Africatown: Groups seek to change ‘environmental injustice’ in Mobile zoning

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Mobile’s Africatown community is poised to open a new museum this year, and other attractions are soon to follow with a Welcome Center and walking and water tours.

The potential is due to the 2019 discovery of the slave ship Clotilda, which brought 110 enslaved Africans to the U.S. in 1860. Some predict the region becoming a massive draw that rivals the Equal Justice Initiative’s national lynching museum in Montgomery.

But existing environmental issues that have spanned decades continue to plague the community. Activists believe those issues could be a hindrance to Africatown’s potential, and are taking their case to city officials. On Thursday, concerns were expressed over a lack of environmental justice that has harmed the community for decades, and which should be addressed within the rewrite of Mobile’s zoning and land development code – the first major revision of the city’s codes since the mid-60s.

“As we continue to make plans for Africatown as an African American cultural site and destination, I am imagining the tours that will take you past the industrial area surrounding this 150-year-old community,” said Lella Lowe, a west Mobile resident. “That would demonstrate, right now, environmental injustice in action.”

Lowe was among the representatives with the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) and the Mobile County NAACP who participated in a virtual public hearing about the city’s Unified Development Code.

Africatown District

Mobile photos 2021

Africatown in Mobile. Mobile photos 2021. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com).Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com

Their comments focused on a chapter of the overall code called the “Africatown Overlay District,” which is one of only a handful of special districts listed within the new code. The groups believe the Africatown version of the code is not a strong enough effort by city officials to keep new heavy industry from creeping into or near a community that has long been surrounded by smog-producing paper plants and other facilities that continue to bring large trucks, smog and noise to the neighborhood.

City officials argue that the new code is a “living document” that can be changed and adjusted over time. They want the entire code adopted, and the city’s planning commission will consider it during a meeting early next month.

The new code replaces one that was last adopted in the 1960s. Only smaller revisions have occurred since then, and city officials say it’s past time to move the rewrite forward.

The current proposal represents four years of work, and comments from over 1,300 residents.

“Our existing, 50-year-old code is broken,” said Shayla Beaco, the city’s senior director of community affairs. “It’s antiquated, hard to administer … it does not serve anyone well. The draft (revision) is a giant step forward. We have to start somewhere. We believe this (revision) creates a platform we can build upon.”

The Africatown activists hope the city considers their concerns, which highlight the issue of environmental justice and racism in a community of approximately 2,000 residents. The community is almost exclusively Black after it was, long ago, created by the survivors of the slave ship.

“This is a community that has not received justice from the day they arrived,” said Herbert Wagner, a Mobile resident who has concerns over heavy industry near Africatown.

He added, “If we say we are supporting Africatown, it’s time we also do that walk and protect Africatown from encroachment of any industry. When I sit on the front porch with friends, you hear heavy machinery. All day you hear the trucks coming. People will come to Mobile to see Africatown and what they (will) see is industry and what they (will) hear is industrial equipment. I don’t know how likely they are to encourage their friends to come down and visit.”

Environmental concerns

MEJAC and the NAACP also believe the code is lacking in other areas, including fair housing and waterfront…



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