North Memphis

This North Memphis resident reflects on decades of environmental injustices — and seeks solutions

High Ground News is working with Urban Art Commission on a series of stories about environmental justice at the neighborhood level.

Environmental justice is a response to environmental racism and focuses on how harm to the environment uniquely affects marginalized communities. Examples of environmental racism include placing dumps and factories in communities of color, or unequal access to healthy food and clean water. These systemic inequalities can create health disparities that affect families over many generations.
On a hot summer day in 1964, Uncle John taught a 9-year-old me how to play golf. Unknown to us, we teed off on vacant land near Cypress Creek, a dumping site for toxic waste years prior. This vacant land became the home of Cypress Junior High School in 1966.



Almost six decades later, we still face environmental justice challenges of one kind or another. This article will talk about the Environmental Justice movement, my personal memories growing up in a neighborhood most often ignored, and continued exposure to undesirable elements. Most importantly, let’s explore how to effect change. 
 
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “The environmental justice movement was started by individuals, primarily people of color, who sought to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities.” 
Black and Brown communities are more likely to be exposed to environments that affect their physical and mental health; toxic pollutants in the soil and air, lead poisoning, overgrown vacant lots, dilapidated houses, and other issues disproportionately affect communities of color.

Cypress Creek – Who knew toxic waste was nearby?

Cypress Creek was used to dispose of toxic chemicals prior to 1963. As this Exposure Investigation Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states, “Velsicol Chemical Corporation (Velsicol), Buckeye Chemical, and Buckman Laboratories were among the industries that discharged industrial wastewater to the creek.”

I can remember, as early as seven or eight years old (circa 1962), running up and down the hills on the vacant land near Cypress Creek with my friends. Neither the University Cabana Apartments on Vollintine nor Cypress Junior High School had been built. We played in the streams of water and on the hills. 



Cypress Creek flows alongside KIPP Middle and KIPP High Schools, formerly the site of Cypress Junior High School, which is about one minute away from where I grew up, and currently live. I was a Cypress Timberwolf from 1967 to 1970, grades 7 through 9.

Principal James “Jake” Barber, standing at well over six feet, ran a tight ship; there appeared to be no discipline problems he couldn’t handle. Respect was not the exception, but the rule. Mr. Barber was a protector, but news of Cypress Creek’s contamination did not emerge until decades later.



The creek contained cylcodiene pesticides. And as the accomplished coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform points out, “Examples of known chronic effects [from exposure to pesticides] are cancersbirth defects, reproductive harmimmunotoxicityneurological and developmental toxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system.”
 
In the 1960s, the City of Memphis, while straightening the creek to control flooding, removed sediments from a portion of the creek and deposited them along the banks within backyards of residential and commercial properties.” — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
In April 2004, residents joined a class action lawsuit, and ultimately “homeowners received checks ranging from $1,500 to $20,000 — totaling nearly $1.5 million — to make up for their losses in property values,” as WMC-TV reported in 2008.

Corner grocery stores provided limited options

Mr. Josh Paller, a round Jewish man about 5 ft. 7 in. tall and with a friendly spirit, had a small corner grocery store at 1111 Springdale St. But his store provided limited food choices prior to 1965. My mother was a single parent. She did not have an automobile or a driver’s license. When we needed to go grocery shopping, her friends would take her to Hogue and Knott at Hollywood and Chelsea.  



Right next to Mr. Josh’s was Ms. Annie’s house on the hill. My friend Deborah and I climbed Ms. Annie’s fig tree and helped ourselves to some figs; I didn’t even like figs. My brother, Isaac Johnson, during leave from the Airforce, found out and dealt me a whipping that has kept me honest to this very day.

After 1965, we had Young’s Super Market (now Chu’s Market) and King’s Grocery at Springdale and Brown. That gave us a few more food choices than before. We still had to go to the bigger grocery stores to get certain items, and better prices.

The negative effects of blight

Growing up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, we knew who lived in every single home on Brown Avenue, bordered by Springdale Street to the east and KIPP/University Street to the west. Parents would not hesitate to discipline or correct a neighbor’s child when necessary. The lawns were nicely kept, and we dare not litter. There were not many vacant lots.

The neighborhood has drastically changed since the “good old days.” On Brown Avenue alone there are 11 vacant lots, four grossly overgrown lots, and one dilapidated house. This blight, or worse, will be the student’s view for the rest of the school year unless there is serious intervention. Urban Blight is an environmental injustice which can lead to negative cognitive and behavioral effects



My final observations

As a resident of 38108, the second most economically distressed community in the City of Memphis, the environmental justice challenges we face appear to be ongoing, never-ending, and result in negative mental and health effects that can last a lifetime.

When coming against large corporations to fight environmental justices, we too often lack the legal power to get the relief we deserve. In the aforementioned Isabel v. Velsicol Chemical Company lawsuit regarding Cypress Creek, plaintiffs received a small settlement for diminished property values due to contaminated soil, but nothing for their health problems. 

We are often excluded in City plans because we generally are not at the table when the plans are being made. I believe that Memphis 3.0’s commitment to “Springdale and Brown” is very limited and vague. Neither Gooch Park nor Hollywood Community Center were included in the Memphis 3.0 or Accelerate Memphis plans. Gooch Pool was resurfaced and a nice mural was painted, but the fence surrounding the pool appears to have peeling paint and rust. The entire structure covering the picnic tables should be scrapped and replaced with a brand new structure and picnic tables. 

It seems we always get the “kibbles and bits” in my neighborhood, if anything at all. Then there is the communication issue. Everything is online, and a lot of people in this area do not have internet or a computer, let alone know how to navigate the complicated processes. 



The City services we receive are mostly subpar. Lots are bushwhacked and trees and bushes are not cleared from the fences. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that calling and emailing the City, our Councilwoman, and other organizations to help make our community “blight-free” is a full-time job.  

As a retiree, soon to be 67 years “gold,” my hope is to have a new view, a more aesthetically pleasing environment, and a safer community.

Landscape, rebuild, and renovate 3-8-1-0-8.

Illustrations by Mikhaila Markham, whose portfolio of work is available online at www.mikhailamarkham.com.
 

Belinda’s tips on how to participate in the process


In order to cut grass/weeds for the City, one must register to be a certified vendor with the City.

Call 3-1-1 or go online to report potholes, abandoned vehicles, high weeds on empty lots, and trash, etc.

Contact your City Council Representative for assistance with community problems.

District 7: Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas
Phone: (901) 636-6786
E-mail: Michaly[email protected]

Mayor Strickland’s Office
Phone: (901) 636-6000
Email: [email protected] 

Organize Community Clean-ups with Memphis City Beautiful. For tools, complete the online form. Someone will need to pick up and return the tools.

Visit Belinda Kerusch’s TikTok for more of her on the ground reporting from North Memphis.
 

Read more articles by Belinda Kerusch.

Belinda Kerusch is a native Memphian and long-time resident of the Hyde Park Community in North Memphis. She is a self-taught graphic designer and avid dancer. Kerusch is a graduate of the third High Ground News Community Corespondents program.