The American Dream Denied

Glossary of Terms

Environmental Activism: Advocacy and related activities that support communities suffering from issues of environmental racism and inequality in an effort to provide environmental justice for those communities.

Environmental Inequality: Environmental inequality is a broader, encompassing concept that melds the issue of environmental racism and environmental justice with the issue of economic and class-based disparities. Although nearly all instances of environmental racism also include class and economic inequality components, there are many cases of environmental injustice which involve communities that are today often viewed as “white” but historically may have been identified by other “minority” status social categories traditionally based in ethnic identities or national origin (e.g., Italian, German, Irish, etc.).

Environmental Justice: Ensuring safe, equal environmental protection to all people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class or wealth status, or national origin. The first set of principles on environmental justice came out of the 1991 First National People of Color Leadership Summit. This summit established the seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice, focusing on the need for a comprehensive approach to combat “500 years of colonization and oppression” that has resulted in numerous environmental injustices directed at communities of color throughout the world. Following this, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 in 1994, thereby creating the US EPA Office of Environmental Justice and requiring that all federal projects and programs consider issues of environmental justice as part of any funded initiatives.

Environmental Racism: “Environmental racism is any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.”
Bullard, Robert. 1993. “The threat of environmental racism.” Natural Resources and Environment. 7: 23-26, 55-56.

Fair and Fully Funded Relocation: This is the defining issue that unites the Gordon Plaza residents after having lived on top of a toxic site for nearly forty years. Repeated requests for relocation away from their hazardous landscape have not been answered by consecutive mayoral administrations. The ultimate goal of residents’ activism is to secure comparable housing in a different area of the city as well as to receive fair compensation for the equity they have built in their current homes.

Generational Wealth and Generational Poverty: Contrary to the popular conception of the “American dream” and its foundational ideology of meritocracy, equal opportunity, and social mobility, most lower income Americans - especially within communities of color - have very limited access to the resources that would help provide opportunities for social mobility. Often wealthy households are able to pass on generational wealth to their children through property (e.g., homes, land, and tangible assets) and financial instruments (e.g., stocks, bonds, and related investments). But for most lower income households, there are limited opportunities for creating and maintaining these forms of wealth that, in turn, provide few avenues for generating wealth to share with their children. Instead, the conditions of their poverty actually create and reinforce the structural barriers that limit forms of social mobility (e.g., lack of educational opportunities, limited knowledge of wealth generating activities). As a result, the children within these households have fewer future economic opportunities, and these structural conditions become cyclical and generational in form.

Geotextile Mat: A geotextile is any permeable synthetic material used in geotechnical engineering. When placed around hazardous materials in landfill waste sites, certain geotextile mats can be used to contain toxic solids. Geotextiles used by the EPA allow liquids and gasses to pass through but keep solids in place. This prevents noxious gasses from building up while allowing water-soluble chemicals (including most pesticides) to leach through. In 1997, 40 years after the Agriculture Street Landfill closed, the EPA remediated the topsoil of the Agriculture Street Landfill by removing two feet of topsoil from the site, placing geotextile mats, and then putting fresh soil on top of them. Homeowners in Gordon Plaza who observed this process reported that less than the required two feet of soil was removed, and consequently the EPA’s remediation efforts were insufficient or incomplete.

Gordon Plaza: A neighborhood of single-family, detached homes constructed through federally-funded housing program to provide opportunities for low- to moderate-income residents to purchase their own home. However, the development was built on top of the Agriculture Street Landfill, the primary municipal waste site for the city of New Orleans from 1909 until 1958.

Home Equity: The difference between the fair market value of a property and the outstanding balance owed to the mortgage lender. In practice, home equity is the wealth that exists and can be utilized from the portion a person has already paid for their home.

Housing, Home Equity, and Wealth Generation: Land ownership is currently the largest contributor to wealth disparities in the United States. Because the increasing value of land contributes to individual and family wealth, home equity and home ownership are often touted as tools to advance one’s financial situation. Formerly regulated by nineteenth century Jim Crow laws, access to land and home ownership has been restricted and even completely disallowed on the basis of race. This historical legacy means that renters in New Orleans are predominantly black.

Leachate: Water that has percolated through a substance and contains some of that substance’s contents; coffee is a leachate. In an environmental context, leachates spread pollution and increase toxicity. Leachates added to the long-term devastation following Hurricane Katrina. For instance, Agriculture Street Landfill toxins spread through the Ninth Ward’s water table and beyond.

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (Louisiana DEQ or LDEQ): Officially established in 1984, the DEQ which by law was created to protect human health and the environment of the citizens of Louisiana. The LDEQ is a state legislated agency and funded by Louisiana taxpayers.

