Industry and Environmental Justice Can a Historic Black Neighborhood Be Preserved?

Washington Gas stretches across 126 marked-off acres in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. © Ethan Goffman

Lincoln Park is a sleepy African American neighborhood nestled in east Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Founded in 1891, it holds a tightly knit community of families dating back generations, with small, well-kept houses and deep back yards, recalling a time when space was needed for a well, a privy and a vegetable garden. The place is also an oasis in a sea of light industry—auto body and paint shops, printing and kitchen supply stores, truck depots and warehouses. To the west the Washington metro tracks cut off the neighborhood, while to the north and northwest stretches Washington Gas, a 126-acre complex of fields and towers demarcated by a fence and forbidding signs. Residents feel surrounded. “It’s the only community in the city where residents have to go through industrial areas,” says Ed Duffy, Rockville’s community development program manager.

Lincoln Park’s active civic association drew up a neighborhood conservation plan meant to prevent further encroachment. The current battle is over a 10-acre strip of land known as the WINX property named for the radio station it formerly housed. But the neighborhood plan, which calls for residential development, seems doomed. Facing financial losses, developer Robert Riever constructed a truck depot on the site instead, removing a number of large trees that had acted as a buffer for noise and lights.

“Until they took the trees down, I hadn’t realized how noisy and dusty that area was,” says resident Gail Koenig. She adds that a motor from the industrial area now runs all night and “rattles the windows. I can feel my bed vibrate.” Koenig also decries the loss of surrounding wildlife; she’s seen “no rabbits for at least two years, and our resident hawk is gone.”

Riever, who purchased the WINX property in 2003, initially planned to develop residential housing there but ran afoul of density requirements. Because the WINX property is not part of Rockville, it would need to be annexed into the city to receive water and sewage, but, after a long dispute, the city would not approve Riever’s plan.

Another complication came in 2006 when Sarah Medearis, a member of the planning commission with expertise in environmental analysis, brought up the triple threat caused by the proximity of Suburban Propane, Washington Gas and hazardous shipments on the CSX railroad. “Propane gas has contributed to the largest non-nuclear explosions that we’ve wit-nessed,” says Medearis. After an investigation, the Local Emergency Planning Council, in a letter to the Rockville Planning Commission concluded that “The hazards, which may be acceptable if standing alone, could potentially compound each other in “worst-case scenarios”.”

eco justice
Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Center at Clark Atlanta University.© BP@

After three years of trying to win approval for his project, Riever gave up and sold the property in November 2007 to Perry Cho, who owns a local roofing business and intended to build an office building there. But the neighborhood plan prohibits a building of the size Cho wanted, and the Rockville City Council refused to grant an exception. Cho plans to build a scaled-downversion instead.

This industrial encroachment dating back dec-ades is prototypical for African American neighborhoods, says Rob-ert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Center at Clark Atlanta University. Bullard, known as the father of the environmental justice movement, paints a picture of how politically influential, largely white neighborhoods have long resisted undesirable development, which ends up in neighborhoods without a voice in local government.

“Whether it’s highways or freeways, bus barns, diesel buses or fighting to get access to metro stops, African American areas have been shortchanged,” says Bullard. “Tax and transportation dollars end up disenfranchising black communities.”

Lincoln Park resident and civic association member Wilma Bell echoes Bullard’s sentiment. In black neighborhoods, industrial encroachment is “historically what happens,” she says. “We always have to fight.”

Another lifelong resident, Anita Summerour, remembers a different Lincoln Park in her youth, one devoted to family homes. “I wish it was all residential, the way it used to be,” she says, referring to the early 1950s. Wilma Bell fondly remembers the vegetable gardens and animal habitats the area supported. Indeed, Lincoln Park remains a haven for wildlife, with deer becoming a nuisance and an old fox inhabiting the cemetery.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Lincoln Park offered little resistance as industry surrounded the neighborhood. “People didn’t feel empowered to speak up,” says Summerour. Although light industry continued its growth through the “90s, a more active civic association, in combination with a more receptive city council, put a stop to this with a neighborhood plan adopted in 2005. In 2007, a conservation plan that “established standards for changes within the neighborhood because of its historic character,” was added, says Duffy.

Still, nothing has been done to restore the neighborhood’s earlier tranquility. The current plan for the WINX property will include an insufficient sized building to buffer the lights and noise that plague nearby Ashley Avenue. It will also mean more traffic. Earlier plans “didn’t work,” says Rockville City Manager Scott Ullery, adding that WINX is “a difficult piece of property to develop.” Embedded in that statement is a history of the unspoken conflict between industry and neighborhood.

Although the Lincoln Park Civic Association has succeeded in limiting new industrial encroachment, it cannot undo the legacy of traffic, noise, waste and ugliness endowed on the community. Bell feels that residents must continue to fight or industrial uses will further erode the quality of life. “It’s always going to take vigilance,” she says.