In Houston's Sunnyside, overburdened from decades of discrimination, you learn to provide for yourself
When Efrem Jernigan stands by his parents’ Sunnyside home, he can see the past and future of the neighborhood he loves.
“We put solar on my birth home,” says Jernigan, who’s the president of the South Union Community Development Corporation. That home is the center of an outdoor classroom where dozens of kids from all over the city come on Saturdays to dig into all things STEM and discover how the four ground-mounted solar panels power the aquaponic garden processes. One lesson, which included breaking down the savings on an electricity bill thanks to Jernigan’s panels, was an immediate hit.
In Sunnyside, such a productive relationship with the land and rural roots go deep, nurtured over generations. Many of the trail riders that represent Houston during the annual rodeo and livestock show call the southeast neighborhood home. On a balmy fall Saturday near Cullen and Reed streets, just outside Loop 610, clothes drying on the line in grassy yards blow gently as motorcyclists meander the zigzag of side streets. Near a busy intersection, a horseback rider waits on the grassy median for a pause before heading to the corner store. It’s a day typical of the country calm many residents love about Sunnyside.
Jernigan’s childhood home has grown into a collection of lots he owns throughout the neighborhood and big visions he and his childhood friend, Roy Guillory, are willing into existence. Jernigan, also the vice president of Sunnyside Energy LLC, is behind the plan to bring a solar farm to the site of a former landfill, transitioning a hazard into an amenity that can yield what residents need to thrive. It’s part of the larger story of Sunnyside. Elsewher, community farms, like Ivy Leaf Farms, are cropping up — homegrown solutions to decades of discrimination.
Though the historically Black neighborhood was founded in the early 1900s beyond Houston city limits, it is one of the neighborhoods where, for decades, the city offloaded the debris and detritus of its own growth. Between the 1920s and 1970s, as Houston swelled from 140,000 residents to over 1 million, the city operated five landfills and eight incinerators. Starting with the Holmes Road landfill, opened in the 1930s, and then the Reed Road landfill that came later in 1964, Sunnyside was eventually home to two landfills, one incinerator and all the trucks that served them only a mile apart, while all of the solid waste facilities, save two, were in Black neighborhoods, according to Dr. Robert Bullard, the sociologist and environmental justice expert at Texas Southern University. “Black Houston has become the dumping grounds for the city’s household garbage,” he wrote in the ‘90s.
Sunnyside residents protested these sites for years, complaining of roaches, rats and foul smells, while politicians like Mayor Louie Welch promised to address what the Houston Chronicle called a “garbage crisis.” But the city was slow to respond and when it did, offered little. As a mountain of tires grew to 60 feet at the Holmes Road site, the city took dirt from one corner to cover it up. “They designed a landfill in a Black community because they didn’t care, and so for 40 years this was where you dumped trash,” Jernigan remembers.
Because of the prolonged, multiple sources of pollution from these landfills and incinerators, industrial operations, freeways and other scourges, compounded by the lack of access to parks, fresh foods and health care, environmental advocates call neighborhoods like Sunnyside “overburdened.” Just down the road from points of pride like the livestock auction and community farm, after all, are the garbage collection companies and concrete batch plants. While the state’s environmental regulations and legislation tend to treat polluters seeking permits as one-offs, residents here know how seemingly singular sources of pollution add up, over time, and turn into cumulative burdens that can last generations.
‘The park was safe; the dump was dangerous’
Jernigan credits the outdoor classroom, in part, for helping him win, in August 2019, the bid to transform the Holmes Road landfill, its current wood-covered 300 acres a symbol of the city’s wrongs.
It was the site of neighborhood tragedy when, on May 8, 1967, 11-year-old Victor Roy George drowned. In the 1950s, the city added small parks on opposite corners of the site. After school one day, George biked with his friends to a baseball game at Blue Ridge Park on the southeast side. After the game, they wandered over the embankment to explore, as they often did. There was little in the way of barriers keeping kids out.
A piece of Styrofoam floating in one of the holes the city had dug caught George’s eye, according to court documents. He went in after it and slipped on the loose dirt, falling into the roughly 12-foot deep hole of water that stretched almost 30 feet wide. His friends tried to help, but he was unable to climb back out. He drowned in the muck of the landfill lake.
His parents sued the city, but the city ultimately won. Five years later, in 1972, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled, “The park was safe; the dump was dangerous.”
George’s death came at a moment when the city was in upheaval and Black students, residents and allies were protesting the city’s racism at large. All in one day — May 16, 1967 — 36 people were arrested trying to prevent trucks from entering the landfill site in Sunnyside, dozens more were arrested at Northwood Middle School following a fight on the northeast side of town and hundreds of police would swarm the TSU campus and dormitories that night after a police officer who had been arresting people outside the landfill was shot during a protest, the Houston Post reported.
Many of the activists and organizers were linked across neighborhoods and causes, recognizing the connections between them. “All of us made our base in the community,” Omowale Luthuli-Allen, a community organizer who was a University of Houston student at the time, shared in an oral history interview recorded in 2016.
