NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Thursday October 17th 2019

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ANALYSIS: Environmental racism, degradation not new to Phillips

Residents disregarded by city for decades and, perhaps, more is yet to come

by HARVEY WINJE

The Mpls. City Council’s recent denial of any use of the Roof Depot site by East Phillips Neighborhood Institute is a continuation of the institutionalized environmental racism that has plagued local residents for decades.  The continuing prejudicial treatment ensures that the same devastation to the neighborhood will keep happening in years ahead.

In 1939, an incinerator was built adjacent to Pioneer and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery in spite of broad disagreement and protest by the South Minneapolis Association (a large coalition of many sub-groups), the area’s City Council Alderman, and the Mayor. Organizing meetings at the old South High School (current site of Little Earth of United Tribes) had 3,000 people attending and 300 people protesting at a city council meeting.

At the time of the building of this incinerator in the 20th century, large tracts of land east of the Cemetery were occupied by railroad yards and large industries. Also nearby, at the intersection of 28th St. and Hiawatha, there was a large Sears Roebucks Warehouse, an oil and fuel distributor, an arsenic distribution center (arsenic was used as pesticide to wipe out the grasshopper infestation), and other businesses.

There were three dozen houses in the immediate area and many more between there and Cedar Ave.  In the early decades of Minneapolis, it was convenient for worker housing to be near the industry.  As the impact of industrial pollution became apparent, this closeness of industry and residential living became an obvious contradiction and harmful to thousands of people.

The pattern was set as government then proceeded to allow more facilities around that incinerator. With the incinerator’s existence, it was more convenient and was the path of least resistance in an area where residents were perceived to not have the same clout as wealthier residents in other parts of the city.

More environmental degradations attempted in name of ‘Public Good’ 

The pollution increased but the houses remained for a time. Additional land was cleared nearby when the original South High School was demolished to build housing (now Little Earth of United Tribes).  Then, three decades ago, 35 houses and 8 commercial were purchased and demolished to clear land for a large garbage transfer station by Hennepin County for 750 city garbage trucks to dump their loads each day.

Neighbors fought that intrusion for over a decade and finally succeeded in convincing county authorities that, in fact, this garbage transfer station wasn’t needed anywhere in the Minneapolis.  The county had been using outdated garbage and recycling statistics to justify the need for this facility.  The city disagreed but lost the battle. There were other victories such as the defeat of the Midtown Eco-burner (Cogenerating Plant) proposal in 2007 and the campaign to force Xcel Energy to bury high voltage power lines in 2009 along the Midtown Greenway in Phillips rather than having them overhead.

Further colonization and city

Today, the city is still after more land and the environmental degradations continue. The city again runs rampant against local opposition in their intent to demolish the Sears Warehouse (now called Roof Depot) to expand the city’s adjacent public works facility (including asphalt production).

At a recent meeting in the neighborhood, a city official said, privately after the meeting, that testimony during the meeting declaring that other neighborhoods didn’t want such a facility wasn’t true.  He said that there were other areas where it could be located successfully.  He then added that no other site had the advantage of having a current facility such as Public Works like that between the Sears/Roof Depot site and 26th St.

This declaration was a forewarning in disguise that this whole area is doomed.  With this mindset, the city will cross 28th St., Longfellow Ave., and 26th St., demolish existing houses and buildings, and amass more city facilities and add to the environmental degradation to a part of the city they deem dispensable. The current 9-acre proposal will be increased to who knows how many acres. This, in turn, can add to broader community destabilization.

It is a “domino effect” – as one domino falls, it knocks down another.  As one house is demolished,then another will be demolished.  As one block is demolished, then another will be lost. 

The current city council and city staff are repeating and promoting the strategies employed through environmental racism that began decades ago and has been repeated again and again. 

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