Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We've got an update for you on a story from earlier this year, about a subdivision in New Orleans Desire neighborhood called Gordon Plaza.
Jesse Perkins: We're being told we're living on top of a toxic waste landfill and we weren't aware of this when we purchased our homes.
Marilyn Aymar: We are the second highest cancer-causing neighborhood in the state of Louisiana.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These residents told us their stories of living in homes built on top of a toxic superfund site and their multi-decade fight to get the city to move them to safer homes. The fight may finally be edging closer to a resolution but first, we wanted to remind you a little bit about the history and struggle with the 54 families still living in Gordon Plaza are going through. The subdivision of Gordon Plaza was developed in the 1970s on the site of what was once the agriculture street landfill. Starting in the early 1900s this landfill on low-lying swamp lands had been used as a dumping ground for city waste.
The landfill was closed decades later in 1957 and reopened for a year in 1965 to serve as a facility to burn waste from the devastation of Hurricane Betsy. It was on this site that the city of New Orleans with federal funding chose to develop an affordable housing community. The city built modest single-family homes, schools, churches, and planned retail to create new opportunities for first-time homeowners, including families in New Orleans' emerging black middle class, allowing them to buy into the American dream.
The dream that was Gordon Plaza quickly dissolved for the residents of this community when they discovered the very foundation of their community was toxic.
Wilma Subra: They did not know when they were doing the first-time homeowners or when they were doing the rent-to-own townhomes that it was on top of a hazardous waste landfill. Eventually, it became designated as the Superfund site.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: This is Wilma Subra. Ms. Subra is an environmental consultant and a technical adviser to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She has been working with residents on the site since the late 1980s. Following a sewage leak in 1993 and facing intense pressure from environmental activists and distressed residents, the Environmental Protection Agency tested Gordon Plaza's soil and found more than 140 toxic and hazardous materials, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer. In 1994, the EPA declared the area a superfund or hazardous waste site.
Wilma Subra: You could actually sit in people's yards. Just with your hands, you could dig the grass and the very shallow surface soil out and get to the waste. The exposure was right there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Subra and the residents of Gordon Plaza have called this a particularly glaring instance of environmental injustice. Back in April, we spoke with two residents who bought their homes in the 1980s without even knowing about the dangerous toxins they might be exposed to on their own properties. Both are still living in Gordon Plaza.
Jesse Perkins: My name is Jesse Giovanni Perkins. I moved to Gordon Plaza in May of 1988.
Marilyn Aymar: My name is Marilyn Aymar, and I'm a resident of Gordon Plaza. My home was sold to me by the city of New Orleans built on the top of the agriculture street landfill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Although they've done their best to keep themselves and their family safe, illness and cancer have become routine realities. According to a 2019 report from the Louisiana tumor registry, Gordon plusses census track has the second highest cancer rate in the state. Although the report also says it's hard to prove links between cancer and certain exposures. Jesse has plenty of stories.
Jesse Perkins: We've lost two people right down the street from where I live from multiple cancers, including brain cancer, and bone cancer. Right around the corner, a 16-year-old girl died from leukemia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marilyn has experience with this too.
Marilyn Aymar: I'm a five-year breast cancer survivor. I have respiratory problems. I have skin ailments from living on this toxic landfill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Since 1993, residents have been fighting for financial compensation, for emotional distress, and property damage. They've also pushed for a fully funded relocation, which after decades may now be in sight. On June 23rd, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to approve a $35 million plan to relocate the residents of Gordon Plaza. Here's city council member Eugene Green, whose district includes Gordon Plaza.
Eugene Green: I'm going to apologize on behalf of the city, that we are at the point where we have to consider relocating residents because, at one time in the history of the city, it was acceptable to see that we were going to have people to locate their homes, to build their homes, to raise their children on a toxic dump.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The $35 million figure is an estimated cost of relocation for the owners of all 67 households, including home replacement costs and moving expenses. Along with relocating the residents, the city plans to convert part of the land into a solar energy farm. In the 2022 budget passed in December, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell allocated $2 million in bond funding to survey the site for redevelopment. Residents of Gordon Plaza are optimistic, but still keeping things in perspective. Here's Jesse again.
Jesse Perkins: I want to say 98% of the people, 99% actually are hopeful, cautiously optimistic, but I'll put it this way. The impression I'm getting from the rest of the residents is that they see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they're coming out now. Those people that were doubtful-- Because of a good reason, some of them were doubtful because of what happened in the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Gordon Plaza residents have won several judgments and class action lawsuits against the city of New Orleans, the Housing Authority of New Orleans, and the Orleans Parish school board for lost property value and emotional distress. Many of the residents have still not received compensation from those judgments. Probably never will. According to a 2021 investigation by the Times-Picayune, New Orleans advocate, the city has more than 560 outstanding judgments and settlements with a backlog of about $40 million dating back some 25 years.
Jesse Perkins: We were made promises, we were told this, we were told that. We won cases, won judgments, and people never saw a penny or a dime of anything. Some people's attitude was, "What do I keep fighting for? Only to be let down. Never to see any compensation," to give them an opportunity to move. Now, they realize that this is going to happen. It's not if it's just when.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The difference this time, the money has been allocated. The city council is diverting funding from municipal bonds in this year's capital budget from stalled projects the city hasn't yet initiated. The city has scheduled meetings with residents and is working with a law firm to work out distributing the funds. Jesse and other residents of Gordon Plaza and advocates are hoping to get this money as soon as possible and potentially find new homes by this year.
Jesse Perkins: We are actually pushing to have these funds distributed as soon as possible to have people moving into homes, maybe at the end of the year, or sometime very closely after, but we're trying to make it happen as soon as we possibly can. Because the sooner you get money in people's hands, then it gives them an opportunity to actually start that journey toward moving into the homes of their choice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jesse has lived in Gordon Plaza a long time, but he says he's ready to move on.
Jesse Perkins: It's going to be a bittersweet thing. I moved here in 1988. Having been in one place that long, it's going to feel funny leaving, but I won't have any regrets. I put it that way. I'll try not to look back when I leave. I know the reason why I'm leaving. It's going to be hard, but it's one of those things that you get over quickly once you've settled down into your new place.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks to Jesse Perkins for sharing his story with us.
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