The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) acquiring the Roof Depot from the City of Minneapolis might be “old” news. But not only is the acquisition still pending millions of dollars in funding, the City of Minneapolis’ environmental racism and East Phillips residents’ show of self-sufficiency still deserves conversation.
This past May, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) acquired the Roof Depot, formerly a Sears warehouse in the mid-1900s. In doing so EPNI thwarted the City of Minneapolis’ plans to demolish the Roof Depot — which sits on top of arsenic-contaminated groundwater — and build a public works campus that would host hundreds of trucks and a diesel refueling station.
With pledged financial support from Minnesota state legislators (better explained here by Sahan Journal), The East Phillips community plans to raise the money to complete the acquisition, avoid potential arsenic pollution, and create a garden and affordable housing units.
This battle between city officials and their constituents was more than a power struggle: East Phillips is among the most polluted neighborhoods in the state. Unsurprisingly, East Phillips residents also suffer some of the highest rates of pollution-related illnesses including asthma and heart disease.
According to Minneapolis City Council, these realities were accounted for in their Roof Depot demolition plans. But even if their environmental safety measures were strictly enforced during the demolition, where is the safety and consideration in plans to bring trucks and diesel into an asthma-plagued, arsenic-laced neighborhood bordered by major highways?
The potential impact of simply destroying the old warehouse — which is still a Superfund site (i.e. so polluted the federal government keeps watch) — was controversial enough, but the City’s plan to introduce a permanent source of even more pollution in East Phillips removes all benefit of the doubt they could have reasonably been given.
Minneapolis City Council did not care about the opinions and dire needs of East Phillips residents. The City’s deliberate yet quiet environmental racism went largely unnoticed by people outside of East Phillips. The people of East Phillips were left to save themselves and so far they’re succeeding.
Like any successful community organizing, EPNI snagging the Roof Depot from the City was years in the making. This includes a thorough canvassing of the East Phillips neighborhood in 2021 that produced a useful and highly relevant record of residents’ wants and needs.
What do people in East Phillips want and need from the Roof Depot? From organizers? From each other? Below are the highlights from the East Phillips Outreach Project, a collaboration between EPNI, East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC), and Knock Knock LLC:
East Phillips Residents Want No More Pollution
The Roof Depot was front and center in the East Phillips Outreach Project as the subject of Question 1. When asked what they wanted from the Roof Depot, “Do not create more pollution in East Phillips” was undeniably the top priority. It was the only option out of 17 selected by over half of the 424 respondents (67 percent) with the next most popular wish for the Roof Depot (environment-friendly living wage jobs) receiving 24 percent fewer votes.
The Roof Depot site, prior to hosting a Sears warehouse, was a coal storage facility according to Braun Intertec, the engineering firm hired by the City of Minneapolis to inspect the site. Next to the site in its Sears warehouse days was an arsenic-based pesticide factory that polluted East Phillips for 25 years (1938-1963). The arsenic pollution was bad enough to make East Phillips a Superfund site in 2007 and resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removing 50,000 tons of contaminated soil from the neighborhood in four years. Six hundred homes — almost half of the homes in East Phillips — were found to have unsafe levels of arsenic in them.
East Phillips is currently home to a foundry, an asphalt production site, and borders some of the busiest roadways in the Twin Cities metro area including I-94, Hiawatha Ave, and Lake Street.
There are levels to the disappointment in Minneapolis city officials Roof Depot demolition plans. One is the complete disregard of valid safety concerns from East Phillips residents. Another is the leaked report from Public Works suggesting the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, not East Phillips, was the safest and cheapest location for a new campus. Perhaps most disheartening is how joyless and dangerous the City’s plans were in comparison to East Phillips’ plans for the same space.
The Roof Depot Vision Is Colorful
East Phillips residents want self-made food, housing, green space, business that doesn’t harm the Earth, and public space for children to be in. Knowing the City of Minneapolis can build their public works campus in a less disruptive place but insisted on doing it in East Phillips weakens so many of their stances and policies on equity and sustainability.
The City’s conduct in East Phillips adds to a list of important recent actions contradicting its progressive talk.
The amount of imagination and hope put into East Phillips’ Roof Depot plans is only as inspiring as it is because they won. They won on the ground with persistent occupation of the site and nonviolent resistance to police forces. They won in court to hold off the demolition. They won financial support from state legislators. A neighborhood of roughly 5,000 pushed back against their city’s government and made them move.
This level of daring intent should be celebrated. Not necessarily as an anti-government victory, but a pro-community one.
Ain’t Too Fancy For Facebook and Flyers
A valuable and telling insight from the East Phillips Outreach Project are the residents’ preferred forms of communication. As information flies across the Internet in newer, faster ways, community organizing in East Phillips was done most effectively with Facebook, flyers, and face-to-face conversations.
Future local organizing efforts in the Twin Cities and beyond would do well to heed what East Phillips’ success is suggesting: the best method of communication is the one that people actually use. Even if that’s pieces of paper, a disgraced social media platform, or the analog human interface (i.e. talking to people in real life).
The Battle Is On Your Porch
From slavery to Jim Crow to transgender health care laws, the United States has shown its people time and time again the battle for how you live starts where you live.
The federal government has largely left states to decide what to do about marijuana legalization. The federal government has left cities to decide what to do about Black reparations. And everyone has left small, poor non-White neighborhoods to figure out what to do about all the pollution companies dump in them.
In fact, the only reason why the federal Superfund program exists is because in 1980, a similar neighborhood coalition in Niagara, New York from the Love Canal neighborhood demanded the government clean up 33 years worth of chemical waste in Love Canal. This included edgy protests and holding two EPA representatives hostage.
East Phillips residents took action in a number of nonviolent yet confrontational ways to fight off the City of Minneapolis and gain control of the Roof Depot. They found bravery in shared goals created through desperation and communication. History suggests this is necessary for exploited communities to defend themselves in the United States as greater environmental catastrophes and public health issues occur.
If East Phillips’ fight for self-determination is telling us anything, give a damn about your neighbors. They may be the only people you can work with when your quality of life, or life itself, is threatened by systems of power.