In Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest Neighborhood, Black Residents Feel Like They Are Living in a ‘Sacrifice Zone’

Boxed in by refineries, oil tanks, an interstate highway and a bridge under construction, the people are left in a hollowed-out neighborhood and a broken community.

A bridge support pile for the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge beside Interstate 37 in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday, April 2, 2021. Credit: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesA bridge support pile for the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge beside Interstate 37 in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday, April 2, 2021. Credit: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Justine Knox, 57, bought her single-story home in Corpus Christi’s historic Hillcrest neighborhood in 1993, she wanted to stay and raise her family in the community where she grew up and met her husband.

“I wanted my kids to one day come back and say, ‘Hey, I grew up right there. It’s my home. My parents worked hard for that,’” she said.

Twenty-eight years later, Knox’s house sits next to vacant lots where well-kept houses from the 1920s once stood, abuzz with family life. Her neighbors moved out under a voluntary resettlement plan with the Port of Corpus Christi, which razed the acquired properties in recent years to make way for the new Harbor Bridge.

“They’ve torn down all of the houses of my former friends that I grew up with, and their parents’ homes,” said Knox, a senior administrative assistant for the Corpus Christi Independent School District. “The first strike against the neighborhood was the refineries moving in next to the residential area,” she said, “and the plan to construct a new harbor bridge drove the last nail in the coffin.”

Hillcrest and the adjoining Washington-Coles neighborhood—once-thriving Black communities—are struggling to survive, just as Congress is haggling over the Biden administration’s $20 billion proposal to reconnect communities displaced by highways. The effort coincides with a growing momentum across American cities, seeking to remove what environmental justice advocates call “racist” highways.

According to the non-profit Congress for the New Urbanism, which monitors highway removals nationwide, 28 cities have proposed 33 projects to take down highways that displaced mostly-Black neighborhoods from the 1950s onwards. Rather than solving transportation problems by building new highways, the new approach advocates making downtown areas more livable and walkable, and accessible through connecting streets and bike lanes. Biden has committed to addressing environmental racism as part of his political agenda.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, who served as an associate administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office in the Obama administration, said Biden’s “all-of-government” approach to eliminating “sacrifice zones” is critical to protect people’s health and welfare in communities of color.

“The question is, are the lives of these communities seen as valuable?” said Ali, who is now vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. “Because if they were valuable, then we would make sure that we’re doing everything possible to protect those lives.”

Not all states and cities are onboard. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is proceeding with its plan to construct a new 6.44-mile, six-lane, 538-foot-high Harbor Bridge to the east of Hillcrest that would connect downtown Corpus Christi to Rincon Point, known to locals as North Beach. The construction began in 2016.

One of the reasons cited for replacing the existing 243-foot-tall bridge that has towered over Corpus Christi’s skyline since 1959, was that it did not have the elevation to allow supersized ships, called Very Large Crude Containers, from entering the port. Safety and maintenance costs were among the other concerns raised as arguments for a new bridge.

The Port of Corpus Christi views the project as the means to unlocking its potential as a major petrochemical hub, spurring industrial growth and boosting crude-oil exports to three-times the present volume. The new Harbor Bridge is part of a wider plan to deepen and widen the ship channel to accommodate bigger oil tankers.

Hillcrest residents saw their neighborhood cut off from the rest of the city after the transportation department okayed the so-called Red Alternative out of five available design possibilities.

A predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhood, Hillcrest is already hemmed in by miles of an industrial stretch known as Refinery Row to the west, and oil tanks lining the inner harbor to the north. To the south is Interstate 37, a 24/7 source of traffic noise and pollution from vehicular exhaust. The new Harbor Bridge will be to its immediate east, boxing Hillcrest in.

Though not directly overhead, the bridge spurred concerns about additional noise and pollution in a minority neighborhood already suffering from elevated toxic pollution from the nearby refineries.

A recent study by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington-based nonprofit, named CITGO’s Corpus Christi East Refinery next to Hillcrest as among 13 facilities that exceeded the EPA’s “action level” for average annual benzene emissions in 2020. A 2008 study by Texas A&M University found that Hillcrest residents showed average levels of benzene—a known carcinogen—280 times those of the general population.

Concerned about the menacing impacts of the bridge construction, two Hillcrest residents filed a Title VI civil rights complaint in 2015, arguing that the proposed route for the bridge would disproportionately impact the minority community. The lawsuit culminated in a settlement between the residents, the city, the port and TxDOT that called for a three-year Voluntary Acquisition and Relocation Program for people living in the neighborhood, beginning in May 2017 and ending in May 2020.

The program offered homeowners and renters two to three times the value of their properties so they could move to similar-sized units elsewhere in the city, where property prices were higher.

Texas A&M’s Texas Real Estate Research Center found in a 2020 study that by September 2019, 258 homeowners and renters had taken the buyout option, out of a total of 467 parcels. Both the families who relocated and those who chose to stay in Hillcrest have struggled, the study said. Those who remained were especially angry about the loss of community. Those who relocated and purchased homes in more affluent areas in some cases felt excluded or unwelcome in their new neighborhoods.

Knox considered the relocation agreement a deadly blow to her community. “The refineries, the port, the city, the state, everybody was attacking this one neighborhood and breaking it down like they did. And we weren’t even given an option,” Knox said.

Minority Neighborhoods Are Cheaper to Buy Out

Errol Summerlin, 69, is a retired legal aid professional, who has known Hillcrest for decades and was also involved in organizing a Title VI complaint against the new bridge. He said the residents tried but failed to get the port to reconsider the Red Alternative.

