The Toxic Problems of the Clarkesville Neighborhood, Ypsilanti

What do you do when a city report confirms what everyone already knew, that your neighborhood sits next to Ypsilanti’s former city dump? What are your options when a study of soil samples of the dump site finds lead, cadmium, chromium, zinc, barium, naphthalene, and methane gas? The residents of the Clarkesville neighborhood, southeast of South Huron and Spring, along Kramer and Bell Streets, are sandwiched in between the I-94, the Huron Street interchange, three gas stations, vacant industrial property, and the old dump. As far back as 1998, the city proposed rezoning the area as “mixed industrial/commercial.” In 2013, at the same time property owners were being notified about the soil toxicity due to the gas stations and dump, the city adopted an updated Master Plan, known as Shape Ypsi. There are echoes of the 1960s battle over urban renewal in the adjacent Parkridge neighborhood, which also bordered the dump and the highway, in the information packet available at the September 6, 2016 City Council meeting: the 2013 Shape Ypsi plan noted the number of neighborhood foreclosures, as well as the dump, highway, and high volume of traffic to support rezoning the neighborhood from R2 residential to production, manufacturing, and distribution (PMD). This meant that the homes in a previously residential district were now “non-conforming,” which limited homeowners’ options. While they are allowed to stay in their homes and sell them as residences, they cannot rebuild or remodel them beyond a certain dollar amount based on the homes’ value. That’s a problem if, say, your house catches on fire.

If it were not for the toxicity in the soil, it would be the zoning, not the dump that smelled funny. There are some parallels with Ypsilanti’s Parkidge Urban Renewal project and the ways the city fought “slum-like conditions” by eliminating “substandard” housing, but instead exacerbated the “blight” they promised to eliminate. Until the late-1960s, African-American residents were essentially shut out of Federally-insured mortgages, or home improvement loans. While many tried to make improvements to their homes to keep them from being declared “substandard,” there wasn’t a lot of incentive to put money into a home that the city had its eyes on. Add to that, homeowners were faced with monopoly conditions: They couldn’t sell their homes to anyone other than the city, which planned to demolish them for redevelopment. Today, the residents in the Clarkesville neighborhood aren’t even faced with this crummy prospect, due to the redirection of federal housing policy towards the free market and “public-private partnerships.”

The tragedy in 2016 is manifold: the city is broke and can’t buy out those residents who might want to move; federal funds for contamination cleanup are not as available as in the Love Canal days; residents who do find a buyer for their homes discover that banks won’t provide mortgages for property next to a toxic site; residents who remain may be exposed to lead and other toxic elements. Because the toxicity is in the groundwater, which is not stable, but flows southeast (think of the area around the big, lighted billboard on the westbound Huron Street offramp, and under I-94 itself), “capping” the property is not a solution. Finally, and most importantly, some homeowners have lived on Bell and Kramer Streets for half a century. Even if the city could do property swaps with homeowners, as was suggested at the September 6 City Council meeting, a house is not the same as a home. As Southside resident John Barnes reminded the city at a hearing in October 1961 after City Council voted in favor of the urban renewal program, “They don’t want a house, they want a home. A home that they have made their own for 20 years or more or less and they want that home that they have seeked out and sought out and worked for and toiled for and still want to inhabit that same home.” The environmental injustice of locating the city dump next to Ypsilanti’s African-American neighborhoods in the 1940s continues. How is it going to be made right?

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