Home Sweet Toxic Waste Dump
Thoughts and photos from the site of Lincoln Heights' latest housing cash-grab
By T. Bloom
LA is just one big, slow-boiling housing and ecological crisis, and these issues are virtually inseparable: historically, poor people settle into the areas too remote or despoiled (often both) to be considered attractive by anyone else, and then later the relatively low property value of those same areas make them attractive prospects for gentrification, allowing the real estate industry to continue its demonic growth.
A new article in the LA Times (try this for the pesky paywall) highlights an possibility that may not occur to those paying exorbitantly to live in those new structures: decades-old industrial pollution that was inadequately disposed of, if anyone actually bothered to clean it up at all.
I won’t recap the entire article, but apparently a cache of toxic waste that was discovered in 1984 may still have been affecting residents in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood all this time — and the process of building an elaborate new property on that site seems likely to disturb whatever remains in the earth directly below and around it.
Living on the edge of a superfund site in Brooklyn for many years, I always considered it useful to explore such areas in person, on foot, to sense the reality of it as a supplement to whatever I read online. This is what first drew me to the Los Angeles River when I moved here, which remains one of my favorite places to visit (and though I’d rather my dog didn’t belly-flop into the water, it’s one of his favorite places too).
The old American Caster Corp. site in Lincoln Heights is less than 4 miles from my home, so within an hour of reading the news article about its history, I was able to bike over and pay my respects.
Though the street is mainly industrial, there are still houses on Ave. 34 directly facing that property — which I didn’t photograph, out of respect for the locals who are actively involved in these issues. From the article:
Neighborhood activists Patricia Camacho and Michael Hayden, who both live across the street from the proposed housing development, worry that illegally dumped chemicals may have migrated to other areas.
“Toxins don’t stop at property lines,” Camacho said. “It’s just so disappointing that the cleanup plan didn’t include testing outside of the property. Those of us who live 30 feet from where this is happening, we feel like we aren’t being protected.”
When project developer R Cap Avenue 34, LLC sought approval from the city and state to build in 2020, the group insisted the Avenue 34 site had little to no contamination and chemicals were confined to the dry cleaning site.
However, testing done at the property in late 2021 revealed levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that were more than 4,000 times higher than what is recommended for residential standards. The compounds included the dry cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says may harm the nervous system, reproductive system, liver and kidneys, and may possibly cause cancer.
The signs mentioned in the article — public postings left over from the latest round of testing — are still there, although of course there is no followup informing the public of the disastrous findings.
Another detail described in the story but not pictured: “an abandoned security patrol car with a toppled office chair on its roof sits beside a large pile of sandbags and metal barrels.” I’ve got you covered on that front; when I first arrived, someone appeared to be sleeping in it.
In addition to those living in houses on Avenue 34, the street is also serving as an encampment for homeless residents. As demonstrated in areas like Skid Row and the riverbeds, environmental factors which might drive others away creates an opportunity for those desperate enough to overlook such challenges. The minimal foot traffic in areas of industrial blight can be appealing to those who simply want to mind their own business, and whatever effects one may suffer from exposure to pollution and waste can seem like remote concerns to someone struggling to simply live one more day.
As the Times highlights, however, this isn’t about one property, or street, or population. No one really knows how far these dry-cleaning chemicals may have spread underneath the neighborhood over the past forty years, and until recently, the city appeared to have no interest in pursuing these questions. Why? Same old reasons.
“It’s just a form of environmental racism… Our low-income, immigrant communities are not seen as valuable, whether it’s displacing us or poisoning us — they completely disregard our human rights.”
Turning the corner onto Artesian Street, I stumbled upon a hub of activity in the form of a sidewalk sale — like a yard sale, without a yard. Since I’m not a local, this seemed quite random to me. Why precisely here? But as I kept going, turning another corner, it became clear I was on the edge of a large, open-air market, the kind with occasional pop-up tents and folding tables, but mostly lots of wares just laid out right on the concrete: old tools, obsolete smartphones, children’s toys, kitchen appliances, clothing, home decor, vintage porno mags, the works.
Wandering down one street, and then another, and another, it was marvelous to sense so much activity all around. This was not a formal flea market scene like you’d see in Silverlake or Pasadena. The sellers and their wares were reflective of their own hyperlocal community, and while I saw few customers (it was early yet) there was obviously an entire social scene here, something collective and collaborative. Which recalled a detail I’d read in the Times:
Developers hope to transform the abandoned property into “a healthy and vibrant community” with public open space within walking distance to two Metro Gold Line stations. The project promises 468 apartment units, most at market rate, with a small portion, 66 units, set aside as affordable housing.
As ever, the plan is not to invest in the community that’s already here, but to strip it away and replace it with something viewed by investors (and the city) as an improvement. Considering the toxic history of this site and the developers’ haste to break ground, their use of the word “healthy” in the above description actually sets my teeth on edge.
They’re certainly not hoping that locals will squeeze into the new “affordable” units; they’re counting on enterprising low-born white queers like me — imports from New York and San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest who don’t mind bedding down in areas that locals might consider less desirable, without ever seeing or knowing what (or who) used to be here.
There’s a certain inverse status-seeking documented among those of us who are too poor to level-up by regular means, instead gambling on the next hot neighborhood, seizing onto the lowest rung and hoping to be dragged up along with it. But what happens to all those who were in line ahead of us, who have been skipped over in favor folks too new to the area to identify or raise these concerns? The ones who have patiently tended and transformed these areas, and only ever been paid in poison?
I turned on Avenue 26, heading toward the river bike path that led back home. In the shade beneath the freeway overpass next to the Home Depot, I passed a group of BIPOC folks wiring amps and setting up rows of folding chairs for some kind of impromptu parking lot concert — a church service perhaps — right at the nexus of an in-between area most would just hurry past. Pedaling away, I recalled that Joan Didion quote about how “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
As a poor artist struggling to find any foothold in the world whatsoever, this used to sound terribly inspiring. Nowadays, having borne witness from the fringes of several major cities, it just strikes me as the whitest thing a person could possibly say.
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