Sunnyside has come to be known for this spirit of organizing, because the problems have not gone away. “The people of Sunnyside have been fighting polluters for decades,” Sunnyside-born Texas State Senator Borris Miles writes in an email. "Even before I was a public official, I stood up with the community to oppose a concrete batch plant that Southern Crushed Concrete wanted to put in Sunnyside.”
Unlike neighborhoods along the Ship Channel, for example, where the sources of pollution might appear more obvious, “there are lots of hidden environmental exposures in Sunnyside,” says Dr. Denae King, a research program manager whose work with Environmental Defense Fund includes the Sunnyside Community Redevelopment Organization. “There are all these small industrial sources of pollution you wouldn’t expect to see.”
The environmental burdens are themselves not one-off sources of injustice as far as King is concerned. “For a long time, there was no Covid testing happening in Sunnyside,” she says, suggesting the larger lack of access to health care in the area. “You can’t just think about it in terms of environmental exposure, you have to layer on all the other things that can impact your life.”
Captured by industry
A new bill introduced in the 87th Texas Legislature by Miles could begin to address such cumulative impacts when permitting polluting operations. “Permitting emissions as if they existed in a vacuum is dangerous and does not capture the real-world effect,” he writes. “Emissions accumulate in our environment and in our bodies … and can be compounded by other nearby emissions.”
Current environmental regulations fall well short of recognizing this, Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, says. “People often think about the facility itself, but in addition to that you have the operation of the facility,” something current permitting regulations don’t take into account. “You’re talking about hundreds of trucks sometimes driving through a community each day,” she says.
And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Nelson says, “pretty much treats it as a baseline.”
Miles’ bill faces an uphill battle in the state. “Texas regulators are captured by industry,” he writes. “Permit applications are routinely rubber-stamped and denial of applications are the rare exception.”
Even if passed, the bill would rely, in part, on the commitment of TCEQ. Nelson says the bill’s language seems to leave too much discretion to an agency that increases funding typically to expedite permits. “Historically, they have not been increasing funding for enforcement or strengthening the air permitting process to make it more thorough” she says.
She points to more stringent legislation like New Jersey’s recently approved environmental justice bill, the "first state in the nation to require mandatory permit denials if an environmental justice analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities,” according to a release from Gov. Phil Murphy.
But even a bill with less strict requirements could offer something more than the current regulatory landscape in Texas, Nelson says, as communities and advocacy groups could apply pressure to help shape the eventual implementation. That means, for communities like Sunnyside, the fight, as ever, continues. “Since most emissions take place in poorer districts like mine,” writes Miles, “it's easier for certain Texans to think our environment is fine. But I know that the residents of neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, Fifth Ward and Sunnyside do not feel this way.”
A new narrative
Jernigan is proud that his family roots still include his parents’ and great-grandmother’s homes. And his plans stretch wide. The site where he wants to add an indoor classroom is a fenced grassy lot with a towering pecan tree. Walking the land, Jernigan sees it all very clearly, including the barbecue pits that are a current feature of his outdoor classroom.
A few blocks away, he’s been working on a garden that sits between two single-family homes across the road from an apartment complex whose residents, he hopes, will benefit from the produce. He’s project-managing this site, along with one across from the old Holmes Road landfill where he hopes to build housing for veterans with space for livestock. Jernigan pictures the veterans walking to work at the solar farm and aquaponic agricultural hub.
Sunnyside residents have long had to provide for themselves. After the city annexed the community in 1956 — almost two decades after it opened the landfill where George died — few city services followed. While the city collected taxes, it withheld “sewer, water, drainage, sidewalks, streetlights” and other services, according to a report from Texas Housers. Still, residents supported a volunteer fire department, two airports, including one founded by Tuskegee Airmen, and numerous churches and civic organizations.
They are also used to the sporadic interest and promises of outside organizations. Plans for a new community center on top of the landfill were ultimately scrapped because residents were concerned about contamination and the burden of a location that would be too far away for some residents who don’t drive to access. During Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration, Sunnyside was named one of the city’s Complete Communities, an initiative to generate community-informed action plans to combat discrimination and disinvestment with new investment. While some community members have expressed optimism, King says, “people will let you know we’ve done this before.”
The redevelopment organization is currently creating its own map of community assets, like churches, historical sites and birthplaces, to guide advocacy and future policy. “Whether Complete Communities does it or not,” King says, residents have made it clear, “we’re going to take charge of it and really do it.”
Now, walking along Incinerator Drive, Jernigan and Guillory talk about the importance of earning trust, even for two people who grew up here. He understands the skepticism after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests left big companies scrambling for Black causes to support. When one big bank with no branches in Sunnyside approached him about donations, he didn’t hold back, saying, “You’re no longer in the community and you want to support me?”
"We trust them once they write the check,” Guillory adds.
While lease negotiations for the site with the city are still in process, the men’s connections with the community make this work that much more personal, the future they envision that much more communal. “Somebody that’s been born and raised here, knows the whole story, actually gets to create a new narrative,” Jernigan says, as he walks down the still-fenced-off road that one day, he hopes, will be renamed Solar Drive — a reflection of the hard-won transition from a neighborhood once dumped on to one where residents once again can get what they need right where they are.
Binkovitz is a writer living in Houston.
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