Cities appear robust and stable, yet they are constantly evolving. Streetcar lines give way to highways. Industry supplant areas that were once commercial zones. Gentrification shifts residents into formerly industrial buildings. This view only crystallizes in the long view.
This urban "churn" is dynamic and often welcomed by policymakers and residents who seek to maintain the vitality of cities, but it also comes with risk. Waste often accompanies industry, and for much of the history of cities across the United States (and even today) that waste was stored on site. Very little of this information is available to potential residents if they choose to move into these once industrial zones. How do we determine our level of risk?
This historical investigation provides a framework to evaluate risk. It examines prominent figures and significant events in the history of one such building - the Tiptop Apartments. In this exhibit, we walk you through our historical analysis on TipTop Apartments and provide insight on how one can apply methods used in this case study to other instances of environmental issues elsewhere.
In this Omeka exhibit, we showcase how shifts in economic systems, technological progression, and society leads to observable general trends. In particular, we will be focusing on the process of suburbanization, remediation, gentrification, and the return of residents to formerly abandoned areas of American cities. The themes were inspired by the book "Sites Unseen", written by sociologists Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott. Their book is an effective way to get the information and context needed to perform a better investigation into these historical mysteries, but here will be a simple representation of the ideas and methods to help someone begin their own research (11).
The main theme of Sites Unseen is that cities, much like ecological environments, evolve and change over time, but the effects of the past linger. As industrialization kicked into gear in the US in the nineteenth century, the amount of waste, specifically hazardous waste, increased exponentially. As the intensity of hazardous waste increased over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we generally saw that citizens with a great deal of resources went to the outskirts of cities, or suburbs, to escape the hazards of increased industrial production. This process of well-off citizens moving away from their jobs in industrial areas to cleaner and less densely populated areas was part of the urban shift called suburbanization. This process coincideds with a period of white flight, which reflected the demographic characterization that the citizens driving and benefitting from suburbanization were white. This process had numerous consequences for people in the urban core. As the citizens who held the most political power left the areas most impacted by industrial waste, the ability for companies to get away with escalating behaviors involving industrial waste increased. This led to an increasing disparity in terms of exposure to these hazards between those people who left the areas and the ones who, throuhg economic marginalization or outright segregation, had no option to leave. Eventually, public pressure on companies to reduce the amount of dumping of hazardous waste into the greater community led to a shift where industries disposed of hazardous waste on their own properties. In theory, this would seem to keep company's more responsible and conscientious about their hazardous waste. In practice, this made it easier for companies to conceal what waste and how much was being produced, the methods for disposing of it, and where exactly it was stored (11,14,18).
Time passes, but this hazardous waste persists, having impacts longer than the company's lifetime in many cases. Depending on the types of materials being produced, it can be absorbed into the environment or into a localized area and remain there. For example, in Omaha, long after the lead smelters and refineries closed and lead was removed from gasoline and paint, there remains a significant amount of lead found in the area. Efforts to remediate the lead exposure in the Omaha Lead Superfund site have been going on for decades, yet large amounts of lead persist. Today, some of these areas where lead was critical for the industrial process are being turned into parks and playgrounds for children, such as the area for the old ASARCO paint factory. This reality serves to illustrate the lasting history of waste disposal and that the environmental and health impacts are felt despite an area being remediated and remodeled. The process of contemporizing older areas and structures to fit modern needs is called gentrification. It is a critical aspect of city churning and the constant change involved in using the amount of space available as effectively as possible (6,11).
When these areas are updated and the evidence for prior hazardous conditions is covered up or removed, the memory of these conditions tend to fade away. When a new playground is constructed, parents bringing their children will only see the new equipment and aesthetics of the new grounds rather than the sometimes extraordinary amount of waste produced and dumped on this same land. The cataloging and dissemination of this information is spare, increasingly so as years go by. Many paper documents get misplaced, taken, or are simply stored outside public view. Without concrete evidence that can be seen and a lack of a dependable paper trail, it becomes incredibly hard to find information about these sites. This Omeka unveils the environmental history of TipTop Apartments (11).