Black neighborhood in Oklahoma City troubled by scrapyard explosions | #dating | #elderly | #seniors
Amid the gentle sloping hills lined with trees and a sweeping view of the downtown skyline, one of Oklahoma City’s oldest Black neighborhoods is healing and rebuilding from years of discrimination and displacement.
The original names for this area, forged into existence by the city’s early Jim Crow laws, are lost to time. The current name for the John F. Kennedy neighborhood was decided by the Urban Renewal Authority some 50 years ago as the agency sought to address what it saw as a broken-down community plagued with blight.
Today, the neighborhood is now a mix of senior housing, affordable housing, old homes and newer upper middle-class homes. Black families are moving back and the old ties of family and community are back as well.
“We love it,” said Cresha Redus, who along with her husband Rodney bought their dream home in the area about a dozen years ago. “It’s next to Bricktown, downtown, the Adventure district, the Boathouse district; it’s an amazing place to be.”
But with menacing consistency, an element of the city’s racist history of zoning haunts new and old residents of the neighborhood alike.
The Redus’ dream home is one that at any time can become a nightmare with a loud boom, walls shaking and smoke pluming up in the air. Their home is only a dozen years old, yet large cracks have popped up in the walls, the floor and ceiling.
For all that is going right in the John F. Kennedy neighborhood, its residents are being forced to endure blasts coming from two nearby scrapyards that enjoy industrial zoning allowed during the depths of Jim Crow laws that provided Blacks with far less protection than more affluent white neighborhoods nearby.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, the explosions have continued, and while residents can point to the sources of the disturbances, those sites have yet to be cited or stopped.
The John F. Kennedy neighborhood continues to endure this reality as the sources of the blasts — Derichebourg Recycling and, to a lesser degree, Standard Iron & Steel — sometimes question whether they are truly to blame.
At other times, the local, family-owned Standard Iron & Steel and the Paris-based Derichebourg respond they are doing all they can do to stop the explosions and that they are not violating any laws or regulations.
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An investigation by city officials indicates the blasts occur when either the scrapyards have failed to adequately remove dust in the shredding equipment or they have not emptied vehicles of fuel in tanks.
Decades of questions without answers
The complaints about Derichebourg and Standard Iron & Steel are old news at City Hall. Six successive city council members for the Ward 7 neighborhood have listened to the residents’ pleas — dating back to when the late Goree James was the councilman in the early 1990s.
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality responds that it can’t do anything because of state air quality exemptions given to scrapyards and difficulty proving any contaminants generated by the blasts are from the scrapyards.
Code inspectors argue they can’t issue noise violation citations unless they witness explosions happening. The residents have been told repeatedly the city wanted to help but couldn’t because the area is zoned for heavy industry and inspectors do not have enforcement jurisdiction.
Neighborhood association president Denyvetta Davis is not ready to surrender. Where else can one find a historically Black neighborhood with mixed income housing, no gentrification and close proximity to thousands of jobs and downtown’s restaurants, shops, museums and event and sports venues?
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Davis said. “I have great neighbors. But it impacts your quality of life.
“Is our neighborhood killing us?”
The explosions continue with hundreds recorded by neighbors over the past decade. No other neighborhood in the city is forced to live with the noise and the blasts shaking JFK.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a long, long time,” Davis said. “We don’t know the total impact on our health, on our property. We just know they occur. We don’t know when they are going to occur.”
This neighborhood, which has a 78% Black population, dates to early statehood when Jim Crow laws restricted Black residents to live in the area, at one time in the flood zone of the Oklahoma River.
Discriminatory and racist zoning?
Cresha Redus recalls how her grandfather had multiple businesses in a neighborhood that had its own theaters, restaurants, hotels and shops.
“Everybody knew everybody because back then they couldn’t go to any other school,” Redus said. “There were boundaries where African Americans couldn’t go. This was like a little Black Wall Street where we had a hospital here, a hospital there, and everything they needed was all here.”
The neighborhood has so much history and so much of a future.
And yet for Cresha and Rodney Redus, the explosions are more than inconvenient. Their home is only a dozen years old, yet large cracks have popped up in their ceilings, floor and walls. They are losing sleep. And they feel like their complaints are “falling on deaf ears.”
Rodney Redus, a retired school administrator, sees a legacy of discriminatory zoning that has yet to be abated.
“If you go north, you won’t find this zoning,” he said. “But that kind of zoning is allowed around African American neighborhoods in many major cities. It’s another systematic racist situation where we know we are not alone. It’s happening across the country.”
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In some ways, the John F. Kennedy neighborhood is like many low-income and minority areas in the city, built near rail lines and where little to nothing separates neighborhoods from industrial zoning.
OKC welcomed noisy scrapyard
Photos taken in the 1920s show oil wells being drilled behind homes in the JFK area at a time when similar activity also was taking place in lower income white neighborhoods on the south side of the city.
