The American Dream Denied

A Decades Long Struggle

In 1909, the city of New Orleans opened the Agriculture Street Landfill in the Ninth Ward, adjacent to an existing neighborhood called Desire. The city used the landfill heavily, eventually erecting an incinerator on-site to increase capacity. However, within a few decades, the landfill’s role changed from a place that served the city's needs to an additional burden on the city and those residents living nearby. Due to New Orleans’ subtropical wet climate, decomposing items attracted huge quantities of flies and insects, especially in low-lying areas that gathered water. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as these pests became an ever-increasing problem, the city regularly sprayed the landfill site with the pesticide DDT. Following the decision to rezone the Agriculture Street Landfill as a “sanitary landfill” in 1948, chemical intervention to combat pests increased and the city’s pesticide arsenal expanded to include Malathion and Diazon, both of which are harmful to humans when ingested. This pesticide use proved ultimately ineffective, so much so, that in 1956 a fly infestation in the landfill caused eight public schools to temporarily stop their lunch service due to the presence of pests.

Throughout the 1950s, the city intervened in increasing frequency to combat the insects, pests, odors, and open fires from that landfill that threatened nearby residents. In 1950, smoke from subsurface fires grew thick enough that police officers were dispatched to Desire to help residents navigate their neighborhood. The Agriculture Street Landfill became so noxious and difficult to maintain that the city eventually closed the site in 1958. However, following Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which caused devastating damage to the city, officials reopened the landfill as a burning and disposal site for hurricane waste. Simultaneously, the city chose to suspend any restrictions on deposited items, which eventually included the disposal of motor vehicles and housing materials.

The movement for environmental justice emerged from the experiences of multiple communities that grappled with the siting of hazardous materials near their homes. In some cases, communities – especially publicly funded residential developments – were sited on top of former industrial waste sites due to the relatively low costs for this land, and the fact that the land was already owned by local municipalities and state government. In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which directed the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify toxic sites disproportionately impacting communities of color; the Agriculture Street Landfill in New Orleans was listed as a Superfund site that same year. Following the Superfund designation, residents have fought for a fully-funded relocation through building partnerships with universities, scientists, non-profits, and community advocacy groups. One important connection has been the community’s relationship with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), which has provided pro bono legal representation to the community for over two decades. Since the formation of the New Orleans’ Peoples’ Assembly in 2017, the Gordon Plaza residents’ efforts have been increasingly amplified. The continuing activities of the Peoples’ Assembly, in concert with the technical advocacy work done by the newly created Critical Visualization and Media Lab (CVML) at Tulane University, has helped to provide further public exposure for the residents in their efforts to be relocated.

The residents of Gordon Plaza are asking for a fully funded relocation because they are not able to simply “get up and leave." When residents moved into Gordon Plaza, they invested all their money into new homes and the American Dream of becoming first-time homeowners. After soil testing in the streets and yards of Gordon Plaza revealed toxic levels of chemicals, the property values of the homes plummeted, making it impossible for residents to sell their homes and move to safer, uncontaminated neighborhoods. A class-action lawsuit ruling in 2006 found in favor of the residents; however, the residents feel that the reported settlements received did not adequately compensate for their suffering: not only their loss in property values and the financial costs of their illnesses due to toxic exposure but, most significantly, the anguish over the death of friends and family members.


authored by the Critical Visualization and Media Lab

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