting in West Oakland attended by Gordon, city officials discussed how they are integrating the city’s new general plan with AB 617, aiming to better regulate polluters and improve health outcomes in the community.
In tandem with the air district and other partners, the city will study housing inequality, the quality of the air people breathe indoors and whether housing codes are adequately enforced.
“Our staff is pretty excited about this opportunity to leverage our work,” said Veronica Eady, senior deputy executive officer for policy and equity at the Bay Area air district, which worked closely with Gordon on the project.
After decades of battles, Gordon is hopeful that Oakland can rectify some of the past damage. But how quickly that can happen is another matter.
“I ain’t got but 15 more years myself,” she added. “If they can’t do it in 15 more years, I don’t know what to tell them.”