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Inside a Neighborhood’s Fight Against Environmental Racism in HTX | Interview with Four Fifth-Ward Activists

In January, the Department of State Health Services declared another cancer cluster in Houston’s Fifth Ward, with skyrocketing rates of leukemia and other illnesses in the area.  Kashmere Gardens is a recently settled, historically African American neighborhood within Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward. Established as a freedman’s town following the Civil War, Texas Southern University-professor Robert Bullard describes the Fifth Ward in his historical account Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust, as “one of the few areas of Houston where Blacks were permitted to own homes and operates businesses.” The area would go on to become a prosperous center of Black owned businesses, local civil rights activism, blues music, jazz and hip-hop. These local achievements would be undermined over decades as the construction of Interstate 10 and U.S. 59 Highway bulldozed through the Fifth Ward and split the community.   

Cratered in the middle of this enclave is the Union Pacific Englewood Railyard, one of the largest railway yards in the county. Union Pacific purchased the land in 1996 from Southern Pacific, after the facility had served as an industrial wood-processing plant, employing a toxic carcinogen known as creosote. Southern Pacific Railroad operated in the Fifth Ward going back over a century to 1889 and was one of the largest employers of local African American labor. In 1979, Texas Monthly reported that “[t]he Mexican Americans living in east Fifth Ward call the area el Creosote because of the smell emanating from SP’s wood-preservation plant. Here in Englewood Yard, the railroad will treat and ship 1.7 million crossties a year, valued at $22.1 million.” While the wood-processing plant has not operated since 1985, the toxin has collected for decades into an underground plume, contaminating much of the soil and groundwater of the neighborhood and poisoning its residents. Pressure on Union Pacific to get its act together has been mounting since 2019, as this year the company recently finished its expansion of the Englewood station into a “flagship hump yard,” aiming to service up to 3000 cars daily and meet growing demands from accelerating fossil fuel and petrochemical trade at the Port of Houston.

Like many of Houston’s historically Black and Brown communities, Kashmere Gardens feels the sharpest edge of the city’s economic expansion and waste. Paradoxically, money that is not available to help Black residents who live there is also readily available as soon as they leave.  Real-estate investors are itching to gentrify and redevelop the Fifth Ward because of its proximity to downtown Houston. At the same time, were it not for a racially segregated and oppressed population, disposable in the eyes of the city’s wealthy establishment, it’s unlikely polluters like the railroads would be able continue operating as they do in the heart of Houston. Section 44 spoke with Leisa Glenn, Andre West, Mary Hutchins and Sandra Edwards – residents and leaders of Impact 5th Ward, a grassroots organization leading the fight against Union Pacific – to discuss what’s happened and what comes next. Readers can follow updates on Impact 5th Ward’s work and upcoming events in March at their Facebook page here. This is an edited compilation of two interviews that took place on January 29th and February 4th. Stay tuned for more on this ongoing struggle; an interview with Houston-based artist, Ronald Jones and creator of the recently premiered film, “Again Together: the Cumulative Impacts of Environmental Racism in Houston” can be found here.

Could you start by describing what has taken place in Fifth Ward since the railroad companies began dumping chemicals in your neighborhood – and describe the impact that’s had on the community. What does it generally look like in the Fifth Ward as a consequence of Union and Southern Pacific?

Andre West: Right now, it’s like a ghost-town in the Fifth Ward-Kashmere Gardens area. It’s like all of the life has been taken out of the community, with hundreds of deaths. Now we’re faced with the cancer cluster of the leukemia for the children. Union Pacific has been fighting us tooth and nail, saying that the reason people are getting cancer in the community is ‘because of their lifestyle.’ So, what are they going to say now when it’s the children that are coming down with leukemia and becoming ill – that it’s their lifestyle? Yeah, it’s their lifestyle, it’s the lifestyle of living and being able to exist drinking water from out there, playing in the soil out there, the air being polluted. So, I guess now they’re going to be able to see what we’ve been able to see all along that it’s from the contamination that’s been piped into our communities. 

Sandra Edwards: I’ve lived in Fifth Ward all of my life. The pollution has killed the community. So many people are gone now it’s not even a community – it’s like a death-valley. Out of 20 families on my street, there are only five families left. Private businesses are gone; you used to see kids play outside but loved ones have died and the kids have to live with extended family elsewhere. No one moves in because you know that people are dying from the contamination out here. Anyone can come and walk through the area and see for themselves – there are lots of ghost houses now, everywhere. The air quality test four weeks ago – went off the scale. When we went to the freeway, you’re on the scale. The neighborhood air is more contaminated than the freeway!

