In the West Oakland neighborhood where Margaret Gordon lives, otherwise peaceful views of the bay and the skyline are obscured by a mish-mash of concrete girders, beams, train tracks, and roadways. Plumes of white smoke regularly spew into the air from rooftop exhaust vents. The district is a crossroads of pollution sources, among them three freeways, a BART rail line, an Amtrak train line and Caltrans maintenance yard, numerous industrial plants and businesses, the Port of Oakland, and the steady stream of diesel-powered trucks which pass in and out of the Port. An Environmental Protection Agency signpost advising neighborhood residents of the latest updates regarding the cleanup of a Superfund site stands in front of one of the area’s few green parks.
This is a neighborhood where pollution, poverty and the lack of resources collide, the sort of neighborhood Greenlining’s Environmental Equity program focuses on.
“They call West Oakland a food desert. We’re also a health desert,” says Gordon. Despite the grave health risks posed by environmental hazards, she says, there are few medical facilities available to neighborhood residents, 47 percent of whom do not own a car. As a result, many residents do not receive regular treatment for serious health issues.
Economic Disparities, Health Disparities
Gordon, a community activist and environmental justice advocate, has lived in West Oakland for 20 of her 63 years. During that time, the district’s population demographics have shifted considerably, as white folks have moved in to a historically black neighborhood in increasing numbers. Although there’s been an influx of condo- and loft-dwelling young urban professionals and hipsters with skinny jeans to the area, West Oakland remains 67 percent African American. Gentrification is only one concern of longtime residents; others include poverty, unemployment, underemployment, urban blight, substance addiction, high crime rates, a lack of recovery and re-entry programs, and the reality of living in a toxic environment.
West Oakland’s median household income of $17,000 is less than half of Oakland’s overall median household income of $37,000.
The economic disparity is mirrored by high levels of health disparities. According to a 2006 study by the Pacific Institute, asthma rates in children are seven times higher in West Oakland than California overall.
West Oakland’s biggest polluter, by far, is the Port of Oakland – which is also its biggest employer. According to a 2008 study by the California Air Resources Board, 71 percent of the toxins in Gordon’s neighborhood can be traced directly to the Port and the 10,000 truck trips made daily to and from shipping terminals.
Yet Gordon says there’s a lack of “real oversight and accountability” where the Port is concerned: “Why does the port not have a responsibility [to make sure] that the trucks are not idling on the streets, waiting to get into the terminals while the ILWU members go on lunch?”
“Paying With Our Health”
She notes that affordable housing, is often located next to freeways or transit corridors; in Gordon’s building, the outside-facing windows open onto 7th street, a high-traffic zone. Living under these