This is the second in a series of blog posts leading up to the People’s Climate March that highlights grassroots solutions. This is a guest post from Kenny Bruno, a long-time environmental activist who currently coordinates the US-Canada Tar Sands campaign.
The good people of the Ironbound Community Corporation are still at it, a generation later. And speaking of a generation later, today I drove my daughter, a new staffer at GAIA, to visit the Ironbound section of Newark, home of the largest incinerator in the region, the largest dioxin superfund site in America, and a dozen other environmental injustices.
It was a trip home for me, as Ironbound was one of the places I cut my teeth as a community organizer with Greenpeace in the late 1980’s. Our little tour today took us down the same streets as my first introduction to the neighborhood in 1987. Ironbound: metal working, railroad tracks, gritty, hardy, a place of character, housing projects and great restaurants. The site of seminal battles against incinerators for hazardous waste, sludge and garbage.
There have been losses. Residents breathe air polluted from a major commercial seaport, an international airport, truck traffic, and the biggest incinerator in the region. The asthma rate for the city of Newark is 27%, more than double the state average. Sitting along the Passaic river, Ironbound was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and at least one small neighborhood will probably never recover.
There have been victories. In a narrow alleyway in the middle of town is a community garden tended by volunteers from ICC and elementary school children. The kids raise chickens, grow plants, and build community. These residents also fought successfully to save a park that had been contaminated by dioxin. That fight energized them for a bigger campaign – a 30-year effort to build a terrific 4-acre riverside park on the Passaic.
The central campaign for Ironbound in my day was the campaign against the garbage incinerator. And we lost, there’s no sugarcoating it. Today that incinerator stands, belching toxic chemicals. But the residents also beat back a hazardous waste incinerator and a sludge incinerator. Let me repeat that: they beat back two incinerators, one for hazardous waste and one for sludge, to the everlasting benefit of all residents. In additional to their political advocacy work, they have set up family service centers, translation services, legal services, and more in their many offices around the area.
These accomplishments are not accidental. In the public library, we found Nancy Zak presiding over the archives of the ICC. Nancy is the embodiment of the continuous dedicated community organizing approach in Ironbound. She was there when I first visited 27 years ago, and she was there today. Her visitors from Drew University were studying old issues of “Ironbound Voices,” published from 1976 – 2001 in English, Portuguese and Spanish. “Voices” reflects an era of militant and community-based activism: “500 Rally Against Incinerator.” “800 March against incinerator.” “Arrests at site of proposed sludge plant.” The Drew students will teach Middle School students, who will then transmit the history of Ironbound back to the community in a virtuous cycle of education and organizing.
What they may not fully appreciate is that Ironbound was also one of the places where all of us learned about the community level fights and spread the word around the country, and later the world. Ironbound was an early iconic fight for environmental justice – though we didn’t use that phrase at the time. Through Voices and through our networks, it influenced hundreds of other communities facing incinerators. It led, indirectly, to my daughter’s work at GAIA. And today she got to visit the source.
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