Leisa Glenn: They told us that in order to keep the contamination out of the railyard, they put down a concrete barrier to protect themselves from the contamination. Our question was, where is our concrete? We cook with the water. We drink the water, we take a bath in it, wash our clothes in it, we bake with it, we live in it. All day long, you have to use the water. So, I can’t stand how they keep saying it’s ‘the lifestyle.’ You do everything with this water you can possibly do. At the end of the night, you take a bath and brush your teeth – same water at the end of the night, the same water when you wake up in the morning, you can’t help[?] us if its contaminated. Have you smelled creosote? That creosote is so horrible. We woke up to it in the morning, went to bed with it at night. Sometimes, it would be so strong that everyone in the house would be coughing and had to get out of the bed because you couldn’t sleep. They would turn it up or add more of it and you would be choking, struggling to breathe, to survive. Lavender Street is a graveyard – everybody on the street died. There are a few of us left. But, basically everybody on the street died.

That’s just horrific beyond words – an entire street? So, this has to go back generations, then?

Mary Hutchins: Once we had a street that was full of people. It was considered to be a neighborhood. It’s a ghost town now.  Most of the kids I knew, including myself, were asthmatic as children. I also had to go to the doctor every other day, or every other week to take my allergy shots. 

Sandra Edwards: I think I’m the only one out here that doesn’t have any health issue and that’s because I left at 16 and came back after my parents got sick. I didn’t come back until 2011. I think if I had stayed constantly like most of the people, I would have an illness. I’m not saying I’m fairly healthy, because I didn’t have allergies until I started living here so the allergies could very well have come from this. It’s just heartbreaking to know that you’re the one person out of a whole community …

Andre West: We’ve just lost a former president of Impact to COVID – in fact, the funeral is in a few days. And she lost her son to cancer, while she herself was a breast cancer survivor. Myself, from eight years old, I had to have therapy every day, because balls had developed on my joints. I would have to go in, the doctor would have to lance them, and it would smell so horrible. I would have to be put in a whorl pool every day. My mom had to take off work and take me and have me put in a whorl pool over at Homestead Hospital every day from being eight years old to nine. A whole year was stripped away from my life, a whole school calendar year. They then told me it was juvenile arthritis. But it came from playing out there in that soil, where that creosote contamination just ate through my bones. Now, I’m going to be 57 years old and I’m dealing with all kinds of bone deficiencies. I have to take over fifty thousand units of Vitamin D, and I have to take it once a week, because I can’t do the ones that come from over the counter because those are not enough to help my bones. I have brittle bones; I have to be careful even with my back. My bones are so brittle back there that if I move the wrong way, walk the wrong way, or make an awkward step, I could break my back. Meanwhile, Union Pacific is telling us there’s nothing they can do. I had to have total knee replacement on both of my knees. And, they keep saying “we’re not at fault, we’re not at fault” – the hell if you’re not.

We’re terribly sorry to hear about the former president’s passing on top of everything you have been describing in such horrific detail. This is a standard excuse that corporations come up with which is to blame the victim so that they don’t have to take responsibility for the harm that their causing. Do you see any similarities between what’s happened in Fifth Ward and what’s happened, for example, in Michigan around Flint?

Andre West: That’s exactly what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the same thing that happened in Flint. We’re seeing the same thing that’s happened with Big Tobacco, we’re seeing the same thing that happened in California with Erin Brockovich and her team in Hinkley, California. We’re seeing the repeat of the same thing over and over, in the predominantly Black and Brown communities and poverty-stricken communities – they can’t continue to do us like that. Take your junk to West U, take your junk to Rice Village, take your junk to the Heights, take your junk somewhere else. I don’t mean disrespect or prejudice, but put it over there in the white neighborhoods sometime, take your junk over there and see what results you’re going to get from that; they’re not going to allow you coming into their community; they have all kinds of restrictions, homeowner’s associations, to keep all these doggone chemicals out of their neighborhoods. Why can’t we afford the same thing? Give us the same thing. Give us the same rights that they give West U, Rice Village, and all these big, predominant, high class communities.

That’s right. This is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S, which also saw some of the largest Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Houston this summer with 60,000 people on the streets. What do you think the connection is between the struggle in Fifth Ward-Kashmere Gardens and the BLM protests this summer?

Andre West: Racial bias, racial bias. We’ve been stereotyped because of the color of our skin. I’m seeing the same thing that’s happening with the vaccine. They keep saying ‘the Black community doesn’t want the vaccine.’ Hell, we want to live just like everybody else! So, bring the vaccine to our communities. Most of the people that live in the Fifth Ward-Kashmere Gardens area don’t have transportation besides the metro transit, so bring the vaccine to us … They keep saying over and over again, ‘the Blacks don’t want to take it because of what happened at Tuskegee, what happened with the vaccine that they gave the men that ended up with syphilis.’ That’s not the truth. They started giving the white population the most supplies of the vaccine in the first place, they took it down to [NRG Stadium] and people over there lined up. If you had a camera out there, you would have seen that it was predominantly white. Why don’t they start being fair? They never gave us our forty acres and a mule. We’ve already been disadvantaged from day one and now they’re killing us all. This is just a modern-day genocide over in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens. Just like they tried to kill off the Jewish population, they’re trying to kill off the Black population. We’re being ostracized all over again.

Can you speak a bit about the campaign’s demands?

