How Gentrification WILL Eradicate Environmental Justice

By: Yolanda Anita Sanchez

Environmental Justice combines the unequal placement of hazardous waste sites and the enforcement of environmental laws and other safety standards.  Usually ethnic/minority and poor communities make easy targets for environmental risk, because they lack social power.  Social power includes political and educational skills along with financial resources.  Without social power, communities can do little to fight environmental risks within their community.  In the “’Polluting the Body Politic’: Race and Urban Location chapter of Racist Culture, David Goldberg argues that urban structure in its “definition, maintenance, distribution, experience, reproduction, and transformation – are at once fundamental influence upon the social relations of power.”  On the other hand, the Environmental Justice movement educates residents, while moving the community in a progressive motion toward environmental equity.  Moreover, Environmental Justice promotes community empowerment, while demanding government accountability.

South Phoenix is an example of a community that for many years lacked the social power needed to combat the overburden of environmental risks in their neighborhoods.  However, in 1992 the Quality Printing Circuit fire triggered the community to start fighting back.  According to Steve Brittle of ‘Don’t Waste Arizona’ the neighborhood pets were dying during the weeks after the fire, there was an increase in illnesses and the mortality rate in the neighborhood of the fire.  The neighbors organized and started the Concerned Residents of South Phoenix (CRSP) group.  The disproportionately poor environmental conditions of their neighborhoods enrage members of CRSP, and the daily constant exposures to hazardous waste concern them.  In the 10 years since the fire, the group has begun to fight back.  But, the changes in the local community may impede the process. 

Goldberg describes gentrification as a ‘structural phenomenon.’  Goldberg proclaims “It involves tax-assisted displacement of longtime inner city resident poor, renovation of the vacated residential space, upscaling the neighborhood, and resettling the area with inhabitants of higher socioeconomic status.”  Basically the process tears apart the community by relocating the ‘old’ residents. 

Gentrification threatens the Environmental Justice movement by rupturing communities that have finally become empowered.  The South Phoenix residents have just begun to work as a cohesive group, take action against polluters, and hold their government accountable.  They have learned which neighbors to count on, which representatives to call, and which planning committee to meet with.  Displacing the residents will eradicate all of the contacts and all of the cooperation.  Thus, it will eradicate all of the hope.

Upscaling the community with new houses and new residents, may be followed by a removal of environmental risks.  A combination of rising property taxes, protesting residents (that move-in with social power), and changes in city planning (such as Rio Salado’s Beyond the Banks plans) may result in environmental polluting companies leaving and polluted land being cleaned.  However, the new clean environment will be for the new residents.  Moreover, Phoenix will not stop industrialism, and they will need an environment to pollute.  

Chances are the polluters will follow the old displaced residents.  Once again, the residents will move into an area that will be underinvested and underserved.  Yet, this time the residents will be less sanctioned to fight back.  Their allies gone; their representatives alien; and their hope expended.  Gentrification of South Phoenix will rip apart the once organized community, thus kill the Environmental Justice movement in the area.  Overall, the Environmental Justice Movement in South Phoenix will be a ghost of the gentrification past.

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See more about Environmental Justice in South Phoenix


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