In the end, the bridge that divided also brought justice.
In 2012, residents of the long-suffering Hillcrest area, along Corpus Christi’s refinery row, learned of a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) proposal to relocate and rebuild the aging 138-foot-tall Harbor Bridge. The new six-lane bridge and freeway would sever the neighborhood from the rest of the city and put up a massive barrier between Hillcrest and Washington-Coles, Corpus’ other historically black neighborhood. Hillcrest would be boxed in by highways on two sides and a vast complex of petrochemical plants on the other two. For people in Hillcrest, it was just the latest insult.
The neighborhoods — the only two in the city where African Americans were allowed to purchase or rent homes through the 1960s — are collectively known as the Northside. In the ’60s, construction of I-37, connecting Corpus with San Antonio, further isolated the Northside from the rest of the city. Expansion of the refineries soon followed, putting hundreds of homes next to one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical facilities in the nation. Residents have been exposed to the carcinogen benzene, potentially lethal hydrogen fluoride and a host of other chemicals linked to respiratory and nervous system problems as well as cancer.
In April, the Federal Highway Administration launched an investigation into whether TxDOT was violating residents’ civil rights by locating the Harbor Bridge in their communities and compounding the effects of decades of segregation and environmental injustices.
Eight months later, in December, Hillcrest residents finally got the news they’d been hoping for. As a result of the investigation, the Corpus Christi Port Authority and TxDOT will pay for residents to relocate to comparable homes in healthier environments.
Longtime Hillcrest resident Rosie Porter, who helped lead the charge against the bridge, said she wasn’t surprised. “I had already prayed on it and trusted and believed the right thing would happen — and it has.”
Though the Federal Highway Administration didn’t release a finding regarding the investigation, the agency secured an agreement from the port authority to spend $20 million on the buyouts. TxDOT will cover any additional costs. Owners of about 450 homes in Hillcrest and a small part of Washington-Coles will receive the market value of their homes plus the difference in price between their old homes and comparably priced new homes, in addition to moving costs. The agreement will also help renters, churches and small businesses who want to relocate.
Porter said she will likely move, but she and her neighbors are waiting to see whether the port authority and TxDOT will deliver. “From our perspective there are options for everybody in this neighborhood and that’s what our clients wanted,” said Erin Gaines, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the group that filed the civil rights complaint on behalf of the residents.
Folks in Hillcrest can choose to stay. The port authority and TxDOT will pay for improvements to their homes and to local parks. TxDOT has also agreed to mitigate construction impacts such as noise and pollution.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Gaines. “This neighborhood has been through so many battles and impacts coming from all directions for so long, that it is very exciting for us to see that people’s voices were actually heard and taken into account.”