Industrial zoning for the area was approved by the city council in 1951 at the recommendation of then City Planner Donald White, who reported the area was “ideally suited” for such use despite being within eyeshot of the nearby Black neighborhood. Records show the neighbors weren’t even a consideration.
That same year, Mayor Allen Street presided over the opening of Standard Iron & Metal on the rezoned land at 1501 E Reno Ave.
The second scrapyard, which neighbors say is the source of most of the explosions, opened in 1968 at 100 N Bath. Built just east of the Standard Iron & Steel, and closer to the neighborhood, the second scrapyard is owned by Derichebourg, a $3 billion French company with operations in nine countries.
The Oklahoman viewed more than 100 security videos recorded by the Oklahoma City Housing Authority over the past two years. The agency is located between the residents and the scrapyard and the videos appear to show most of the explosions coming from the Derichebourg property, and not Standard Iron and & Metal.
The companies did not return multiple calls from The Oklahoman.
Scrapyard business expands operations
During prior inquiries, Derichebourg’s attorneys have told the city the explosions can damage the recycling yard’s equipment, and possibly harm employees, so it takes special precautions to avoid them.
During a 2014 city council effort to crack down on the explosions, a representative with Standard Iron & Metal argued the company had been in the same location in the 1500 block of E Reno for 60 years.
Meanwhile, Derichebourg was expanding its operations, reporting to the city council in 2014 it had spent than $12 million on upgrades and expansion at its Oklahoma City location. The company reported processing 14 million pounds of scrap metal per month in 2008. That number had jumped to 20 million pounds per month by 2014.
That year the city council required the scrapyards to limit operations from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., ending pre-dawn explosions, and for them to document when explosions occur.
So far, the scrapyards have given no assurances to the neighbors the explosions will ever stop, though Derichebourg built a wall of shipping containers three high and six across in an effort to blunt the force of the blasts.
After a 2018 meeting with the company, joined by then Ward 7 Councilman Lee Cooper Jr., Davis said neighbors were told cars arrive at the plant “already crushed and there is no way to identify which ones still have gas in the tank.”
“We were informed by the representative from the Derichebourg plant the explosions would continue because there was no way to stop them,” Davis said.
Roots in the historically Black OKC neighborhood
Cresha and Rodney Redus, like Davis, are not willing to sell their homes and flee a neighborhood they love, a neighborhood where Cresha Redus’ father lived for decades. And it’s a neighborhood where she has multiple cousins living nearby, much as families did for decades before.
“My father went to Douglass High School with his five siblings and that was back in the ’40s,” she said. “It wasn’t the Douglass we have today, or the Douglass before that. … It was the old Douglass that was turned into apartments (600 N High) where he went. And my grandmother went to the Douglass that was in what is now Bricktown.”
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With all that history, Cresha Redus bought a lot from the Urban Renewal Authority and built a home in her family’s old neighborhood. She didn’t know about the explosions until after she moved in.
“When I went upstairs, I thought I was in my own sanctuary in my own little world, and then boom!” she said. “Did a car crash into my house? I really thought that the first time. It was the scariest thing. I ran downstairs, I didn’t see a car, I didn’t see anything.”
As she left her house, she talked to a neighbor and found out about the scrapyards nearby.
“We are united in many ways,” she said. “We have a community garden. We stay together. We are active. We meet once a month to check on folks and deal with issues like the booms we’ve been dealing with on Reno.”
The John F. Kennedy Neighborhood stretches from NE 4 to NE 8 and Martin Luther King Avenue to Lottie Avenue. The neighborhood once extended farther south to NE 1, closer to the scrapyards.
Aerial photos and maps show the south fringe of the neighborhood was still populated when Derichebourg opened in 1968. But those blocks are now largely empty, a ghost of what they once were. Dianne McDaniel, who founded the neighborhood association shortly after buying her home in 1985, remembers what was lost.
“There were a lot of elderly and young people,” McDaniel said. “It was a quiet neighborhood, close-knit, and everyone knew each other. If there were things going on, we looked out for each other.”
The Oklahoma Urban Renewal Authority, starting in the late 1960s, used millions of dollars from federal grants to acquire aging homes and to clear the lots to make way for new houses. Families were uprooted, much of the tight-knit community was torn apart, and only some of the cleared blocks were rebuilt before the development stalled. McDaniel bought one of those new homes in 1985.
More: 2013: JFK neighborhood in Oklahoma City seeking a renaissance
McDaniel was a young divorcee and Army veteran with a daughter and she liked what she saw in JFK. Sure, there were new streets without homes, but the area was within walking distance of schools, churches and the Harriett B. Foster Center, a former YMCA operated by the city parks department.
It was a neighborhood where McDaniel’s daughter could walk to the corner store to buy chips and a pickle.
“I wanted a home,” McDaniel said. “I always wanted to own property and a house for my child. So if she wanted a room painted in purple and pink, she could have a room in purple and pink.”