Before Katrina: Fighting To Preserve Turkey Creek

While the fight for self determination for all residents of New Orleans—their right to return and to rebuild their communities—has not been the focus of mainstream news coverage, it is an issue that many readers have probably read something about. As in New Orleans, the interest of white developers in predominantly African American neighborhoods is not a phenomenon produced by Hurricane Katrina.

Before Katrina, one of the more recent community battles ended in something of a victory for the residents of Turkiey Creek. This was the story from 2000-2003:

The struggle over Turkey Creek began in 2000, when developer T. J. “Butch” Ward, a Republican politician from Louisiana, used his enviable connections to get three U.S. senators—Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and John Breaux (D-La.)—to pressure regulatory officials from the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit for him. Ward wanted to fill 500 acres of wetlands in the Turkey Creek drainage in order to build a mixed-use commercial development, including an office complex and distribution center.

“When I was a girl, all we knew was this neighborhood,” [says Rose] Johnson [of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust]. “The beaches were ‘whites only.’ So Turkey Creek is where we went to fish, pick blackberries, recreate. Oftentimes you could see old people walking down to Turkey Creek with their cane poles in their hands. Churches had no pools inside for baptisms then—we all walked down to the creek and waited until the crowd got there.”

Johnson’s father, who had a fourth-grade education, worked all his life at a creosote plant operating on the banks of the creek. He took the little bit of money he made to feed his family and buy a piece of land. “By the time he retired,” Johnson says, “his lungs were completely eroded, eaten up. He just made 70.”

When development started to sprawl northward from the casinos along the coastline, turning North Gulfport from rural to urban, Johnson noticed that the creek’s water turned colors and got dirty. People dumped old tires and garbage in it. Though the creosote plant shut down 20-some years ago, its toxic soil was being treated on-site, and, according to Johnson, you can still smell and see creosote in the water. Fecal coliform levels were high from leaking septic tanks and from sewage piped directly into the creek.

On the afternoon I first phoned Johnson to set up a meeting, the conversation had been interrupted by her grown daughter, who ran breathlessly into Johnson’s home. “There’s a man fishing in Turkey Creek,” she said. Johnson had begged pardon, saying, “I’ve got to tell this man that Turkey Creek is so polluted he can’t eat the fish,” before she hung up.

Johnson heard about the proposed Ward development from state senator Deborah Dawkins, a former Mississippi Sierra Club Chapter chair considered the most pro-environment legislator in the state. Dawkins had become aware of Johnson’s work and introduced her to the Sierra Club.

By this time, only a week remained in the comment period for the proposal. “We are left out of the process,” Johnson says. “Developments get built before we even know about it. But it’s our ditches and streets that flood.” Johnson immediately hit the pavement. In 48 hours she collected 526 signatures on a Sierra Club petition opposing the development, as well as 60 letters—”a relatively high number” of comments, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Residents of North Gulfport depend on wetlands to mitigate flooding. Even without the Ward development, following torrential rains Turkey Creek swells over its wooded banks, rushing into churches and homes, causing septic tanks to overflow. A watermark can be seen two feet up the side of Forrest Heights Baptist Church, a few hundred feet from the creek. Development aggravates the problems, since buildings and impervious surfaces like concrete impede water from percolating into the soil.

“I had to explain what wetlands are,” says Johnson. “We call them swamps. But wetlands are natural sponges, and we need them to absorb water, to filter pollutants.”

The Sierra Club brought in an engineering firm to analyze Ward’s proposal. “Their study supported our fears,” says Johnson. The report confirmed that flooding in the area would increase, and that the developer’s analysis was inaccurate and inappropriate for a project of this scale. The study verified the likelihood that inadequately treated storm water would cause an increase in creek pollution.

Public outcry prompted Ward to redraw his plans a few times, but never without the loss of wetlands, which was unacceptable to the community. The white mayor of Gulfport, Ken Combs, was overtly critical of North Gulfport’s resistance to the development. In a meeting in April 2003 with the city’s daily newspaper, referring to the project opposition, he said, “We’re dealing with some dumb bastards.” He added, “I’m not running for reelection so I guess I can say that. None of these people voted for me anyway.” The councilor representing the area called for his resignation, as did the NAACP.

In May, as the controversy grew more heated, the Sierra Club helped distribute yard signs throughout North Gulfport that read, “We can clean up Mississippi’s air and water.” Within a few days, the mayor sent out code-enforcement officials who removed the signs, purportedly because the placards blocked highway vision. Local activists charged that the city was selectively enforcing its codes, and eventually the signs were returned.

Finally, on December 16, 2003, after three years of well-organized opposition, Butch Ward withdrew his permit application for the development. “I thought it was the best Christmas present that ever was,” says Johnson.

With this victory, there were still other serious challenges to tackle, before Katrina ever arrived in Gulfport.

Johnson had witnessed numerous outside speculators taking advantage of the annual tax sale to purchase property in the neighborhood. Many elderly residents had lost their homes in the face of escalating property taxes. “Everywhere you looked another for sale sign was going up in North Gulfport,” Johnson says. Her idea was to save property that was left behind by her parents’ generation and return it to the hands of African-American families. From this vision of restoring the community, Johnson and Gillette went on to create the first Mississippi coastal community land trust to promote land preservation and affordable housing in North Gulfport.

The land trust is dedicated to protecting the culture and character of the neighborhood in the face of encroaching commercial development and recent foreclosures. It builds on a culture of homeownership in Mississippi. Over 72 percent of housing in Mississippi is owner-occupied. Yet, only 60 percent of African Americans own their own homes, compared to 78 percent of whites. Between 1990 and 2000, the state experienced a 25 percent growth in vacant, abandoned or otherwise unsuitable housing, twice the national rate of increase. Low per capita income and land speculation contribute to the decline in available land and housing among Mississippi’s most distressed minority communities.

The residents of North Gulfport face even higher rates of poverty, land loss and housing abandonment than the state average. Their houses are much older and worth significantly less on the market. Residents also tend to occupy their homes for longer periods of time, and houses are often inherited rather than bought. Their lower home values are associated with limited access to schools, hospitals and other public facilities. North Gulfport stands in the precario
us position of wanting to preserve its cultural and architectural heritage from polluters and unscrupulous developers, and also fighting desperately for public improvements.

This is some of the background against which to evaluate current discussions of rebuilding and redevelopment in Gulfport.

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