Model Cities Program: This program, administered by HUD, ran from 1966 to 1974. Model Cities provided funding for urban planning, development, and restoration in an attempt to reduce poverty, urban blight, and economic decline in American cities. The program, along with the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act (DCMD) of 1966, was part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and the broader urban renewal projects initiated during the 1960s and 1970s. New Orleans was designated as a Model Cities urban area and subsequently received federal funds to develop plans for the Desire Neighborhood Development area, which would eventually include the Press Park and Gordon Plaza communities. However, after the federal government shuttered the Model Cities Program, Congress replaced the program with the Housing and Community Development Act (HCDA) of 1974, which in turn led to the development of programs utilizing Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to finance local projects. Although the DCMD was the catalyst for the planning and eventually execution of the various city housing developments in the Desire neighborhood (e.g., Press Park, Liberty Terrace, and Gordon Plaza), it was CDBG funds under the HDCA that directly financed the building of Press Park townhomes and Gordon Plaza houses.

National Priorities List (NPL): The NPL is the list of sites which are earmarked to receive Superfund funding that require the most urgent attention from the EPA to remediate contamination and protect human health.

Press Park: This publicly-funded housing development project sat on top of the former Agriculture Street Landfill and consisted of both rental and rent-to- own townhome units. After Hurricane Katrina, HUD-owned townhomes were demolished while privately-owned townhomes were braced and left standing until they were finally also demolished in early 2019.

Remediation: Remediation is a technical term used by environmental agencies and in the environmental  and engineering sciences concerning the use of environmental technical procedures (e.g. either the removal of pollution or contamination from affected soil or water or the erection of barriers to protect against contamination, as prescribed by existing environmental laws or regulations to meet a minimum threshold of protection.

Slow violence (of environmental injustice and environmental racism): This concept concerns the types of physical and emotional forms of violence perpetrated on, and directed against, individuals and communities through slow, unfolding processes and consequences, as opposed to more overt forms of violence that are typically more immediate in action and effect (e.g., physical violence). Forms of slow violence include the consequences of poverty (e.g., poor health, lack of medical care, psychological trauma, etc.) and crime (e.g., PTSD due to neighborhood gun violence, drug use effects, etc.) but also the long-term effects of exposure to toxic chemicals within communities experiencing environmental injustices. For instance, a community of color residing in a housing development adjacent to, or top of, a former industrial site or former landfill may have cancer and birth defect rates many times higher than other communities. Over years or even decades, these communities will experience much higher death rates than other, often wealthier and/or whiter, neighborhoods. This long-term exposure to toxins and its many consequences is an example of the slow violence of environmental racism experienced by many communities of color throughout the US and the world.

Superfund Program: Superfund sites, designated by those assigned to the National Priorities List (NPL), are areas that are highly contaminated with toxic substances. The legislation authorizing this designation, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, requires responsible parties to fund the clean-up of the site or reimburse the government for its remediation efforts. If a responsible party cannot be found or is unable to pay, the federally-financed Superfund Program provides the resources for the EPA to conduct remediation efforts.

United States (US) Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA or EPA): Founded in 1970, the EPA aims to protect human health and the environment for citizens of the United States. Under its Superfund program, the EPA facilitated the evaluation, sampling, and partial remediation efforts in the Gordon Plaza neighborhood beginning in 1994.

Urban Development: Urban development projects use public and private investment strategies as well as public and private resources to develop and redevelop urban spaces with the goal to increase economic productivity, provide for economic opportunity, and to generally raise the level of prosperity within an urban region. However, in practice these investment strategies have had the effect of exacerbating existing inequities or creating new forms of inequality by redistributing resources away from areas of poverty and communities of color. Examples include the redistribution of tax revenue and the movement of people and jobs away from the urban core - a process referred to as “white flight.” The resulting “abandonment” of urban communities resulted in a loss of social services, educational funding, and massive disinvestment in economic activities, leading to the further impoverishment of these already struggling communities.

Urban Renewal Projects: Starting in the 1950s but accelerated during the 1960s and 1970s, government- funded urban renewal programs attempted to: a) alleviate poverty through increased investment in economic growth activities (which in turn were expected to decrease unemployment in the urban core, especially among workers of color); b) increase investment in infrastructure to support these new investments (e.g. transportation, energy, and public works); and c) develop publicly-funded housing developments to provide access to affordable units for low-income communities. In New Orleans, these projects included large-scale, massive housing developments such as St. Bernard, Iberville, Magnolia, Fischer, Calliope, Florida, and Desire Projects (the latter being located just a mile from Gordon Plaza). In the late 1970s and 1980s, the push towards human-scale, diffuse, low-rise developments such as Press Park were in vogue. These projects were coupled with other federal programs to increase home ownership through local community grants (eventually called “community development block grants,” or CDBG) to fund the construction of homes for sale to low-income residents.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): A government agency whose primary goals are to increase the availability of affordable housing, reduce discrimination in housing, and protect housing consumers. In the past and today, HUD continues to struggle in achieving much of its intended purposes due to poor administration and oversight as well as a lack of funding, especially as a result of the “neoliberal” roll backs and program disinvestment of the 1980s and 1990s.

War on Poverty: A federal program initiated under President Johnson as part of the administration’s Great Society initiative in 1964-65; a proposal to redress urban and rural poverty, inequality, economic hardships, and other social inequities including access to healthcare and education. As part of these programs, Johnson pushed for housing policies and funding to provide better housing access and increase homeownership.

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