At 14, Trinidad Flores was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which an enlarged heart struggles to pump blood. His mom, Little Earth’s Cassandra Holmes, watched him endure three surgeries and a failed heart transplant before he died in 2013 at age 16.
Now she’s leading a charge to decrease the pollution in South Minneapolis.
She doesn’t want to see any more neighborhood babies born in need of breathing tubes, or young people who’ve succumbed to asthma and diabetes.
During a community meeting about the Roof Depot site off Hiawatha and 28th St. on June 17, 2019, Holmes walked through the crowd holding up maps that show how many kids in the neighborhood have been treated for lead poisoning, how many have visited the emergency room because of asthma attacks, and how many have dealt with arsenic poisoning.
For every 10,000 people, over 200 are hospitalized because of asthma in this area. Of the 7,000 children who live in Phillips, about 40% live in poverty and 80% fall into various ethnic groups.
The Clark/Berglin Environmental Justice Law was enacted by the state legislature in 2008 in an effort to curb the amount of pollution in this South Minneapolis area, particularly in the Arsenic Triangle near Cedar and 28th where the Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant still operate, belching out fumes each day over Phillips, the Midtown Greenway, South High School, and the rest of us.
“This is what environmental injustice looks like,” former state legislator Karen Clark told those gathered on June 17 at the East Phillips Recreation and Cultural Center.
“People tell me, “I plug my nose when I drive past your neighborhood,” observed Steve Sandberg.
“We want to live a long life and we don’t want any more trucks in our community,” said Holmes. She pointed out that residents have asked the city to consider the load Phillips already carries and support the EPNI plan community members put together in response to the needs they know they have.
They see the trouble residents have finding apartments and homes they can afford. They see the problem of not having access to fresh, green vegetables. They want their kids to have better. They want to be part of fixing things for their neighborhood and the world, and they have some bright ideas about using aquaponics and solar power in their corner of South Minneapolis. They’re inspired by the Midtown Greenway and want to fashion a neighborhood that places a high priority on biking and walking – two methods of travel that are accessible to the poor and the rich, build better health, and don’t spew pollution into the air.
And so the idea for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm was born. To make it affordable, planners pinpointed a large building that they could reuse (another green initiative).
But the city has other plans for the former Roof Depot site, and it involves moving its water yard there. They intend to use the land to store manhole covers, sewer pipes, and sand-salt mix, and send out public work’s fleet of diesel trucks into other areas, concentrating the air pollution. Although EPNI once sought to buy the entire site, after the city threatened eminent domain and subsequently purchased it out from under the community, EPNI asked for three acres, then two acres, and then one acre.
“They said ‘No,” pointed out Holmes. And they haven’t once allowed the community group to present to the city council.
So she asked community members to take out their phones, and engage in grassroots organizing by calling their city council members one by one and asking them to support the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm.
Twenty-nine-year-old Margarita Ortega took out her phone. “I know what it’s like to grow up in pollution and grow up with asthma and breathing problems,” Ortega said. “I have two children going through it, as well.” The Little Earth resident also knows what it is like to struggle to find green food, and is excited by the idea of an indoor urban farm within a few blocks of her house. She shook her head when talking about city staff and council members. “They’re just worried about money and power,” she said.
Adam Fairbanks doesn’t live in South Minneapolis anymore, but his family still does. He took out his phone, too, and started calling city council members. He works with Red Lake and helped meet the needs of residents at the Wall of Forgotten Natives last year where he saw the large number of nebulizers and inhalers prescribed to those who were there. He blames the smog and pollution in Phillips for the health problems residents have.
“I’m amazed that the city has not supported this project,” Fairbanks said.
“They don’t listen,” agreed Cindi Sutter, who has dreams of living at a revitalized Roof Depot and having access to garden plots and solar energy.
Abah Mohamad had her phone out, too. She’s also baffled about why the city isn’t supporting the urban farm plan. “It has everything the community needs,” Mohamed pointed out. “I’m a little bit emotional and very upset. It is the only hope and only vision that this neighborhood has. It’s exactly what will serve the neighborhood.”
Is this the same city and the same leaders that are telling the nation that they are encouraging community involvement, racial equity, and affordable housing?
Is this the same city that pledged to do something about homelessness following the largest homeless encampment last summer that this state has ever seen, and is going into another summer without having made much progress towards solving things?
Are they really ignoring a plan that’s already in process, is designed, has funds already designated, and could be up and running quickly in a building currently sitting empty that helps our community solve homelessness in a comprehensive manner?
Talking about issues and supporting grassroots activism is something newspapers are very, very good at. We’re here to shine the light into the dark corners of government, like this one. We’re here to give you the information you need to change your communities for the better.
While the Roof Depot site and the center of the controversy is in Phillips neighborhood, it isn’t confined to that one neighborhood. It affects all of South Minneapolis. If this water yard and its trucks start traveling along Cedar and Hiawatha and 26th and 28th, the pollution center will spread outward. Travel along the Midtown Greenway now in the Longfellow/Seward section and you’ll be accosted by the strong fumes from the existing foundry and asphalt plant, as well as vehicle traffic.
This is an issue that affects the health of our children, our ability to breath in this city that we love, and our ability to live the lives we want to.
And, so, Holmes is asking, “Will you take out your phone?”