Cherella Nicholson, Program Officer for Central Valley Community Foundation, stands at a brownfield site, at Elm Avenue and Reverend Chester Riggins Avenue, Feb. 4, 2021. The ground there is contaminated by a gas station located there decades ago. Though the site has been rehabbed into an outdoors community center, Saint Rest Plaza, development would be hindered by ground contamination.

jwalker@fresnobee.com

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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Saturday, Feb. 20.

This week in Fresnoland, Monica wrote about how organizing by a large family of indigenous farmworkers who reside at Shady Lakes Mobile Home Park has resulted in Fresno County supervisors considering a rent control policy to limit price gouging at the 98 mobile home parks in rural parts of the county. Dympna wrote about how the city of Fresno has dragged its feet on cleaning brownfields — plots of land that are complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminants.

It’s Dympna Ugwu-Oju, editor of Fresnoland, here.

I had never heard the word “brownfield” or known anything about it until I offered to write about it for Fresnoland. Among the things I now know is that the word “brownfield” is a synonym for everything we abhor — abandoned, neglected, disinvested or contaminated. Most importantly, especially in Fresno, brownfields are a reminder of Fresno’s history of racism, redlining, segregation and deliberate disinvestment in southwest Fresno, an area that is largely populated by Black and brown people.

The word brownfield identifies a former industrial or commercial site where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. So today’s brownfield may have been the site of an abandoned gas station, dry cleaners or auto repair shop, and they result from policies — federal, state and local governments — that let businesses leave a locality, without taking required steps to purge the land of the ghosts of its industrial past.

Brownfields result from the failure of relevant city, county or state agencies to enforce necessary cleanups of vacated former business sites. Sometimes, tanks full of oil are left, buried underground and they remain there, slowly seeping into the ground, spreading to neighboring lots. Often, when an area is abandoned, the sidewalks disintegrate, and the streets worsen, and even street trees disappear.

Human costs of brownfields

Cleaning up a brownfield is expensive; experts say it could cost as much as $300,000 per lot. It’s a huge detriment to investment, as many developers don’t want to incur those costs unless significant profit can be gained. In addition, the presence of a brownfield depresses the property value of neighboring homes, widening the net worth gap between Black/brown and white communities.

Michaelynn Lewis, who grew up in Fresno, said she was not aware of brownfields until she returned to Fresno about seven years ago to care for her ailing mother. The abandoned fields left her southwest Fresno neighborhood “looking like something out of a warzone.”

Drew Wilson, a city planner with the city of Fresno, overseeing the city’s brownfields work, describes brownfields as “the consequences of neglect.” What Wilson means is that 70% of all Fresno brownfields are located in the southwest area of Fresno — the same area with the infamous 93706 zip code — where residents have a life expectancy that is 20 years lower than residents of North Fresno; the area with the second highest rate of infant and maternal mortality in the state; the highest poverty rate, highest unemployment, highest rate of poor air quality in Fresno. I doubt it is all a coincidence.

“You have environmental racism; you have just outright racism; you have segregation; you have economic injustices, all of these things — systematic racism that played into it,” Wilson said about the brownfields. “And these are the secondary consequences that occur, because of all these systems that have been in place.”

Making the neighborhood whole again

Starting in 2011, the southwest community became aware of the health and economic ramifications of brownfields and were determined to do all in their power to save their neighborhood. They organized, held listening sessions, invited the city of Fresno and the EPA and fully bought into reclaiming their blighted lands.

They understood that cleaning up brownfields takes everyone — grants, the EPA, the city, the council members and the owners of the contaminated fields.

Michaelynn Lewis said cleaning southwest Fresno’s brownfields would enhance the quality of life for members of the community. It could mean “knowing that you don’t have to go all the way across town for everything that you do . . . and then to do some more community gatherings, community swap meets and craft fairs or something or another.”

Yes, the city applied for and obtained grants from the EPA and formed partnerships with community stakeholders. Between 2011 and 2020, the EPA granted a total of $1,975,000 for southwest Fresno brownfields. It has been 10 long years since the brownfields battle started in southwest Fresno, yet, no cleanup has occurred yet.

Ten years is too long for a community to wait for environmental justice — for clean air, clean water and clutter-free abandoned lots. I believe this would not happen anywhere else but in south Fresno. Will the city of Fresno wait another 10 years to clean the blighted lots in southwest Fresno? It is this writer’s hope that the cleanups begin.

And now, the week’s top reads:

(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)

Housing, transportation, and land use

Starting March 1st, bus and paratransit rides on Fresno’s FAX system will be free, as part of a pilot project. Fresno Bee

“Journey Home” — the newly refurbished motel of about 80 rooms is Freno’s latest efforts to house the homeless in former rundown motels, was launched Wednesday. Fresno Bee

‘Crossroads Village,’ a refitted hotel— is the latest housing project, providing 165-unit of affordable housing for local individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Fresno Business Journal

Neighbors are opposing a mixed-use project proposed just west of Shaw and Blackstone avenues in Fresno. Fresno Business Journal

Homeless people in Tulare have been forced out of their encampment on the levee of the Tule River. Visalia Times Delta

Why housing insecurity is a sleep killer. Bloomberg CityLab

Buyers looking for a home right now need to be ready to pounce as inventory is low. CNN.com

Economy and neighborhood inequality

The Biden administration’s effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour could provide a welcome opportunity for low income earners. Fresno Business Journal

How a minimum-wage increase is being felt in a low-wage city (dear reader, they’re talking about Fresno). New York Times

This program helps older Latinx women stay safe during the pandemic. Valley Public Radio

Latinos try food sales, Go Fund Mes to avoid pandemic-related debt. CalMatters

The huge drop in federal aid during the pandemic is blamed on the closing of Social Security offices throughout the country. NPR.org

Increased household responsibilities have forced many working mothers — and especially Black and Latinx mothers — to scale back on their hours or leave the work force entirely during the pandemic, further widening economic and racial disparities. NPR.org

The Federal Reserve’s bi-annual monetary policy report to Congress offers a hopeful and cautious assessment of the economy. New York Times

Water and air quality

Wildfire smoke could be the main way Californians experience climate change. KQED

The United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change designed to limit global warming and avoid its potentially catastrophic impacts. NPR.org

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