Reclaim Our Creek, Save Our City!

by Zac Moore and Louise Poindexter

“This is my home and I don’t want to leave – neither do my kids or grandkids. Let’s get this one right with clean fish in the creek.”
- Henry Clemons, 40-year resident of the Midland neighborhood

We may not have money or prestige, but we’ve got our bodies, our voices, and you know that I’m going to use those. We’ve got people power and that’s one of the best kinds of power there is.”
- Joanne Stevens, Southside resident

For five years now, neighborhood residents, environmental activists and civil rights activists have joined forces to fight Onondaga County’s racist proposals to build sewage plants in the urban core of the City of Syracuse. From Midland Ave, a primarily African-American neighborhood, to downtown Armory Square, the only successful economic redevelopment project in the City, resistance to building outdated and ineffective sewage plants in our neighborhoods and business district continues to grow. County Executive Nick Pirro plans to destroy homes over five blocks in the Midland Avenue neighborhood and build a large, stigmatizing sewage plant.

In Armory Square, a similar plant will be built behind the MOST museum, within shouting distance of downtown restaurants, bars and businesses. In both cases, the proposed sewage plants will dump millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into one of the most important waterways in our community, Onondaga Creek. And, as you may know, many of us intend for our Creek to have a bright future…with canoeing, a creek walk and bike paths, not as a sewage ditch.

300 Rally Downtown

Convinced that rising up for this vision extends beyond our generation and reverberates deep into the future of equity in our community, we joined with like-minded friends and took our case to the streets. On May 2, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek co-sponsored a rally and march called “Reclaim Our Creek-Save Our City!” with concerned Armory Square merchants, Jubilee Homes, Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN), and the SUNY-ESF/SU Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). A march of about 50 people gathered at Blaine Street and Midland Ave, the proposed site of the County’s sewage plant, and vibrantly marched to the downtown Armory Square lawn. We were met by rousing cheers, open arms from a giant Earth mother puppet, “Emma,” and the melodic sound of local musicians Joe Driscoll, Zach Kline and Anthony Kirkman.

We were over 300-strong, calling for a new vision for our city and for our creek. With a canoe on the stage, we called for elected officials (see below) to build underground storage instead of aboveground sewage plants so we could enjoy the gift that Onondaga Creek is to our community. To a wave of cheers, Father John Schopfer of the Brady Faith Center said that Onondaga Creek was a “precious jewel” that should be honored as a creation of a higher power, not used as a sewer.

A City United and a Creek

Armory Square merchants James Horan, Bruce Block and Karen Vladimer spoke of the need for a creek walk. They also spoke of the damage that an aboveground sewage plant that dumps sewage into the creek would do to the business community. Karen described how some of the merchants were selling decorative plungers as a symbolic protest of the lost opportunities that a downtown sewage plant represented. We heard from Lula Donald and John Thomas of the Midland neighborhood who described the history of relocation that many African-Americans have experienced in Syracuse. They emphasized that it was time to change course to a positive future for our grandchildren. This was not the first time that John Thomas has been faced with the prospect of uprooting his family, his home, because of the County’s plans.

Farmers and Fish Together !

As the rally progressed, we realized just what our movement – over 50 organizations and thousands of people who have participated through petitions, postcards and phone calls – could become if we worked together as an activist community. The Syracuse System Shakers, a colorful, radical cheerleading group waving plungers in synchronized chants, welcomed over 30 marchers from the NY Farmworkers Coalition (see p17) into our rally, waving red and black flags and chanting “¡Si, Se Puede!” (“Yes, we can do it!”). There was a powerful feeling of solidarity. At that moment we understood that if we refuse to struggle alone, we will always have strength together and we can win!

SUNY-ESF Professor Richard Smarden reminded us that Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake are sacred, particularly to the Onondagas, who are the historic stewards of the watershed. We should be mindful that these waters are our future as a community. They must be treated with respect so that life can return to them free from sewage or carcinogenic chemicals. We must embrace them as living parts of the lives that we would like to lead together. We must face this struggle in unison, not as segmented neighborhoods. Our collective history of justice, what is happening here and what is said and done for this vision will reach into our future. May we have a healthy community, a clean creek, and a prosperous future for those to come.

Partnership for Onondaga Creek meetings are Tuesdays, 7pm at the Brady Faith Center, 404 South Ave (across from the Southwest Community Center). To learn more, call 478-4571.

The Civil Rights Complaint

What you should know about the Partnership’s Title VI Civil Rights Complaint to the EPA (filed by Syracuse University Public Interest Law Clinic, April 9, 2004)
• Sewage plants were planned in 1991, while public participation in the process began after the plans had been submitted in 1998. In addition, the County intentionally compressed deadlines for the cleanup by four years, undermining a national search for alternatives and limiting public input for a community-friendly, environmentally sound solution. To date, South side homeowners still do not know the location of over a mile of proposed pipe relating to the Midland project.

• The proposed Midland sewage plant will dump 77 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the creek per year, undermining EPA-funded creek restoration efforts.

• Asthma rates for the Midland neighborhood are 13 times higher than the rest of the County, yet the proposed above ground plant will produce carcinogenic chemicals and destroy property values in a residential neighborhood where over 130 homes recently have been built.

• The County plans to build underground storage for combined sewage near Schiller Park, where about 75% of the residents are “white.” The County plans to build an above ground sewage plant in the Midland neighborhood, where about 83% of the residents are African-American.

Call the EPA (202-272-0167) and our Federal Representatives.

Tell them to take the Title VI Civil Rights claim seriously…because you do!

Congressman James Walsh, 315-423-5657 or 202-225-3701

US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 315-448-0470 or 202-224-4451

US Senator Charles Schumer, 315-423-5471 or 202-224-6542