A Neighborhood Apart
A Corpus Christi highway project threatens to sever a community already devastated by industry.
Empty houses with boarded windows and peeling paint mar nearly every block of the Hillcrest neighborhood of Corpus Christi. Cement driveways disappear into green grass at hundreds of lots where homes used to stand. The vacant blocks form an L-shaped buffer zone on the neighborhood’s north and west sides, where energy companies bought and demolished houses to create distance between remaining homes and toxic emissions from neighboring refineries. Mammoth refineries owned by Flint Hills Resources and Citgo Petroleum border Hillcrest to the west. The Corpus Christi Ship Channel is to the north, but the refineries’ storage tanks and terminals block residents’ access to the shore. Interstate 37 marks Hillcrest’s boundary to the south. Washington-Coles, another low-income neighborhood, borders Hillcrest to the east.
Washington-Coles and Hillcrest—most Corpus Christi residents refer to them collectively as the Northside neighborhoods—were Corpus’ first black neighborhoods. Black Hillcrest residents went to Washington-Coles eateries, schools, parks and churches, and it was in the Northside neighborhoods that African-American and Hispanic community leaders held a memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. to prevent rioting after his assassination in 1968. Though most businesses shuttered long ago and the school board closed area schools, residents in the two neighborhoods share a sense of solidarity. But a looming Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) project could sever that bond.
The department wants to relocate and rebuild Corpus’ aging Harbor Bridge, and with the city’s backing, the agency plans to put the new bridge and its freeway squarely between Hillcrest and Washington-Coles, which would cut the neighborhoods off from each other. Hillcrest has a history of paying the price of the city’s urbanization and industrialization; its residents believe their community has long been Corpus Christi’s sacrificial lamb. A nascent probe by the Federal Highway Administration suggests they may not be far off the mark. In April, the agency launched an investigation into whether TxDOT violated Hillcrest residents’ civil rights by selecting a route that would cleave the neighborhoods. The move came one month after two residents filed a civil rights complaint and just weeks before federal officials were expected to approve the project so it could enter the bidding and construction stages. Residents say they hope that the investigation’s findings will shield them from what they see as the city and state’s final blow against their community.
This is not the first time Hillcrest residents have fought their city on the basis of discrimination, and their battles with neighboring energy companies have been the subject of previous Observer investigations. We’ve reported on claims of lethal health hazards endured by residents who live near the refineries, and last year I wrote about the disappointment in Hillcrest when a federal judge determined that Citgo’s Corpus refinery didn’t owe compensation for medical expenses or relocation costs.
After learning about the proposed bridge, I traveled to Corpus to conduct interviews with residents of the two neighborhoods. I met Lamont Taylor, who has lived in Hillcrest for nearly 60 years. Taylor is leading the fight against the bridge location as cofounder of the Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress. But he’s also locked in a more critical struggle. He is fighting Stage 4 prostate and bladder cancers that he attributes to a lifetime of living in a neighborhood where residents first were victimized by the petrochemical industry and now are being threatened by a callous government bureaucracy.
“We will not be marginalized or undervalued or disrespected,” Taylor told me. “That’s what they’re doing—disrespecting the neighborhood and discriminating. They have no sense of the flares that are coming out of the refinery right next to me, and down on my left it’s a freaking freeway that [they] put over here. So, I’m trapped and I’m isolated, and now what [they] want to do is rub salt in the wound [they’ve] already created [by building] a 200-foot structure right in the middle of the neighborhood again.”
TxDOT’s reason for building a new bridge is that the old one, built in 1959, is too costly to maintain and isn’t up to current safety standards. The agency also says the current bridge’s clearance limits the port’s ability to compete with other Gulf Coast deep-water ports. The port authority plans to widen and deepen the ship channel in preparation for the imminent Panama Canal expansion scheduled to be completed next year, but it needs a taller bridge (with a clearance of at least 205 feet) to accommodate the colossal ships that will come with the expansion. The current bridge connects downtown Corpus Christi and the Sea District—full of museums, the Corpus Christi Hooks’ Whataburger Field, and Hurricane Alley Waterpark—to North Beach, home to the Texas State Aquarium and public beaches.
On a foggy afternoon in April, a drive around the bridge’s terminals on either side of the Ship Channel makes it plain that downtown Corpus Christi and North Beach are struggling economically. The streets are lifeless around noon, and the parking lots for entertainment venues such as the floating USS Lexington Museum are half empty. To combat this problem, the city has focused its comprehensive 20-year plan on revitalizing the areas. So when TxDOT laid out four color-coded routes for the new Harbor Bridge, the city and the port authority—the entity that owns much of the land along the shore—threw their support behind the Red Alternative, which would move the bridge into the poor, minority neighborhoods and allow Corpus to develop real estate under the current bridge. Among local entities, the port authority is contributing the most to the bridge—about $38 million, according to TxDOT.
