Gordon Plaza is a housing development built in the late 1970s on top of the former Agriculture Street Landfill, which served the city of New Orleans for over forty years. The landfill, named “Dante’s Inferno” in the 1940s by the Desire neighborhood residents due to the numerous underground fires that burned for decades, was closed in 1958 by local politicians in response to complaints of fly and rodent infestations. Led by Councilman Victor Schiro, who would eventually become mayor, those same politicians envisioned turning the site into a “beautiful subdivision” to provide affordable housing to the city’s low-income residents. These efforts included new federal programs to help residents purchase their first homes. Over the next two decades, the plan was realized through a series of federally financed city programs and the Gordon Plaza residential development in the Upper Ninth Ward was built. However, within just a few short years of completion, residents began to experience clear signs of toxic exposure, including children attending the new Moton Elementary School.
Photos courtesy of NOLA.com
Completed in 1981, the Gordon Plaza community grew as folks established lives in their newly purchased homes near the site of a planned elementary school, senior center, and the promise of other amenities. Soon after moving in, the residents watched their dream disappear as toxic sludge and hazardous material started surfacing in their yards. Children attending the neighborhood Moton Elementary School began showing signs of lead poisoning and residents began to experience respiratory diseases, cancers, and eventually a number of deaths, all likely the result of exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Federal, state, and independent toxicology studies have found high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, dioxins, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), thallium, as well as over 140 other toxic substances including 49 known carcinogens in the soil and water surrounding the community. Additionally, due to its widespread use to protect residents from harmful insects, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was also detected throughout the site.
In 1994, in response to mounting pressure from the residents and local activists, the EPA determined that the former Agriculture Street Landfill site was polluted enough to warrant listing on the National Priorities List (NPL), qualifying the site for Superfund status and funding. Between 1997 and 2001, the EPA began a partial remediation, eventually cleaning up about ten percent of the site. However, large areas under and around existing homes were not remediated. In 2002, the EPA removed the site from the NPL designation, thereby effectively ending funding and additional remediation. When Hurricane Katrina hit the area in 2005 the flooding uplifted the existing protections, including the many geotextile barriers, and the floodwaters transported additional toxins throughout the neighborhood. After the water receded, Wilma Subra, a renowned environmental scientist, sampled the soil and determined that contamination by toxic chemicals was again widespread– eventually, her work forced the EPA to reinvestigate the site.
Upon the realization that their neighborhood was poisoned, the residents of Gordon Plaza began a long struggle for a fair and fully funded relocation that continues today. Initially, they organized around their shared experiences of living in a toxic environment—the smells, digging up garbage in their gardens, and ongoing struggles with illness and death. In 1994, the residents formed the Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill and began to forge their own path to safety. Their fight has consisted of numerous public protests, petitioning city mayors and government officials, awareness actions, media outreach, and evidence gathering, all eventually leading to the pending class-action lawsuit against the city of New Orleans.
As much as this is a story of decades of struggle, it is also a story of possibility and the reclaiming of power by strong Black women. Like many fights for environmental justice and civil rights around the world, the women of Gordon Plaza have led the way for relocation. Resident Shannon Rainey and the community organization known as the Residents of Gordon Plaza have teamed up with The People’s Assembly, a New Orleans-based movement for economic, racial, and environmental justice, to continue their fight.
For the Gordon Plaza residents, their fight for relocation is urgent and ongoing. The most recent report from the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that cancer rates between 2001- 2015 within the census tract that includes Gordon Plaza had the second-highest sustained rates of cancer in the state of Louisiana.
Read the timeline of the history of Gordon Plaza here.
The above history was written and compiled by students of the Tulane School of the Critical Visualization and Media Lab for the exhibition The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation.