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How an Incinerator Helped Define a Neighborhood

Story by
Nancy Joseph

In the mid-1980s, a garbage incinerator was planned for a poor community in Los Angeles with a large minority population. At the same time, a similar project was planned for a white, middle-class community in Spokane. Both communities protested. Jennifer Peeples, a UW doctoral student in speech communication, has spent the past year studying the two cases, comparing tactics and outcomes in the two communities.

Jennifer Peeples

Jennifer Peeples.

“I was interested in how communities respond when their neighborhood has been targeted for something environmentally unsavory,” says Peeples. “A lot of communities are not organized as activists until something like this comes along. How do they organize? What identity do they construct for themselves? How do they respond to someone who says their community is appropriate for polluting?”

In Los Angeles, the response was immediate and personal. Within ten days of discovering that their neighborhood had been sited for an incinerator, the community—mostly poor single mothers—organized as Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. They presented themselves as parents concerned with protecting their children, powerless against a city that was willing to risk endangering their children’s health.

The Spokane group chose to focus instead on their rights as citizens, arguing that they should have a voice in the siting decision since they are taxpayers. “Both communities constructed themselves as powerless,” says Peeples, “arguing that they were acted upon unfairly by city government. But their arguments were very different.”

Peeples found another similarity in these very different communities. Both, she says, immediately identified community insiders and outsiders. “In Spokane, they talked about the ‘so-called scientists and engineers’ who couldn’t understand their community. They made them the outsiders,” explains Peeples. “In L.A., it was actually the proponents of the incinerator project who defined insiders and outsiders. They viewed community activists from other areas of L.A. as outsiders and warned opponents of the incinerator not to let these outsiders ‘tell them what to think.’”

The Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles were not so easily swayed, however. The city had planned multiple incinerators around the city, so the group was able to argue that “it’s planned for my community today, but it could also be in yours tomorrow.” The appeal to public sentiment succeeded. The city scrapped its plans for the incinerator—and, surprisingly, any other incinerators around the city.

In Spokane, the fight was less about having an incinerator than its siting in a particular neighborhood. “It was more of a NIMBY [not in my backyard] argument there,” says Peeples. “They were saying, ‘The incinerator’s a good idea…but not here.’ In L.A., the message was, ‘The incinerator is a bad idea anywhere.’”

The Spokane incinerator was eventually built—but in a different neighborhood. Would making an appeal for children’s health have helped nix the project altogether? “It’s difficult to make that sort of causal argument,” says Peeples. What a comparison of the two approaches does tell us, she says, is that how people construct their personal identity—as a mother, as a citizen—cannot be separated from how they view their community.

“The idea of place and identity are inextricably intertwined,” she says. “You can’t understand people’s identity separately from the place where they live. You can really see that in their view of insider and outsider. The line the community members drew between insiders and outsiders created competing identities by pointing to the places people lived.”

Peeples also notes that taking an activist role altered how people came to understand themselves, their community, and how the city government viewed them. Especially in L.A., she says, people “talked a lot about empowerment through this process of fighting the incinerator and winning. They realized they did have a say in the community; they did have some power.”

Years later, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles is still active. The group has fought a gas pipeline and other environmental threats and has organized to bring a bank into their community. “It’s a great story,” says Peeples. “Hearing about their success is how I got interested in these cases in the first place.”