Outta Here

Think about the anger and pain of the residents in Cadillac Heights. They believe people in their area are dying of cancer from chemicals left behind by defunct lead smelters. It's an old black and Hispanic neighborhood on the Oak Cliff side of the Trinity River, just below where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard crosses the river.

They say no one will listen to them. But they believe the two public officials who have betrayed them most are the city's first black mayor, Ron Kirk, and the city's first black member of Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson.

Johnson and Kirk insist that what the people of Cadillac Heights really want is a new levee to stop the Trinity River from flooding their neighborhood.

The people say no. That's not what they want. What stings them to the quick, however, is that Kirk and Johnson won't talk to them about it.

Let me run some background by you: Mayor Kirk is the principal champion of the Trinity River project--a $2 billion public works campaign to build new levees, lakes, parks, and a highway along the river where it runs through the center of the city. A major part of the overall deal is an extension of the existing levees, which run only to the southwest corner of downtown. The plan calls for building new levees down the river to protect some industrial property on the north bank and to protect Cadillac Heights on the other bank.

Champions of the new levees say they should be built as a form of racial reparation since Dallas has never built levees for black people. But here is where the politics of race gets tricky. Black people in Cadillac Heights--along with the more recent Hispanic settlers--say they don't want the levees. They believe that an even worse history of lead contamination from old plants along Sargent Road next to the river has turned their neighborhood into a cancer ward. They say they want out. One option that other cities have used in flood-prone areas is to buy people out and move them to a safe place that won't flood and isn't polluted.

That's what they want. They don't want curbs, gutters, sewers, or levees. They want out.

"You could pave our streets with gold," says Diana Sierra, a 20-year-old college student who grew up in Cadillac Heights. "We would still have the lead."

The city denies there is lead pollution in the soil of Cadillac Heights and has not conducted the kind of research that would show whether Cadillac Heights residents are dying of cancer at anomalous rates.

Those issues are debatable. But one issue shouldn't be. If a bunch of suits downtown and in Washington are going to decide the fate of Cadillac Heights, shouldn't they at least invite the neighborhood to City Hall and hear what people have to say? Doesn't respect for simple human dignity require that much?

Since no one has ever invited Cadillac Heights to City Hall, at least not to open their \mouths, the residents must invite themselves. For several years, they have been trudging down and signing up one by one for the "open mike" sessions on Dallas City Council meeting days, hoping to use the few minutes allotted them to get their plea heard before the mayor and the rest of the council.

"When we go down there and talk," says longtime resident Dorothy Thomas, "the mayor either gets up and walks away, or he's on the telephone with his back to us. He doesn't care."

She and others in the neighborhood remember how excited they were when Vice President Al Gore came to town in March 1998 to announce a $1.1 million federal grant for Dallas to clean up industrial waste sites, called "brownfields." Congresswoman Johnson, knowing that the Cadillac Heights residents were concerned about toxic waste, invited all of them to meet the vice president.

"But when we got down there, we found out she wasn't going to give us the opportunity to speak to anyone," Thomas says. "We couldn't stand up and express our views. It's like we were swept under the carpet."

Another Cadillac Heights resident, Trisha Adams, remembers the Gore visit and how humiliated the residents felt when they realized Johnson had trotted them downtown for a photo op but wasn't going to let them speak. "We went there very enthusiastic," Adams says. "We thought maybe we could get a chance to tell the vice president about how we feel. She told us what good friends she and the vice president were and everything. But we never got a chance to speak. We just stood there at the end of the room, and they took pictures of us."

Says Dorothy Thomas: "See, we are all black and Hispanic, and they really don't care what happens to us."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze