In Philly, it's not easy being green

Antonio Colon (left) chats with Jamal Bell (center) and an unidentified man in the urban farm set up by the House of Umoja, on Master Street near 57th. Last year, the organization launched an initiative meant to revitalize the neighborhood.
Antonio Colon (left) chats with Jamal Bell (center) and an unidentified man in the urban farm set up by the House of Umoja, on Master Street near 57th. Last year, the organization launched an initiative meant to revitalize the neighborhood.
Posted: July 24, 2009

IT WOULD BE the green meeting.

Tanga Dixon had invited speakers from three environmental groups to talk with her neighborhood organization about everything from park cleanups and urban farming to toxic emissions spewing from idling cars.

She'd sent out 500 mailers and had volunteers post another 300 throughout Point Breeze. She and other community leaders had filled a table at the St. Simon the Cyrenian Church at 22nd and Reed streets with all manner of cakes and goodies to feed the throngs they hoped would come.

But when the meeting time rolled around last Thursday night, only about 25 folks turned out - and half of those were the invited speakers and leaders of Dixon's group.

"I can't do but so much," said a deflated Dixon, looking around at the empty chairs.

In a movement whose followers historically have been white and wealthier, environmentalism has been slow to catch on in inner cities, where some residents are more concerned about dodging bullets and feeding their families than recycling plastic bottles.

But because cities typically shoulder the biggest burden of environmental problems, politicians on every level have been trying to change that.

Last spring, President Obama appointed California environmentalist Van Jones as a White House adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. Jones vowed to "green the ghetto" and convince thugs to "put down that handgun and pick up a caulk gun."

And in Philly, Mayor Nutter in April launched Greenworks Philadelphia, a set of 15 targets to make the city more environmentally sustainable.

City Council also considered banning plastic bags but caved last month to pressure from supermarkets and industry groups. And Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has introduced bills that would require city-funded building projects to be green and create a bid preference in city contracts for environmentally friendly businesses. Public hearings are planned this fall.

Despite the bigwigs' bluster, such talk often doesn't resonate in the city's grittier neighborhoods.

"Most people think environmentalists focus on pretty places, polar bears and owls, issues that most people who don't have money don't care about," said Al Huang, a New York-based environmental-justice attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Environmental issues are complicated and technical," Huang added. "The challenge for the environmental movement is: How do we connect? How do we engage communities in a way that doesn't scare them or bore them or otherwise discourage them from participating?"

The racial divide

The way Queen Mother Falaka Fattah sees it, being black means living green.

"Black people are a people of the land - it's almost in our DNA," said Fattah, founder of The House of Umoja.

That's why her group last year launched its "Think Green Peace" initiative, an effort to revitalize the blocks surrounding its West Philadelphia compound.

Umoja residents and volunteers turned vacant lots into thriving "peace gardens," where they'll harvest everything from cabbage and kale to cucumbers and cow peas this summer.

While they now donate the produce to needy families, they envision turning the farm into a business that would employ the jobless and offer customers affordable organic food.

This fall, they'll begin fundraising to build a solar greenhouse, so that they can farm year-round.

"I think we're fulfilling a prophecy," Fattah said.

In a city hard-pressed to shake the nickname "Filthadelphia," efforts like Fattah's are rare but revolutionary.

Studies show that poor neighborhoods are among the nation's least environmental.

Mostly, that's because toxic sites from landfills and incinerators to deep-well injections are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, experts say. More than half of the nine million residents within two miles of the nation's hazardous waste facilities are minorities, according to "Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty," a 2007 report by four environmental-justice scholars.

But personal participation also plays a role, experts acknowledge.

A recent report on recycling in Philadelphia found the lowest participation rates - less than 4 percent of trash diverted - in the poorest neighborhoods, including North Philadelphia. To compare, the city's highest recycling diversion rate - 23 percent - is in Chestnut Hill and Andorra, which are among the city's whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods, according to city data.

Convincing people to go green can be difficult, even when activists show how environmentalism can alleviate other problems, such as pollutant-caused cancers and asthma, activists say.

"Our number one issue so far has been that our greening and open-space plans represent a revitalization that's scary to the local residents - they equate it with gentrification," said Antoinette Marie Johnson, whose group Point Breeze Pioneers began rehabilitating neglected parks and playgrounds in March.

"Caring for your spaces shouldn't be a white or black issue or a low-income or high-income thing," Johnson added. "We're not trying to transform the community to kick out [poor] people; we want them to help us redefine what an urban space is."

Fattah has a strategy that seems to be working in West Philly.

"You have to make it matter to people," she said. "We're not just growing vegetables here. Some of the vacant lots have been used for drug dealers to hide their product underneath the rubbish - when you reclaim your lot, that's crime prevention.

"Then you have children who thought produce came out of the grocery store; they didn't understand it came from the earth. We have them test the soil and measure the areas for planting - that's chemistry and mathematics. So you have education," Fattah added. "We have an epidemic of obesity among young people; we give them organic produce to eat better. That's health. And we need workers (to harvest) and we might sell at the farmers market. That's economic development."

Change starts small

In Point Breeze, Dixon doesn't stay despondent long.

"Well, I know who cares about the community," she said, surveying the community leaders - mostly women, mostly older - who lingered to chat after last week's meeting of her group, South Philadelphia Housing Opportunities Means Everybody Shares.

"It'll take us here to make a difference out there," she added. "A tree starts so small, but as it grows, it puts out branches."

That's what the environmentalists are hoping for.

"Activism is one of those things where you build your power very slowly," Huang said. "There's a famous Frederick Douglass quote: 'Without struggle, there is no progress.' So you might end up with only 10 people at your meeting, but those 10 will become your core who will get others to care about it. That's how you build movements." *

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