Leisa Glenn: We have a lot of medical bills. Come pay our medical bills. I had to buy so much medicine, because of my stomach and all that I breathed. So many people in the neighborhood are taking medication. Some people found out they had cancer, and they bled out in their bedrooms. Ms. Youngblood lived across the street from us – and she literally bled out of the bed from when she had cancer. 

Andre West: How can you bring back a community, where you can’t even eat the pecans off the trees? How can you bring back anything that’s so dilapidated and so run down, so cursed with cancer? There’s no life you can bring back into that.

Sandra Edwards: It’s going to take fifty to one hundred years to clean up this stuff. It’s four decades worth of polluting – four decades too long. We know that they’re not going to get it up any time soon – even though we know they’re going to try and tell us that they can. That’s why we’re saying they need to relocate us; we don’t want to be here while you’re doing it. And we do not want to see any houses over here because no one should have to go through what we went through. It should go unbuilt because this was our land that we were forced to leave behind. A lot of people will take a deal [to relocate] and a lot of them won’t, because they don’t want to leave. They don’t think that starting over will be worth it in whatever deal happens. 

Mary Hutchins: They’re worried that they might get moved into another area where [property] taxes are really high – because of all the new housing they’re bringing in. Anything inside the 610 loop is convenient now. With the rails, you don’t need cars, because you can catch a rail to the office building. They’re twenty minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from the medical center; five minutes from downtown. You got the sports arenas, the concerts, activities, the restaurants. If you’re living next to a $250,000 establishment, your taxes are going to go up. They’ve been raising them for the last seven years.

Can talk a little about how the campaign has organized, given the challenges and obstacles you’re confronting?

Sandra Edwards: We’ve been going door to door. Talking to our neighbors, letting them know what’s going on and inviting them to our actions, which are often meetings, marches and pickets. We did a picket last year, for example, on Valentine’s Day. It’s all about keeping up the pressure on Union Pacific. We’re trying to learn how do this work in a pandemic. We weren’t prepared for it, we’re not trained for this, and we’ve been trying to figure it out by ear how to do it. Before the pandemic, we went door to door, throughout the neighborhood. We got people to walk with us. We held the marches and the pickets. And, we had meetings once a month at the church. We can’t do that now. When we go door to door, we knock and stand back and can’t talk to people how we would want. All of our meetings now are on Zoom. But we’re still going to try and do the marches and pickets soon – one way or another we’ll figure it out.  

Leisa Glenn: We made a “creosote man.” It’s our mascot. Its shirt says “Creosote Killed Me.” We set him in front of Union Pacific at our actions.

Andre West: We also have linked up with other organizations: THEA [Texas Health and Environment Alliance], Texas Housers, West Street Recovery. We have linked up with other organizations to let the city and the community know that that we have been ostracized in all kinds of ways, through housing development, through global warming, through city health; people are not getting the medical treatment that they need and deserve. They have been coming out and supporting us and supporting us with our protests, with our marches. We flyer on people’s doors to let people know what’s going on with the community. We held up their permits; we were fortunate to hold up their [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] permits. Now that they’ve done some cleanup, they want their permits back, and we’re fighting to make sure they don’t. It’s a fight and we’re not giving up.

How did people react when you told them what Union Pacific’s been up to?

Mary Hutchins: Oh, they know what Union Pacific has been doing.  

Sandra Edwards: A lot of people were scared at first, because they thought they had signed their rights away. That’s what Union Pacific wants – to make sure people think they can’t do anything. But we had to explain to them that you still have rights, you didn’t sign anything way. Don’t let them scare you like that. Do you want to fight or accept what they gave you? Our community has responded to that pretty well – once they know they can fight, they will. 

Is there anything else people should know and any events they should be looking forward to?

Andre West: We’re organizing a “March on Madness” protest for the month of March. This is to keep the pressure on Union Pacific. Everybody knows from the city hall, all the way to the state, to the capitol, to the EPA, to the TCEQ, Mayor Turner’s office, the city health department: they all know what’s going on. They all knew what happened. They all see what’s being done – which is nothing. They all see the community is fighting to get something done. So, my question to all those people is when are we going to get results? We already know what happened. We know when it happened. We know how it happened. So now get us some results to the problem. Give us some solutions; give us some conversation; give us some medical; give us our life back. Fifth Ward was a thriving community, a happy place to be, a happy to place to live and with a diversity of backgrounds: Hispanic, Blacks, whites – give us what everyone else is getting in the state of Texas and the city of Houston. Our governor gets on TV and talks a bunch of rhetoric from a political standpoint; we never did the political stuff out there in Fifth Ward. So, bring it to us like we live. Be honest with us about what’s going on, what’s happening, and what you’re doing. He says he’s piping in all the vaccines, but it hasn’t made it to the Black and Brown population and community as of yet. Give us the common courtesy and respect that they give to everybody else. Stop piping the big trucks into our neighborhood. Stop piping in the poison into our communities. Just be fair with us and give us some solutions, resources and money so we can be a thriving community.

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