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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. 

Related: 2013: JFK neighborhood in Oklahoma City seeking a renaissance

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.

Homeowner Denyvetta Davis has spent the past decade seeking an end to explosions from nearby scrapyards that frequently rock the historically Black John F. Kennedy neighborhood.

Homeowner Denyvetta Davis has spent the past decade seeking an end to explosions from nearby scrapyards that frequently rock the historically Black John F. Kennedy neighborhood.
Chris Landsberger, Oklahoman

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 Oklahoma River, shown in this 1921 map, was a meandering prairie waterway when Black residents were forced by Jim Crow laws to live in the area. In 1968, a scrapyard opened south of the neighborhood and has been blamed for years of explosions.

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.”

More: 2019: Moving forward: Community, neighborhood the goal of Page Woodson developer in OKC

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.

Derichebourg Recycling, 100 N Bath, is just south of the John F. Kennedy neighborhood. Residents say the metal recycling yard is the source of explosions that rattle nerves and houses.

Derichebourg Recycling, 100 N Bath, is just south of the John F. Kennedy neighborhood. Residents say the metal recycling yard is the source of explosions that rattle nerves and houses.
Chris Landsberger, Oklahoman

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. 

Denyvetta Davis, neighborhood association president
We were informed … the explosions would continue because there was no way to stop them.

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.

Homeowners Rodney and Cresha Redus love their John F. Kennedy neighborhood, but they do not like the explosions from nearby scrapyards.

Homeowners Rodney and Cresha Redus love their John F. Kennedy neighborhood, but they do not like the explosions from nearby scrapyards.
Chris Landsberger

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.”

More: 2015: School development is seen as catalyst for JFK neighborhood’s revival OKC

More: 2017: Historic former school property east of downtown OKC nearly ready for residents

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.”

Environmental justice?

Map showing the John. F. Kennedy neighborhood and nearby scrapyards.

Map showing the John. F. Kennedy neighborhood and nearby scrapyards.
Todd pendleton

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.”

Denyvetta Davis, neighborhood association president
I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I have great neighbors. But it impacts your quality of life. Is our neighborhood killing us?

Explosion situation worsened

Not long after moving in, McDaniel began hearing the explosions. But she doesn’t remember it being so bad back then. Shotgun houses and rickety homes with no cement slabs in those early days still filled the blocks between NE 4 and the scrapyards.

“We had a buffer zone, a lot of trees and underbrush, and we couldn’t hear it as predominantly as we do now,” McDaniel said. “They cleared more land and built more houses and the explosions became more frequent, more violent.”

Sometimes McDaniel noticed a white ash on her crape myrtle. The explosions were sometimes followed by an acrid smell.

“We talked about the blasts when I formed the neighborhood association,” McDaniel said. “We talked extensively as to what was going on. But we were focused on cleaning up the area, paving and redoing streets and sidewalks.”

As the explosions worsened, McDaniel noticed her windows were jammed and closet door wasn’t closing right. Then she had to deal with foundation damage on the side of the house facing in the direction of the scrapyards.

She talked to Goree James, and when Willa Johnson was elected to Ward 7 seat in 1993, McDaniel asked if the city could use eminent domain to force the scrapyards to relocate.

“They would give us some suggestions on what we needed to do,” McDaniel said. “We always tried to come to some agreement with the city and the company (Derichebourg), and then someone recommended we should go to the fire department. Then we went to DEQ and they said ‘Well, we don’t handle this. It’s not in our purview.'”

Leslie Batchelor, attorney
It’s really a hazard. I don’t think this would be tolerated in any other portion of the city.

Davis continued the fight when she succeeded McDaniel as neighborhood association president.

“At this point I’m so tired of dealing with the city,” McDaniel said. “You can fight and fight. … You can get tired of fighting.” 

Davis has yet to slow down. 

“You may be watching TV, maybe in the kitchen cooking, in the shower or just relaxing, and then it goes off,” Davis said. “Some residents have had chairs move. The windows shake when it’s really, really bad. We don’t know what it’s doing to our foundations. My son is retired military and when he’s visiting, he says it reminds him of being in a war zone.”

Litigation, more scrutiny

The Oklahoma City Housing Authority, 1700 NE 4, is among the closest neighbors to the scrapyards and has records of the explosions covering almost a decade. Over the past two years, the agency has compiled more than 100 video and audio recordings of explosions that can be startling for someone new to the area.

Housing Authority Director Mark Gillett has spent the past year looking at possible litigation to force the scrapyards to change operations. A warehouse and 100 yards are all that separates the 100 employees who work at the site from the plumes of smoke that rise up in the air after each blast.

