Ward 5: Just How Dirty Is Ivy City's Air?


On now to Ward 5 and to the tiny neighborhood of Ivy City where residents are in a kind of battle with city officials. At issue is a proposed parking lot for buses. But residents say the struggle is about much more than bus parking. Now, as environment reporter Jonathan Wilson tells us, it's about the quality of the air.


Parisa Norouzi, the Executive Director of the nonprofit group Empower D.C., is walking me in to the residential heart of Ivy City. We're at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Mt. Olivet Road. Mt. Olivet is a busy, four lane thoroughfare, that carries lots of truck and bus traffic at virtually any time of day. Across it lies the neighborhood of Trinidad. On the Ivy City side sits the large but nondescript modern building that houses Bethesda Baptist Church and an empty lot where Norouzi says some row houses were recently torn down.


But she says Ivy City's place in D.C.'s economic spectrum is just as important as its geographic location.


Where we are right now is we're on the precipice between still being a low income community that gets dumped on and suffers environmental injustice and being gentrified.


That feeling of environmental injustice is, in part, what led Empower D.C. to file a lawsuit against the city more than a year ago. The suit asked D.C. Superior Court to halt a city plan to build a new bus depot in Ivy City. The judge ruled in favor of Empower D.C. and the residents, finding that city leaders had failed to adequately consult the advisory neighborhood commission, and avoided a mandated environment study. Norouzi says the bus depot plan was just the latest insult for a part of town where clean air seems to be at a premium.


Ivy City is already home to a maintenance center for D.C. public school buses. And the city's Department of Public Works recently took over another swath of land on the southeastern side of Ivy City for parking and servicing its vehicles.


It was already poor because of the traffic in the area, because we have extremely low tree cover here compared to other parts of the District. But now the city has concentrated acres and acres of additional trucks and buses that spew diesel exhaust in this area.


A coalition of researchers from the University of Maryland, George Washington, Howard and Trinity Universities has studied air quality in this neighborhood, and says the main culprit is something called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 stands for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in size, small enough to penetrate the deepest parts of human lungs. PM 2.5 is also the main ingredient of smog and exhaust from diesel vehicles, trucks and buses is a major source of the pollutant. Sacoby Wilson teaches at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.


He says over the years, Ivy City has seen more than its fair share of heavy duty traffic and industry.


The sheer disproportionate burden of these facilities right now. They share a disproportionate burden of diesel vehicles right now. So, from an environmental justice perspective, you see that this particular community -- many folks are low income, you got a lot of people of color, they're definitely burdened by these hazards.


We reached out to the Mayor's office of Planning and Economic Development, but officials there did not make anyone available for this story. An official we did get to speak with is ANC Commissioner Peta-Gay Lewis, who owns one of the newer houses in Ivy City. Lewis's 11-year-old daughter has asthma, asthma that got worse after the move to the neighborhood in 2011.


And my daughter, at this point, she doesn't go outside. We have a beautiful yard. She doesn't go out in the yard and I keep my windows closed year round, because the pollution comes in the home. So, we're hostage almost.


But, the fight, for Lewis, isn't just about public health. Lewis's home looks out over the Crummell School, an historic, red brick, Renaissance style building that was closed in 1977. Ivy City residents have long been clamoring for a restoration of the building as a community center. And Lewis says it came as a total surprise to find out the city planned to use its parking lot for a bus depot.


Myself and all of the other residents, we were shocked and just pretty darn hurt. Because we thought the neighborhood was being revitalized.


The city moved forward with some construction, even after the lawsuit was first filed, but progress stopped with the injunction. Both sides are awaiting a decision on an appeal filed by the city. But right now, the property sits as a monument to the gulf between what residents want and what the city intends. Empower D.C.'s Parisa Norouzi remains confident that the Crummell School Building will reach its potential. She just hopes legacy Ivy City residents don't have to be forced out by wealthier constituents for that to happen. I'm Jonathan Wilson.


In a minute, why the next 42 months are going to be quite the busy ones in southwest D.C.


This is something that's gonna change our community, unlike anything we've seen since the late 1950s.


Stick around. Our "State of the City" show continues here on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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