Before the Federal Highway Administration can sign off on an interstate, it has to analyze the project’s effects in an environmental impact statement. The federal agency and TxDOT released the final version of that analysis in November and recommended the Red Alternative, writing that it will “serve as a barrier between the newly developed Northside people-oriented area and the Port and industrial facilities located to the west of the red alternative.” Residents say that statement ignores—or intentionally excludes—the fact that roughly 1,500 people live west of the route in Hillcrest. The city’s comprehensive plan labels Hillcrest as a “transitional area.”
Taylor, who spent eight years heading up the city’s urban planning department in the late ’70s and early ’80s, said that designation demonstrates the city’s attitude toward Hillcrest: that it is no longer a neighborhood populated by real people. “Tell that to me or my daughter or my granddaughter who happen to live over here,” he said. “Tell my great-granddaughter, ‘We’re transitioning and we don’t know what you’re gonna be when you grow up. We don’t have a real future for you when you grow up, but we’ll get back to you when we figure it out.’”
The predominant feeling in Hillcrest is that the city and state are sacrificing the community for the sake of developing the waterfront. Why not just leave the bridge where it is? The Green Alternative would put a higher, safer bridge in essentially the same location as the current one, but that option wouldn’t allow the city to develop the waterfront land. The Red Alternative, on the other hand, opens that area up while boxing in Hillcrest between refineries and the Ship Channel to the west and north and elevated freeways to the east and south.
Eric Avila, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, said this is a familiar story. “The pattern being repeated here is that poor communities of color in cities are the ones who bear the brunt of federal highway construction projects,” he said. Because poor communities of color are usually politically powerless, and the areas in which they live offer the cheapest land values as a product of redlining, Avila said, “These are communities that don’t have a voice, and usually they’re the path of least resistance for these kinds of invasive and destructive infrastructural projects.” Avila said he has seen examples of affluent, primarily Anglo communities succeed in rerouting highways or thwarting construction, but has yet to see a low-income, minority community defeat such a project.
Corpus Christi spokeswoman Kim Womack said that residents in whatever neighborhood the bridge is built in “would be upset.” She compares it to having a wastewater treatment plant in your backyard—something else the city tried to put in Hillcrest before residents successfully fought it off in 2008. “We challenge the neighborhood in the area to think about all the possibilities instead of the negatives,” Womack said, “because the bridge is going to be beautiful and it’s going to allow for so many more things.”
I read that quote to Taylor, who responded: “Here you are trying to hurt elderly people, people with disabilities, and then marginalizing these individuals by telling them, ‘Accept the challenge and deal with it, because better things are going to come for people in Corpus Christi.’ What people?”
Every other month, Taylor drives his black Toyota Prius to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he spent nine months of the last year. He learned he had cancer in late 2013. He’s had surgery to partially remove two tumors, and he just finished undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. He said that he is not cancer-free, but the tumors have stopped growing. Taylor said a lifetime of living next to refineries in Corpus Christi probably contributed to his cancer.
“Since I got this second chance I’m trying to make sure that the elderly, the disabled, and the widows and orphans don’t get messed over by the port, the city and the refineries,” he said. “I guess it’s my job to come up and speak for the voiceless. I [lost] my wife two years ago … but I’m still here. Fighting the good fight.”
Taylor’s family left Mississippi in the 1950s and settled in Washington-Coles, one of the few neighborhoods in Corpus where deed restrictions allowed African Americans to purchase homes. Most African Americans were relegated to living outside city limits in what has since become Corpus’ West Side. In the early postwar boom, only two neighborhoods inside the city allowed blacks and Hispanics to buy property: Hillcrest and Washington-Coles. “When I first got [to Corpus], I was wondering where the black people were,” said Ethel Curry, Taylor’s 87-year-old mother.
The Taylor family lived for six years in what were known as the “new projects.” Directly behind them—and inside Corpus’ 100-year floodplain—refineries had placed massive petroleum storage tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into the soil. The wastewater treatment plant was down the street, and Taylor said the effluent drained toward the projects. During storms, stinking water laced with petrochemicals flooded his home.
“It’s contamination all underneath this crap—this is what used to flood when I was a kid,” Taylor said as we stood on a large green swath of land with a long concrete channel running through the middle.
The projects were demolished and the tanks were removed nearly 20 years ago. To the south, we can see Interstate 37, with TX-286 crossing above it. If the state builds the bridge along the proposed route, US-181 will be stacked on top of the other two tiers of elevated freeways, and the place where we are standing—where the soil is still contaminated and where the ground turns marshy every time it rains—will be underneath the colossal structure.
