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In a story that appeared on the front page of The Times-Picayune and on about the New Orleans Rail Gateway program, a study that considers a plan to reroute east-west freight train traffic carrying hazardous chemicals from Old Metairie to Hollygrove, I was struck by a quote from Walter Brooks, executive director of Regional Planning Commission.

Here’s what Brooks said, according to the T-P:

“I have not seen a lot of opposition in New Orleans at this point. I think the interest is to make sure there is adequate mitigation, in the Hollygrove area in particular.”

What? Really? What do you mean by “a lot”? Has there been a little? Has there been any? Nothing? Are elected and appointed leaders that represent the interests of Black New Orleanians actually saying nothing about the bright idea to essentially commit environmental racism by rerouting this train traffic from Old Metairie, which is predominantly White and where the median household income is more than $85,000, to the nearly all-Black Hollygrove where the median income is less than $24,000?

Wait…need to pick my jaw up off the floor before I can continue writing…

Okay, now that the initial shock has faded, I must admit I am not so surprised, about the plan, that is. I mean when haven’t the interests of the richer and whiter trumped those of the marginalized, poorer and more often than not Black or members of some other group considered a minority.

Don’t want to take my word for it. Here are just a few examples:

• French quarter business owners and residents didn’t want to see their neighborhood destroyed and the elevated expressway is erected along Claiborne to the detriment of once thriving Black communities. Oddly enough, as this very same area begins to gentrify, a proposal to tear down the overpass is now being seriously examined.
• In 1963 when state officials built the White Ditch Siphon, to flush fresh water from the Mississippi River into the bays and bayous, it destroyed most of the oyster beds owned by Blacks in the largely Black fishing communities south of New Orleans. At the peak, Blacks owned almost 10,000 acres of oyster beds. As of 2010, that number was closer to 1,500.
• The saga of Katrina is perhaps the greatest example of short end of the stick for the poor Black folk in New Orleans. Mostly poor, mostly Black people who couldn’t afford to evacuate were rescued from the flooded city and treated like refugees. Jobs eliminated, housing torn down, school system stolen and the communities many called home eyed for “green space”.

And now this plan—a blatant, flagrant slap in the face to the residents of Hollygrove and New Orleanians in general. News of the study has been covered by several local outlets, including The Advocate and a number of local television stations. The media reports say it is just a proposal, a consideration, an option, an idea that is being mulled, suggesting that any implementation of plans in this rail study is still far off. The study is expected to take another year-and half or so, they say. Nothing is etched in stone, they say. It is still wait and see, they say. (Translation: Y’all keep sleeping in Orleans Parish, and before you know it New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward, Gentilly and Central City will all be landfills. All that will remain is downtown, Uptown, the French Quarter and Lakeview).

I say that makes right NOW the perfect time for local leadership to make it abundantly clear to their colleagues across the region that Hollygrove will not be sacrificed for Old Metairie, poor will not be sacrificed for rich, Black New Orleanians will not be sacrificed for wealthier Whites living in a neighboring parish.

Make no mistake about it, environmental racism is real. It has been defined as “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement”. And since the early seventies, there have been reports drawing a connection between race, income and risk of exposure to pollutants. Some studies and incidents have shown that even affluent Blacks have a difficult, if not impossible task, when it comes to keeping hazardous exposures out of their communities. More importantly, environmental racism is afoot in this railway program.

This is not a win-win for the metro area. As it stands now, the train traffic—about two a day—in the Hollygrove area is largely passenger. But if this reprehensible plan gains more traction and is chosen, poor Black people in Hollygrove will either be displaced or subject to the potentially harmful impact of hazardous chemicals that will pass through the area via 28 trains a day.

Wait, not one leader representing the needs and welfare of Hollygrove residents has stood up against this idea? Not the mayor, a city councilman, a state senator or representative, a congressman? Somebody? Anybody?

Just so you know Jefferson Parish President John Young reportedly thinks it is a great idea. And why wouldn’t he? It would alleviate the train travel and traffic issues in his jurisdiction and appease his constituents who I am certain have never been happy with the idea of chemical and petroleum products being ferried along railways in their community. By the way, he is the one who reportedly called the proposal a “win-win” for the entire metro area. To be sure, some Hollygrove residents don’t see it that way.

So even as John Young is working hard to convince the region that this is really a good idea, not a single appointed or elected individual representing Orleans has voiced enough concern about this proposal to give Mr. Brooks pause? With an election for mayor and city-wide council seats just around the bend, not one person has bothered to call Mr. Brooks to let him know New Orleans ain’t going for it, that Old Metairie can keep its train tracks and the chemicals that traverse them? Are they really going to sit back and twiddle their thumbs while Hollygrove gets hammered?

Let’s get real. Let’s not think for once second that this is about traffic congestion. According to the T-P report, drivers waste more than 112 hours in delays because of the trains. And I think there are those that want us to believe the traffic issue is critical here. Please, this isn’t about traffic at all. If it was, then the other option to elevate the tracks, alleviating traffic holdups for vehicles that have to cross the gateway, that is also being “considered” (translation, let’s at least pretend like we are studying another option in this program) would be sufficient. The two proposals cost the same. So what makes one more appealing than other?

Umm, not an urban planner or an engineer, but I’ll take a stab at it. One leaves the tracks and the hazardous chemical-carrying trains that use them in Old Metairie…over there…too close to well-heeled neighborhoods. The other brings the railway over here to neighborhoods inhabited by poorer Black residents —many of them already so marginalized that they didn’t even know about the nefarious plot in the works to carry potentially poisonous chemicals though their area while increasing train traffic by a 1300 percent.

Yes, this is a Black and White issue. This is a classic case of “not in my backyard”.

And I am still trying to figure if leaders in Orleans understand that they too have a backyard to protect?

Anitra D. Brown
Anitra D. Brown

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