Memories of Old Smokey depict sacrifice zone

Documentary details West Grove history, injustice

Chloe Herring | 8/21/2014, noon
A tall, skinny building billows out smoke, its forceful dark clouds spewing sift indiscriminately onto school children nearby. On days ...
Linda Williams

A tall, skinny building billows out smoke, its forceful dark clouds spewing sift indiscriminately onto school children nearby. On days when the trash incinerator was not operating those same kids would run up and down the mound on which it was built.

Those are the memories West Grove resident, Linda Williams, recounts in illustrious detail from her secretary desk in an office on Grand Avenue. Those memories tied to the incinerator are part of the West Grove history that is central to a documentary that is showing Saturday, Aug. 23 at Elizabeth Virrick Park at 6 p.m. “Old Smokey: A Community History,” is an ode to the building’s neighborhood nickname.

“Old Smokey as we know it was always there. It was an icon in our community,” said Williams, sitting behind her computer. She chuckled when recalling how a community was able to deal with Old Smokey on a regular basis.

“The incinerator just burned garbage every day. We grew familiar with the smokestack,” said Williams, who was born in West Grove in 1953. For Williams and many others, the adjustments made to live with Old Smokey always were normal.

“It’s like if it’s a rainy day, you know not to do the laundry,”she said. “If there’s sift falling, you can’t do laundry. It was like a thorn in your side.”

The incinerator was “like a thorn” in the side of the community which was confined to the area by Jim Crow laws. Except the thorn was not removed for years. Residents began to complain about the stench, smoke and ash in 1925 when the City of Miami placed it in their neighborhood.

For decades their complaints went unheard and their experiences were ignored.

West Grove residents, like Williams, were unaware that the incinerator was causing contamination to the surrounding area, a 2011 discovery by a University of Miami (UM) student.

“To say arbitrarily ‘you’re safe.’ It feels horrible to think as a people we can go and ask for help and just be given any answer will suffice,” she said.

Tests identified toxic levels of arsenal, lead and other substances that can cause cancer and pollute the soil, water and air.

UM’s director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service Alfieri leads the program that created the documentary. He said the history of West Grove, as told by natives of the community in “Old Smokey: A Community History,” documents an environmental injustice.

His colleague, Catherine Kaiman, called the West Grove a sacrifice zone, a term that describes areas where low-income minorities are “forced to live with landfills, incinerators, factories, or other sources of contamination" that people in areas of affluence do not. The people in these areas, like West Grove, often lack the resources and political power to change their situation.

“They were living right next to the incinerator and no one thought it was serious enough to shut down,” said Kaiman.

Old Smokey doesn’t exist today because in the 1960s, affluent neighbors in Coral Gables began to press legal action to have it removed. Williams said it came down to the haves and have-nots when the incinerator was shut down in 1970 by a court order.

UM is working with a group in West Grove called the Old Smokey Steering Committee, in which Williams is a member, to compile health information for locals and affected people who have moved away.

“I am concerned about the residents, including myself,” said Williams. “Kids played in that dirt -- ate that dirt. I played in that field, too.”

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