“Our record keeping got better,” Gillett said. “Originally we wrote it down on a piece of paper, then we started recording them with video. And now we go with all three; written, audio and video.”

“The explosions are random,” Gillett said. “You never know when it will happen so you can’t prepare yourself. It’s loud, it shakes the building, it smells. And if the wind is just  right the smoke blows over us.”

The agency is working with a team of attorneys. They’re hoping the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality might still be able to take some action despite state air quality exemptions given to scrapyard operators.

“We’ve not been able to get residue from the explosions to get to the DEQ,” Gillett said. “It’s a difficult process because of the other air that exists in Oklahoma. Can you prove that particle of stuff is from that explosion? That’s the level you have to get at.”

More: 2019: OKC nonprofit takes high-quality homes where commercial developers wouldn’t

Attorney Leslie Batchelor has represented the housing authority in meetings with the DEQ and City Hall.

“It’s really a hazard,” Batchelor said. “I don’t think this would be tolerated in any other portion of the city.”

Gillett said most of the explosions he has tracked are taking place at Derichebourg. He fears the next step to take, the purchase of “sniffers” to prove the explosions are causing air contamination, won’t be cheap.

Looking for solutions

Assistant City Manager Aubrey McDermid has spent the past two years looking for a way to provide John F. Kennedy residents relief from explosions at two nearby scrapyards.

Assistant City Manager Aubrey McDermid has spent the past two years looking for a way to provide John F. Kennedy residents relief from explosions at two nearby scrapyards.

Aubrey McDermid, the city’s former planning director, took on the task of reducing the harm to area residents shortly after she was promoted to assistant city manager in mid-2019. Backed by Mayor David Holt and Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice, McDermid has compiled a report that concludes there is no easy way to completely stop the explosions or force the scrapyards to move elsewhere.

“The mix of land uses in the area was established and allowed through zoning many years ago, and each has a legal right to exist where they are currently located,” McDermid said. “The city has some ability to address issues of incompatibility, such as noise, through ordinances; however, our current noise ordinance does not address brief, intermittent percussive noises like explosions.”

The city, she said, has one viable action to take and that is to update the same ordinance amended in 2014 that required the scrapyards to keep track of the explosions and have an action plan on how to address them.

McDermid said Standard Iron & Steel followed the ordinance and started keeping track immediately after it went into effect, while Derichebourg delayed two years before keeping records. In most years, the numbers reported by the scrapyards fell short of those reported by neighbors, though that gap has narrowed in recent months.

If the scrapyards are not doing an adequate job of preventing explosions, McDermid said the city can amend its ordinances to require further steps be taken.

She suggests the scrapyards can invest in better equipment to shake out propane tanks placed in vehicles to increase weight, which can grab a higher price. The scrapyards, she added, also can hire more people to inspect the vehicles before they go through the shredders.

“These explosions are not supposed to be a part of the operation,” Holt said. “They’re supposed to establish and follow a procedure for removing fuel tanks. It seems to me if that’s not happening, they’re not following the procedures. You have to get the fuel tanks out and I don’t care if it’s not easy.”

McDermid and Nice both promised residents during a recent online meeting they are committed to do all they can to bring them peace. McDermid told the residents laws are being broken when sellers weigh down the vehicles with full gas tanks and hidden propane tanks.

“We’re holding them accountable,” McDermid said. “Even if the law is not being broken by them, the incident is occurring at their facility.”

Newest neighbors

Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice is among those seeking changes at scrapyards where explosions are upsetting neighbors.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice is among those seeking changes at scrapyards where explosions are upsetting neighbors.

As the battle over the scrapyards continued, four hotels were built along Reno Avenue, well within earshot of where the explosions occur. Joshua Joseph, owner of three of the hotels built just east of Bricktown, wanted to use a fourth planned hotel site for a senior living center. 

Nice quickly shot down the rezoning request.

“You can’t live there,” Holt said. “If you have hotels there, people are checking out in the morning and checking in during the evening and they might not experience (the explosions) that often.”

Nice first heard the explosions while visiting area residents during her first city council campaign during the summer 2018.   

“We need to look at the exemptions these places have with air quality and what the environmental aspects of these operations look like in terms of environmental justice for neighbors,” she said. 

She wants to know how people with asthma are affected by the smoke and how those struggling with post traumatic stress disorder are coping with the blast noises.

Nice also is interested in what relief might be sought through the U.S. Department of Justice following a pledge by President Joe Biden to commit more resources to the agency’s environmental justice division.

“As long as we can continue to have these conversations, they should absolutely be looked at on a federal level,” Nice said. “Whenever you have reports from parts of your community and they say they’re not safe, absolutely, they need help. We need to do better.”

Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 30-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City and related urban development for The Oklahoman. Contact him at Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at




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