“The Port of Corpus Christi wanted the current bridge to be raised in height by another 67 feet to bring the VLCCs (Very Large Crude Containers) into the inner harbor underneath the bridge, in order to export fossil fuels to the world market,” Summerlin said. That extra height caused engineers to drop those alternatives that would have affected the downtown areas and some of the commercial buildings there, he added.

If the Port had not insisted on the extra 67 feet, he said, the other alternatives would have been available. “But that just killed it,” he said.

Summerlin recalled attending a city council meeting before the construction began and listening to the presentation about what the new bridge was going to look like. “The mayor didn’t ask a single question, no one in the council asked a single question about how the community residents in the area were going to be affected by it. All they said was build a pretty bridge,” he said.

“There were generations of families who lived there,” he said, adding “and many had deep roots in that neighborhood and simply did not want to leave. It was heart-wrenching for them to have to consider that they were going to have to move because of this bridge.”

It was also, he added, essentially a reaffirmation of what has been going on with the City of Corpus Christi and its treatment of the Black community for 100 years.

Summerlin said the original price tag for the bridge was $802 million, the most expensive among all the alternatives. “But now that price tag is at $930 million. And it’s expected to be over $1 billion by the time it is actually completed. But it’s nearly three years behind schedule.”

In 2019, TxDOT dismissed the construction company and suspended design work on the bridge. A National Transportation Safety Board report linked the company to a pedestrian bridge that had collapsed in March 2018. Six people died in that incident. A new firm was hired to resume design and construction work in July 2020.

Once the new bridge is complete, the old one will have to be torn down, leaving what remains of Hillcrest engulfed in a long demolition project.

“Those that remain there now are left without that neighborhood. And the ones that had to leave, they miss it,” Summerlin said. “I think that watching what happened to these individuals personally, and how it tore them apart trying to make these decisions. That was the hardest thing for me.”

The Rev. Adam Carrington of the African Methodist Episcopal Church came to Hillcrest in November 2014. He said residents had been moving out of the area for decades to get away from the refineries and pollution. The new Harbor Bridge and the resettlement money became another incentive to consider moving away from the pollution.

“Because that area is surrounded by refineries and industry, it depreciates the value of the property. So over time, economic distress sets in. Barber shops would leave, because they needed to make money. You had taxi services, small businesses left the area,” Carrington said. “So now you have no money flowing in the neighborhood. You have no schools, no businesses that help keep the neighborhood thriving. Those businesses left and the industry took over.”

Carrington said about 70 percent of the neighborhood population has moved out after taking the deal.

“We still have about maybe 70 families left in the neighborhood,” he said. “And I still fight for the folks who remain in the neighborhood. And we still fight for just basic necessities that the city should apply, you know, picking up the trash, cutting the grass, policing the neighborhood, just a basic set of responsibilities, we still continue to fight for that.”

From her house on Stillman Avenue, Justin Knox can see the public services deteriorating, with untended grass on abandoned lawns and overgrown shrubs on empty lots. “Now when I come in from work, I have to wait and see if the Port has decided to come and mow the lawns that are probably about eight to 10 feet tall,” she said. “And when they do come, they just bring in the big tractors and move them down and leave the grass everywhere.” she said.

‘Clean Up the Area. Don’t Force Me to Move’ 

Corpus Christi has 12 petrochemical plants listed on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) within a three-mile radius. TRI tracks chemical releases and prevention actions reported by the facilities on the list. Some of these facilities, with the largest disposal of chemicals, are located on what’s known as Refinery Row, bordering Hillcrest. The neighborhood is also within a half-mile of a Superfund site contaminated by hazardous oilfield wastes.

A Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR’s) 2016 study found that benzene emissions near Refinery Row could cause respiratory issues and decreases in various types of blood cells. Particulate Matter (PM2.5) concentration along the 10-mile industrial stretch, it said, could have worsened heart and lung problems, especially in children and older adults, or those with pre-existing conditions. The study found an increased cancer risk from long-term exposure to a mixture of Refinery Row chemicals.

Lemont Taylor, a 68-year old African-American man, moved to Hillcrest in the 1960s and received a diagnosis of stage-four bladder cancer in 2014. For the next six years, he underwent numerous operations in addition to chemotherapy and radiation. He blames the toxic pollution from the refineries for his ordeal.

“Now the Harbor Bridge has come in and taken over the neighborhood,” he said. “And the Port of Corpus Christi has purchased 75 percent of the land and properties. And so, they have forced people to leave. They sort of just came in and exploited the neighborhood even more. Not only were we around traffic and the interstate system…but now you are building the bridge around us?”

Taylor, who took the buyout but still owns properties in Hillcrest, said the City of Corpus Christi did not care about the neighborhood because it was predominantly African American. “Why are you forcing me to move?” Taylor said.

Justine Knox finds the vacant lots haunting. “There were doctors, teachers, hard-working people over in this neighborhood that took pride in this neighborhood when they came here. And I guess I saw the same thing when I bought the house.” But between the bridge and the refineries, she said, she finds the future uncertain.

Knox often finds herself staring at the unkempt lawn of a nearby park named after H. J. Williams, the doctor who delivered her 57 years ago. “They were supposed to come and put new swings and basketball courts, and picnic areas,” she said. “But it never happened.”

“I just need you to keep your pollution at bay. Just do what we the taxpayers pay you to do.” Knox added, “I can get up and go to work every day, me and my husband, to take care of the rest.”