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Editor's note: This story contains offensive language.
LUBBOCK — In 1923, the Lubbock City Council approved an ordinance that forced Black residents to the east side of the town, prohibiting them from owning property west of Avenue C. City leaders at the time claimed “negros and persons of African descent” were “dangerous” and that they pollute “the earth and atmosphere.”
Then the city purposely created an industrial zone surrounding their neighborhoods.
One hundred years later, Avenue C sits in the shadow of Interstate 27. And while Black residents are allowed to own property anywhere, they continue to largely live east of the highway where emissions still billow from factories and waft through the neighborhoods.
Now, as the city updates its zoning laws, residents in East and North Lubbock have filed a civil rights complaint and are asking federal officials to force the city to end the practice of placing industrial companies and super polluters near their neighborhoods.
“By forcing high-intensity industrial uses into North and East Lubbock neighborhoods, the City subjects residents of color to greater health risks,” the complaint filed by Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas earlier this month says.
The Lubbock complaint is the latest in an emerging movement known as environmental justice. Across the U.S., predominantly Black and Hispanic communities working with organizations such as Southern Sector Rising are demanding local governments review where they place industrial sites and waste. In Dallas, for example, one south side neighborhood fought for years to have 70,000 tons of toxic waste known as Shingle Mountain removed.
According to the complaint, 57% of Lubbock’s Black residents and 38% of its Hispanic residents live within one mile of the industrial zone. By comparison, only 17% of white residents live within the same proximity.
In an email to the Tribune, a spokesperson said the city is reviewing the filed complaint. The council is expected to have a hearing Aug. 30 to receive public input and take action on proposed amendments. The code, which hasn’t had major changes since the 1970s, is set to take effect Oct. 1.
The federal complaint is not the first time the council has heard concerns about where industrial companies are approved to operate. The council was warned by residents for months leading up to the code renewal and still went forward with the plans to renew the zoning standards.
In emails reviewed by the Tribune, Adam Pirtle, a lawyer for the North and East Lubbock Coalition, sent a letter to the city last December. City Attorney Chad Weaver responded to the email three weeks later, stating “The City has determined that there is no further action to be taken in response to the demands set forth in the letter at this time.”
Dora Cortez, a member of the coalition and North Lubbock resident whose family has lived there for six generations, said the communities there have fought the industrial zoning codes for years, to no avail.
“The City of Lubbock has willfully failed to provide fair and equal zoning protection to Black and Hispanic citizens in East and North Lubbock,” Cortez said Wednesday at a news conference. “Instead, [they] surround those neighborhoods with industrial zoning.”
Natalie Miller, a sixth-generation East Lubbock resident, said the Lubbock zoning laws are deeply rooted in historical injustices, and that it has to stop now.
“So our future generations are no longer burdened with the injustices that were forced upon prior generations,” Miller said. “As a community, we have a collective responsibility to acknowledge and rectify these wrongs.”
Miller said the whole ordeal has caused her to lose confidence in the city. She would like to see the area rezoned or to build an amortization clause, which would give an expiration date for grandfathered property. Without changes, she says the pollution has pushed younger residents away.
“A lot of our kids don’t want to stay here because to them, there’s nothing here to look forward to,” Miller said.
Pirtle, the lawyer representing the neighborhoods, said the complaint was filed under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which states if a city takes money from a federal program, it may not have programs or activities that discriminate based on race. Lubbock has not followed that order, Pirtle says.
“The city council broke that promise when it passed Lubbock’s new zoning code, which reaffirms the discriminatory zoning map,” Pirtle said.
The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice. Pirtle said they have an obligation to investigate Lubbock’s zoning practices and force the city to create a fair system for all neighborhoods.
“Every resident in North and East Lubbock deserves to be treated the same way as someone in Southwest Lubbock,” Pirtle said. “Every Lubbock child deserves to grow up in a neighborhood free from foul smells, noises and nuisances of polluting industries.”
Pirtle added, “Everyone who calls Lubbock home deserves to know their city leaders will protect their health, their safety and their quality of life, no matter their race or ethnicity.”
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