Toxic Tours

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Neighborhoods that are occupied by the
poor and people of color face many challenges
that remain hidden from public
view. Lack of grocery stores in walking distance,
the policing of Douglass Park, and
the location of a former coal to gas power
plant have generated concerns by residents. As a result, students,
educators, and activists have gathered at Douglass
Park as part of a series of “Toxic Tours” to address how public
space is organized and the impact it has on residents,
especially individuals who have limited resources.
The original usage of the term “Toxic” denoted the presence
of a chemical or poison capable of causing injury and,
in some cases, death. Over time the concept of what it is to
be toxic developed into a metaphor which describes conditions
and spaces that can harm individuals within its borders.
One way in which the
use of public space is manifested
is through the location
of parks, churches, and
schools. For instance if a person
is caught with a small
amount of drugs it is usually
considered to be a misdemeanor.
Yet, if that same
individual is within a short
distance from a school, park,
or church, that misdemeanor
charge turns into a felony.
Last May a 17 year old
male was leaving the gym at
Douglass Center with two
companions. In order for
him to walk home he had
to go across park grounds.
He was stopped by a police officer because he was on park
grounds after dusk which, at the time, was when the park
officially closed. Later it was observed that the Douglass
Center closed at 9pm and the young man and his companions
had left the building before that time. This raises
the question as to how parks and other public spaces are
managed to put people at a disadvantage. That evening,
the young man was assaulted and pepper-sprayed by
police. One of his companions ran to the home of city
council representative Gina Jackson and the young man
ended up being taken to the hospital. According to local
activists, the young man is facing charges in connection
with this incident.
Late,. during a couple of tours, both Martel Miller and
Aaron Ammons, from CU Citizens for Peace and Justice,
asked a group of University of Illinois students to tell them
what time “dusk” occurred. On both occasions this question
was treated with ambivalence, with a couple of people suggesting
sunset. As Ammons pointed out to the group, sunset
could easily occur fairly early during the winter and later in
the evening come summer, yet the Douglass Center remains
open until 9pm. When the young man was accosted by
police, he was leaving the center during its regular hours; and
in order for him to leave the premises, he would have to be on
park grounds. At the time, Douglass Park was the only park in
Champaign to officially close at dusk. Later the time was
changed to 9pm to coincide with the Douglass Center hours.
Individuals who toured Douglass Park have noted that
the park is next to a school and is close to at least four
churches nearby. A question
raised as a result of this observation
is how do the placement
of parks, churches, and
schools influence the disproportionate
amount of felony
charges against minorities and
individuals who have social
and economic disadvantages?
This is a question for which
there are no easy or simple
answers to offer.
Another observation made
during these tours is how residents
who live around Douglass
Park do not have close
access to grocery stores, but
are easily able to obtain fast
food and other unhealthy
items. Ammons shared his vision of someday developing
and maintaining the use of community gardens. A community
garden would present an opportunity to provide fresh
vegetables to the residents as well as a tool to build relationships
within the community. The one thing that prevents
Ammons from using land available in the neighborhood
is concerns he has about the potential toxins from the
former power plant. As the tour continued, participants
reached the site of this former coal to gas plant which has
been abandoned for several years.
According to information provided by Dr. Ken Salo, a professor
with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning
at the U of I, the former coal to gas plant provided heat and
light to area homes from 1897 to 1955. During the 1980s the
location was owned by the American Legion who planned to
expand the building for community activities. This changed
when construction workers discovered coal tar which is a
cancer causing byproduct, while building a drainage ditch.
The American Legion ended up selling the property back to
Illinois Power, which is now Ameren IP, and the company
concluded that the site did not pose a threat to nearby residents.
Yet in 1997 there began a massive cleanup of the site
and 200,000 gallons of coal tar were removed from the area.
This plant is supposed to be fenced off so that members
of the public can’t enter the grounds. However, the tour
participants discovered a huge opening that had been made
in the fence, making it easy for anyone to enter the area.
This opening was initially observed on August 19, 2007
and another tour which took place on August 31 found the
damage to the fence still present. [See photo] Does Ameren
IP keep an eye on the area and make attempts to repair the
damaged fencing or is this responsibility shifted to the city
of Champaign? Could this be an example of abusive corporate
practices in where toxic sites are located and how community
members are expected to clean up the mess that is
left behind? One thing that the gaping hole does reveal is
the ease by which a community of people can be injured
and harmed by the management of public spaces.
A resident who lives close to the plant told participants
how her grandfather died from a rare form of cancer and
how another neighbor (no relation) also died of the same
type of cancer. One observation that participants made is
the old power plant is located within a block of a day care
center and a woman’s shelter. Some of the residents plant
huge gardens every year. If the neighborhood is coping
with lingering toxins in the ground, then what are the longterm
effects that we can see here? The process of discovering
the implications of these spaces to the City of Champaign
and Douglass Park is an ongoing journey that may
reveal information on how public space is used and abused
and the social, physical, and psychological effects it has on
the residents. Identifying the issues and finding the solutions
is a challenge this community faces today.

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