Take the story of Flint, Michigan, and its crisis of not having clean drinking water for years. Flint is still far, far, FAR from recovered from the crisis, and there are Flint-level catastrophes all over the country. And when I say all over, I mean all over. We just don’t know about them. Or we hope these things will go away, or we don’t think our people will be affected by them. And the people in charge certainly don’t seem to want us talking about them.
That’s why this week on “United Shades,” we are going to talk about two cities also suffering from these man-made problems: Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, neighboring cities that have different versions of the same story.
And yes, I just used the word “man-made” because, let’s be real, men made these problems. When men build cities and then populate them with factories, things like efficiency and stinginess often take precedence over the happiness and well-being of the people who live there. And as usual in America, if those people are poor and not white, they’re at an even greater risk of this happening. This all leads to toxic environments that last generations — or at least until the Climate Apocalypse wipes us all out in 30 years.
“Toxic environment” is sort of a one-size-fits-all description of ways in which your city or the companies in your community can alter your surroundings for the worse without your knowledge. If we’re talking lead poisoning, like in Flint, the long-term consequences can lead to any combination of things, from cognitive delays to behavioral issues to seizures, all dependent on age and length of exposure. If it’s asbestos, the consequences could be shortness of breath, lung disease, and/or cancer. If it’s chemicals related to air pollution, you can get a variety of cancers, respiratory issues, hormonal defects or literally hundreds of other conditions.
The fact is, whether you live in rural, suburban or urban America, you need to know that man-made disasters that can affect you are becoming more and more common. You also need to know that they’re all fixable, if the people in charge could be less concerned about efficiency and stinginess and more concerned about human beings.
In Philadelphia, I talked with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Their “Toxic City” investigative series broke the story about how Philadelphia’s infrastructure problems have led to the poisoning of more than 2,700 kids a year — kids who are predominantly poor, and predominantly of color. Ruderman and Laker are bad asses, who I would like to option for a movie starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
I also learned about how you can determine the health and lifespan of a person just based on their zip code. Robert Bullard, a man credited with being one of the first leaders of the environmental justice movement, explained something called a LULU, or locally unwanted land use. LULUs are the places contaminated by polluting factories, landfills and any other type of structure that no one wants to live near. Bullard explained how poor communities with people of color end up having more than their fair share of LULUs. Admittedly, “zero” is probably what all our fair share is.
I saw this up close when I visited Chester. It had been a thriving black city until the manufacturers took their business elsewhere. (I’m guessing due to efficiency and stinginess). And when the economy bottomed out, Chester became the perfect home for factories that affluent white communities would never allow within their borders. To make matters worse, the jobs these companies bring mostly go to people who don’t live in town.
Zulene Mayfield, a local legend, has spent a large part of her life fighting against the corporations in Chester that she believes are poisoning her community. She has had some victories, but a quick drive around the houses located closest to the factories show that there is a long way to go. Mayfield talked about how many of the empty houses were just abandoned. People didn’t want to live near the factories anymore, but they also couldn’t sell their houses because no one else wanted to live next to factories.
You won’t hear a pro-gentrification argument on my show that often, but Mayfield makes one of her most damning statements when she questions why the people who work at the factories don’t gentrify the surrounding neighborhoods, if it is indeed true that the factories are not polluting the city.
Back in Philadelphia, I also sat down with two moms whose children have been affected by lead poisoning. Both moms come from very different backgrounds. But lead poisoning doesn’t care about your income bracket or race.
East Coast buildings are old and that means many of them were painted with lead paint. In Philadelphia, lead can be found throughout the city. It’s not just in homes. It is in schools, too. This paint peels easily after years of wear and tear, and the worst part is that the paint has a sweet flavor. So kids, who we all know put lots of things in their mouths that they shouldn’t, often eat the paint. And adults are also at risk. Sharon Bryant, a teacher at Cassidy Elementary, had to take a leave of absence because the asbestos in her classroom was making her sick.
Yes, asbestos in a classroom in 2019.
Worse than that, if the buildings aren’t demolished or even rehabbed extremely carefully the lead dust just goes wherever it wants. That means it ends up on the sidewalks, on the streets and in the soil. You can test kids for lead levels, and if you catch it early enough then you can reverse the effects. But if you don’t, if can create permanent developmental delays. I talked to parents who are dealing with both those realities.
Risk like this is all over the country. It’s also all fixable, and the country would be better for it. We just have to push the people in charge to stop prioritizing efficiency and stinginess.
And we need people who live in privilege to know that one day that lead cloud, or that dirty water, or any number of man-made crises, are coming to their house, too.
We have to stop being together, separately, and start working together, together. I know I’m just a comedian, and these are just words. But we all have to actually do something. Are you in?
Hope to see you next season. If the world is still here.