Urban Revitalization Is Also Social Justice

By Tyler Lewis

Low-income neighborhoods are often the sites of dumping and waste, and experts continue to debate how communities fix this or not preserve themselves at all. Attempts at urban revitalization are often seen as an encroaching gentrification. And while the pricing out of Black residents is a very real occurrence, the need to revive Black neighborhoods is also a quality of life issue.

“Race and class are extremely reliable indicators as to where one might find the good stuff, like parks and trees, and where one might find the bad stuff, like power plants and waste facilities,” said Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist, who addressed this issue during a lecture titled “Community as Corporation,” held on Sept. 13th at the Qatar Pharmacy Auditorium on Xavier University of Louisiana’s campus. Carter is a Peabody award-winning broadcaster and 2005 MacArthur Genius fellow.

Roughly 30 to 40 percent of New York City’s commercial waste is dumped in the South Bronx, according to Carter. After leaving for Wesleyan University back in the early 80’s, where she studied film, Carter returned to her native Hunts Point area of The Bronx to help her community have a decent quality of life. She revealed that many South Bronx natives desired coffee shops, nice parks, housing that matches their income, and people just like them within their community. They wanted to feel at home and not like they were living in a wasteland, she said. In 2001, she started a campaign that changed an illegal dumping ground to what is now known as Hunts Point Riverside Park.

“As a Black person in America, I am twice as likely as a White person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health,” Carter said. “I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility – which I do,” she said.

A 2018 EPA report found that poor people were 1.35 times more likely to be exposed to particulate emissions than did the overall population. People of color had 1.28 times higher burden of being exposed and Black people, specifically, had 1.54 times higher burden of being exposed to toxic emissions than did the overall population, the study published in the American Journal of Public Health noted. These emissions could come from a landfill, a nearby industrial plant or a truck depot, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Carter said she and residents within the South Bronx community were tired of living with waste. Some grew accustomed to it and Carter wanted to fix that mindset. Aside from being an urban revitalization strategist, she is also a real estate developer. She helped open a coffee shop called The Boogie Down Grind Café. The coffee shop would segue to what Carter believes to be a good start of environmental justice. But her ideas were not always met with open arms.

“We like to see the work that we do as self-gentrification – ‘Local sell out, Majora Carter,’” is what Carter found on a sticker and in many different parts of her neighborhood. Carter believes that everyone who is against her simply misunderstands her motives and philosophy. She wants to build affordable housing and help create self-owned Black business. “My motto is for us and by us,” Carter said.

The residents of the South Bronx assumed that building things that Black people consider ‘White’ will uproot them out of their homes and businesses. Gentrification is a huge scare to people in low-income neighborhoods, she said, whether it’s New York or New Orleans.

“Prior to Katrina, the South Bronx and New Orleans’ Ninth Ward had a lot in common. Both were largely populated by poor people of color, both hotbeds of cultural innovation: think hip-hop and jazz. Both are waterfront communities that host both industries and residents in close proximity of one another,” Carter said.

The only way to help be a part of rebuilding Black communities, Carter explained, is using whatever power and resources we have as individuals. By helping the community help themselves, Black people can become one step closer to environmental justice and bringing life back to our communities.

These should be programs that are led by locals, from the ground up, experts said.

“For New Orleans, many outsiders have come in and have dictated what they want to see in our communities and locals have felt and been excluded,” said Tyra Gross, an Assistant Professor of Public Health at Xavier. “It’s important for the City to allow its own residents the opportunity to voice what they want.”

Neighborhoods should find ways to harness the expertise and entrepreneurs already there to find ways to revive communities “It’s also important to train and retain local talent so that the idea of ‘making it’ doesn’t mean leaving the city or state for better opportunities,” Gross said. “We can have those opportunities right here in the Crescent City,” she said.

That was the message translated to the next generation.

“Her goal to make low-income communities flourish is inspiring because many choose to focus on profiting off of poor people. She’s motivated me to invest in my community to make it a better place,” said Brooke Kelly, a Xavier student who attended the lecture. His or not preserve themselves at all. Attempts at urban revitalization are often seen as an encroaching gentrification. And while the pricing out of Black residents is a very real occurrence, the need to revive Black neighborhoods is also a quality of life issue.

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