When Taylor was a child, families in the projects aspired to move one block over into Hillcrest. Both neighborhoods were developed around the same time—Hillcrest, with its sturdy homes and streets lined with fruit trees, was reserved for whites, and Washington-Coles, with its projects and petroleum tanks, was built for blacks. It wasn’t until 1944, about a decade after the first refineries came into the Port of Corpus Christi, that the city began allowing African Americans to purchase homes in Hillcrest.
By the time Taylor moved to Corpus, African Americans had been living in Hillcrest for a decade. When he was in fifth grade, his parents found a home to rent in Hillcrest, which they later fixed up and bought. In stark contrast to the neighborhood today, “Every house on every block was full,” Taylor said. “There were no vacancies and there were children everywhere.” The streets and sidewalks were well maintained, and there was even a street-sweeping service.
Things stayed that way in Hillcrest through the ’60s, when Taylor attended the black schools in Washington-Coles before desegregation allowed him to move to Roy Miller High School. He left for Austin in 1971, and spent four years at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University) and a subsequent two years at Trinity University in San Antonio, where he earned a master’s degree in urban studies.
During the 1960s, the state built Interstate 37 to the south of the neighborhood, cementing a barrier that had been created by Jim Crow and reinforced by redlining. White flight went into full throttle: Census data shows that between 1960 and 1970, the African-American population in Hillcrest jumped from less than one-quarter to three-quarters. And the elevated freeway that eventually linked Corpus to San Antonio wasn’t just an eyesore; it cut Hillcrest and Washington-Coles off from the rest of the city, making it harder for Northside residents to access other parts of town. People who remember the neighborhoods before that time say that’s when everything started to go downhill.
“That’s when these refineries started taking these folks’ land, offering them some money,” Curry said. “I know a lot of elder people sold it and then wished they hadn’t sold it because when they moved out they couldn’t [afford anything else].”
In the decades that followed the freeway’s construction, the low-output refineries that had come to the Port of Corpus Christi decades earlier began to grow. The companies signed contracts with the city that enabled them to remain outside the city limits and to pay the city a lump sum, instead of taxes, for a limited package of city services. More than 80 years after the first refineries arrived, giant metal towers and clouds of steam dominate the skyline along Interstate 37. Enormous drums—some the size of half a city block—line the freeway like rows of white checkers.
Six plants make up what is called Refinery Row. Because they are in a special industrial zone outside the city limits, “That means they can do whatever they want to do,” Taylor said. “But you know, pollution don’t come across the fence.” Some refiners in the vast petrochemical complex have become brazen polluters. In 2007, Citgo became the first major oil company to be criminally indicted by a grand jury for violating the Clean Air Act at its East Plant, next door to Hillcrest homes.
The court judgment found that Citgo illegally stored oil in two uncovered tanks, exposing Hillcrest residents to the carcinogen benzene and other toxic chemicals for 10 years. In a landmark environmental case, residents of Hillcrest became the first group to ever be designated as victims of an air pollution crime under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Despite the case’s legal significance, a federal judge ruled that the company owed the victims no restitution and levied a mere $2 million fine against Citgo for a decade’s worth of criminal pollution.
Areas such as Hillcrest that are burdened by a disproportionate share of environmental impacts are called “environmental justice neighborhoods.” Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, is widely regarded as the father of environmental justice. He has written 18 books on environmental racism, industrial facility siting and transportation equity. “The way the environmental injustice occurs is that once your community receives a disproportionate share of things other people don’t want in terms of locally unwanted land uses, you become the dumping ground,” said Bullard. “Your area becomes the preferred route for things that other people don’t want, whether it’s chemical plants or refineries or bridges.”
Residents say the neighborhood’s proximity to so many refineries has led to adverse health effects. No studies have focused on Hillcrest exclusively, but several have analyzed the larger area. In 2006, the Texas Department of State Health Services found that Nueces County—where Hillcrest is—had a birth defect rate 84 percent higher than the rest of the state. In 2011, the same agency found that the zip codes within a five-mile radius of Refinery Row had above-average rates of male colon, rectum, bladder, kidney and liver cancers. Hillcrest residents told me they fear another highway will bring pollution that will make more people sick.
“You already have a community that’s been assaulted for decades, and now you’re piling on the dumping,” said Bullard. “If you live there you have to perceive that your community is under siege. That’s a normal reaction—it’s not paranoia, it’s a fact.”
On an overcast morning in March, Hillcrest resident Daniel Peña opens the window in his dining room and sits down to interpret a map of Corpus Christi that I’ve brought to his home. He points to the parks and homes the Red Alternative will destroy. “The majority of the people are ready to give up. How many things can we stand?” he said. “Every single day is a fight. If it’s not one thing it’s another.” A month later, Peña decided enough was enough. Along with Taylor, he co-founded the Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress “to oppose the continued destructive policies of the City of Corpus Christi against the residents of the Hillcrest and Washington-Coles neighborhoods.”
