‘The environmental front line’: Patterns of development affect West Berkeley residents

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Zichen Zhao/Staff

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Berkeley is a divided city — split between those who benefit from environmental degradation and those who pay for it. Those who pay are predominantly low-income people of color.

West Berkeley is markedly different from other Berkeley neighborhoods, such as the one around campus. Trash is piled up on some corners, shops are interspersed with factories and the sound of cars on the freeway creates a constant hum. A train barrels down the tracks, its whistle announcing its presence at every street crossing, cutting through the air at all hours of the day and night.

Much of the racial and class diversity in the city is in West Berkeley. It has the most racially diverse population, according to city demographics data. But the population is also most likely to be unemployed, most likely to rent rather than own property and has one of the lowest median incomes within the city, the city’s website says.

“There’s still industry in this town, along the train lines,” said Michael Mascarenhas, a UC Berkeley environmental science, policy, and management, or ESPM, professor. “Industry that emits all sorts of things.”

In a plan to improve environmental quality in West Berkeley, the city designated the area as the “environmental ‘frontline’ of Berkeley.” It has the largest concentration of users of hazardous materials, as well as less public transportation, which causes more reliance on cars, according to the city’s website. The highways running through the neighborhood expose residents to air pollution from the passing cars.

The city of Berkeley has introduced a West Berkeley Plan, which includes many provisions for improving environmental quality.

“The Plan is premised not on the displacement of existing manufacturers,” said Councilmember Linda Maio in an email. “But rather on the improvement of their (as well as other business’, institutions’, and households’) environmental practices.”

Efforts to clean West Berkeley, however, can also harm its residents by displacing them, according to Southwest Berkeley resident Willie Phillips. As environmental quality in one neighborhood improves, the influx of white residents pushes people of color into areas with more environmental degradation.

“At the same time, there’s gentrification,” Mascarenhas said. “Tesla-driving, Peet’s-coffee-drinking folk living next to people in tents.”

Amenities such as highways, industry and public transportation are created to benefit the wealthy and middle classes, but at the cost of the displacement of low-income people of color, who are segregated to areas where the negative environmental effects take place, according to Phillips.

“One of the most commonly understood ways of understanding environmental racism is proximity to environmental burdens,” said Amanina Shofry, a member of the Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC, and of Students of Color Environmental Collective, or SCEC. “Another way of looking at it is access to green spaces and other environmental benefits.”

In Berkeley, many residents have access to numerous amenities but do not have to deal with the noise and air pollution associated with the generation of these amenities, according to Phillips.

“I think in Berkeley it’s mostly people benefiting from environmental racism,” Phillips said. “The transit hub is being emphasized throughout the Bay Area. One of the things that have become a casualty is people of color.”

Phillips, who grew up in the historically Black community of the Adeline corridor, said his father was exposed to silica while working.

“He didn’t have a mask. He didn’t have all the things that you need to protect you. … It was horrible working conditions,” Phillips said. “It’s part of a whole pattern.”

This pattern extends far back in history, according to Phillips, to predatory lending and practices that denied Black residents access to renting in certain areas. These practices segregated the city, and this segregation persisted even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The pattern of excluding Black residents from white spaces lives on, Phillips said, in the displacement of Black residents out of Berkeley.

“Berkeley has gotten cleaner, lost industry, and it lost African Americans,” Phillips said. “When I walk around the neighborhood and I’m the minority, that’s pretty visible.”

West Berkeley, the most diverse neighborhood, has not been immune to the forces of gentrification. Though it still has a lower median income compared to the rest of Berkeley, new maps show ongoing rates of gentrification in the neighborhood. Through phasing out the environmental hazards of industry in favor of new housing developments, the city has displaced many of its most vulnerable residents, according to Phillips.

When looking at current patterns of development, the historical forces at play are important — Black residents live in these areas of high pollution because of targeted efforts throughout history to keep both pollution and people of color segregated from wealthy communities, according to Phillips. But now, as the city gets cleaner, they are being displaced from the neighborhoods that they were originally displaced to.

“(Environmental racism is) harder to see in Berkeley than in places like Richmond or Oakland,” said Sylvia Targ, a member of SCEC. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.