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Environmental Burdens Unequally Shared in Communities of Color

When it was proposed in the 1950s, the Garden Valley public housing complex seemed like a dream – the brand new urban renewal project on Cleveland’s east side was going to be a model of racial and economic integration.  It was built quickly, and the first residents moved in by 1957.

But the project was doomed from the start; it was built on Kingsbury Run, a polluted stream used as an industrial sewer.  Several units remained vacant, and it never became the model of integration it was intended to be.

Kingsbury Run borders Marion Motley Playfields, a local park.  Today, the park is a big sprawling field with baseball diamonds and hills. 

“Tires, old pieces of furniture…it was just a big playground”

Garden Valley resident James Miles walked around the park on a sunny afternoon.  As he paces, he remembers spending time there as a kid. 

"We used to have a ball over here, me and my siblings and all of our friends over here,” said Miles.  “We used to call it the dump – but it’s a field.”

Miles lives – and works – across the street from the park where he used to play, in a large apartment complex called Rainbow Terrace.

Vera Brewer lives in the Fairfax neighborhood now, but she remembers playing at the park with “tires, old pieces of furniture, and cans to throw and toss.”  As we sat in the Garden Valley Neighborhood House a few blocks from the park, she shared a story that still makes her feel guilty. 

One time when Brewer and her cousins wouldn’t go back to her aunt’s house when called, Brewer’s aunt came to get them…and stepped on a rusty nail. 

“Had it been that we were not playing in the dump, she would’ve never had her foot injured,” said Brewer.  “That’s where we played, that’s where everybody played.  We didn’t know not to be there because of contamination – our mindset was on enjoying life.”

Cleveland’s first dirt bike track

The park has been in the news in the last couple of years – it was talked about as the site of the city’s first dirt bike track.  But that’s on the backburner, because the park needs to be cleaned up first. 

The City of Cleveland commissioned an environmental report last year that revealed metals in the ground, says the city’s Capital Projects director, Matt Spronz. 

“That report indicated that there was low levels of arsenic and lead contamination,” explained Spronz.

Those chemicals – along with many others – existed in soil samples and ground water at levels higher than state standards. 

“Back in those days, when people filled in property whether it was in their backyards or whether it was anywhere else, there was no environmental protection agency or Ohio EPA, and the materials they put in to those areas were unknown at the time,” said Spronz.

The city is planning to remediate the area by adding a 2-foot soil barrier on top of the existing ground. 

Spronz says it’s been cleared by the Ohio EPA, and that the process will begin sometime in the next 6 months.

Toxic waste sites have a history in Cleveland…

There are properties all over Cuyahoga County and all over the country that were once landfills, dumps, or uncontrolled toxic waste sites.  Reports commissioned by the United Church of Christ in 1987 and again in 2007 found that uncontrolled toxic waste sites tend to be housed in communities of color.

Nationally, the EPA reports that 45% of people of color live within three miles of Superfund sites – places contaminated by hazardous waste to the point of requiring remediation by the US EPA.

Cleveland State professor William Bowen studies environmental justice and urban planning – he says that while it may be difficult to prove a cause and effect relationship between people of color and waste sites, there is a clear connection.  “I don’t think there’s any question that minorities and low income families both tend to be located in environmentally less attractive areas, and areas that have more pollution in them,” said Bowen.

The 2007 United Church of Christ report concludes “polluting industries continue to follow a path of least resistance” and vulnerable communities have a quiet voice, or no voice at all.

James Miles is happy the city is working to finally clean up the park. 

“If there’s any kind of contamination down here at all, I’m more than excited to see it finally getting the attention it needs around here,” said Miles.

...but the city isn’t as toxic as it used to be

Reverend Brooks Berndt is the current minister of environmental justice at United Church of Christ.  For the 30th anniversary of Toxic Wastes and Race, he’s interviewing key people in the environmental justice movement.  Over the years, UCC’s environmental justice mission has become focused on climate change.

And since the 1987 report, Cleveland’s own history with toxic waste sites has changed and improved in some ways.  Take downtown, which in the 1987 report was classified as the “Terminal Tower Area”, and one of the worst in Cleveland. 

“Within this area, there were 2 active commercial facilities at the time and 13 uncontrolled toxic waste sites,” said Rev. Berndt.  “No one is thinking or talking about that now – this is the crown jewel of Cleveland.”

In terms of parks, the city of Cleveland owns 163 of them.  The city has picked 5, including Marion Motley, and are in the process of, or completed with, remediation.  Spronz says over the next 10 to 15 years, the city plans to renovate all major parks.  The city is also working on a map showing parks that were on or near industrial sites in order to select other parks that might be in need of remediation.

It’s an effort that may finally make visible the unseen, but lasting impacts from Cleveland’s industrial past.


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