Peña has lived in Hillcrest for 34 years. He’s raised his children and watched them raise his grandchildren there. Some days residents have trouble breathing, he said, and if he keeps the windows open too long his wife gets headaches and his abdomen starts to cramp. He told TxDOT during a series of committee meetings that Hillcrest already has too much pollution to deal with and that another highway would exacerbate the problem, but, he said, the agency didn’t listen.
Peña was a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee that TxDOT set up in 2012 to “promote public awareness and understanding” of the Harbor Bridge Project and to get feedback. As soon as he began attending committee meetings, he said, it became clear that the events were designed to merely “check boxes” off the agency’s list of requirements.
“I got involved because my understanding was we were gonna have some kind of input on what was gonna happen,” he said. “We never have; from the get-go . . . we’ve never had a choice. They showed us the selection of the different routes and not one time—not one time—did we have any decision-making as far as which one was gonna be chosen.”
TxDOT spokesman Rickey Dailey said the process worked the way it was designed. “Throughout the public involvement process for the project, residents from the Hillcrest and Washington-Coles neighborhoods were encouraged to participate,” he said, adding that six of the committee’s 30 members were from Hillcrest.
During one meeting that particularly irked Peña, committee members were given 15 minutes to analyze each of the four proposed routes for the project. “It took you nine months to gather all this information and yet you’re giving us 15 minutes to digest everything you’re doing here?” he said. “Just because we were all in a room they can take one off their list and say, ‘Yeah, we met with [the residents].’”
State and federal transportation agencies selected the Red Alternative because the environmental impact statement claims that it causes the “least overall harm.” Peña and other Hillcrest residents say it is the worst of the four options. A table comparing the alternatives in the agencies’ own Environmental Impact Statement shows that it will take away the most parkland, disinter the highest volume of contaminated soil and groundwater, and displace the second-highest number of residents. It will bring traffic noise to the highest number of “sensitive receivers,” and will destroy the most tidal wetlands acreage and the second-highest marsh habitat acreage.
The Green Alternative, which would build a new bridge in essentially the same place as the old one, would displace fewer residents, take away fewer wetlands and marsh habitats, and unearth about one-tenth the contaminated soil and less than one-quarter of the contaminated groundwater the Red route would expose. It would take away significantly less parkland, but would displace far more businesses than the Red. The Green route would be nearly $80 million cheaper to build and would cost less to maintain.
That is the basis of the Title VI civil rights complaint Hillcrest residents submitted to the Federal Highway Administration. In a 15-page letter, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorneys explain that the Texas transportation agency is perpetuating discrimination against the minority neighborhoods, has selected a route that has a disparate impact on people of color, and has denied residents adequate participation. For example, TxDOT hosted an important workshop on the same day as a civil rights event and gave residents only one day’s notice.
In April, the federal transportation agency began investigating the claim. “This is the second [civil rights complaint] in the Federal Highway Administration’s history to rise to this level,” said agency spokesman Doug Hecox, adding that most of the hundreds of complaints are summarily dismissed. “When you have a number of folks in a community alleging that the only reason this particular route was chosen out of many options [is] because their neighborhood was undesirable or expendable, that kind of complaint will take us a little longer to get to the bottom of,” he said.
Hecox emphasized that that doesn’t mean a civil rights violation occurred—the investigation will determine that. The agency doesn’t know how long that will take, but the only other case that has been investigated to this extent took about two years to resolve. Hecox said the worst-case scenario would involve forwarding the claim to the Department of Justice for investigation, but he is confident the transportation agencies can avoid that. Because the federal government typically reimburses states for about 80 percent of interstate project costs, he said, it’s in TxDOT’s interest to follow the rules. The project is expected to cost between $700 million and $1 billion.
In the meantime, the bridge can’t be built until the investigation concludes. TxDOT still opened up bidding on design work for the bridge in late April, and Taylor takes that to mean the state agency will get its way in the end. If a highway ends up cutting through their neighborhood, Hillcrest residents want to be bought out for a fair price—enough to be able to relocate without taking on a new mortgage after they’ve already finished paying off a home in Hillcrest. Taylor said he will spend the rest of his days fighting to get those families what they deserve.
“As long as I have breath, I’m gonna fight the fight of making sure that the people under the bridge get basic necessities from the city,” Taylor said. “I don’t want [the city and state] to think of us as invisible. We see everything you do and we have opinions on everything you do. I will not let you try to marginalize, undervalue and discriminate me anymore—that’s not gonna happen anymore as long as I’m breathing.”