Environmental justice and activism in an American city

Environmfullerental Justice and Activism in Indianapolis, by Trevor K. Fuller (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

This book is a short, technical study of two neighborhoods near downtown Indianapolis. Each community has about 10,000 residents, mostly African American in one and mostly Caucasian in the other. Both neighborhoods have a long history of heavy industry and high levels of land, water, and atmospheric pollution. Since the 1980s efforts to remediate these parts of the city have taken place, but with different degrees of success.

The author, a professor of geography at State University of New York at Oneonta, is interested in several aspects of his topic, including: the spatial distribution of hazards, the impact of social movements, environmental activism, attachment of residents to their space, social capital (networks that work for mutual benefit), the influence of the socio-ecological environment, and race.

Four of my long-time interests come into focus in this carefully drawn study: environmentalism, the role of churches in urban life; political activism, and cycling as a way of wandering around to experience the character of a place.

During my first period of life in Indianapolis (1961–1995), I was vaguely aware of the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood located on the near east side of the city. What I had heard of the community was that it was largely African American, low income, and struggling to improve the well-being of the people who lived there.

Ten years ago one of my daughters bought a house a little west of the neighborhood, and on family visits I frequently drove and bicycled through M-B on East 25th Street and saw a wide range of its positive and negative aspects. Since reestablishing my home in Indianapolis, I’ve cycled along its perimeter and am even more aware of the industries and brownfields that are part of its environmental history.

As Fuller tells the story, M-B has a record of community action since the 1980s, often in close association with community development agencies and the City of Indianapolis. One of the churches is cited as having had an important role in energizing efforts to deal with brownfields. Bicycling around M-B, I see some church buildings that are large, well-tended, and related to historically black denominations. They stand in sharp contrast to small store front churches described as a problem to the community (109).

There has been a continuing effort to rebuild the housing stock and upgrade the neighborhood with sustainability as a goal. The intention is that M-B be a good place to live, both for the people who are there now and those who will follow them in the next generation. To the dismay of many, however, sustainability leads to gentrification, so that many of the current residents find it difficult to remain.

Liberals are gored either way. When they live in the white suburbs and send their money down to MB, they are profiteering. When they choose to come back to the city, they are taking advantage of poor folk who can no longer afford to live there (104).

West Indianapolis, on the city’s near south side, has long been an industrial center. Heavy industry, such as a General Motors’ engine block foundry, have been there for a century and longer. Residents have made efforts to organize in order to get rid of pollution, but with limited success. Since I have no personal history with this neighborhood, I intend to begin bicycling around to experience it first hand.

The evidence seems strong that various entities, including city agencies and representatives of industries in the neighborhood such as Eli Lilly, discourage active efforts to remake West Indianapolis. Their goal would seem to be that the neighborhood should continue to be a base for industrial activity with residents continuing to get along as best they can in isolated pockets. Fuller uses the phrase “Cooptation by Corporation” (113).  Churches are referred to as community assets “because they are attractive and add charm” (110). It is clear, however, that the City has no interest in making West Indianapolis a sustainable community (117).

Fuller concludes that the “current spatial distribution of environmental hazards is predominantly based on class and income differences across the city” and that “the explicit racist policies and actions of the state over many decades. . .produced and re-produced the uneven environments across the City of Indianapolis” (119–20). The subtitle of Fuller’s concluding chapter is “Co-opting Environmental Justice.” Fuller writes that “government and non-government institutions, and public and private entities, exert influence on the perceptions and responses of residents within the two study areas” (119).

One reason why Martindale-Brightwood has been more effective than West Indianapolis is that “it appears to hold a higher amount of the institutional form of social capital which revolves around churches and formal organizations” (121). One conclusion that I, a life-long church goer, draw is this: by continuing to be what they already are, churches are assets to their community.


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