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

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A DCPS bus fleet sits on the north side of Ivy City, across from the Crummell School.
Jonathan Wilson/WAMU
A DCPS bus fleet sits on the north side of Ivy City, across from the Crummell School.

Residents of the tiny neighborhood of Ivy City in Ward 5 are engaged in a battle with city officials over a proposed bus parking lot that the neighborhood does not want. Residents say the struggle is about much more than bus parking. It has to do with air quality, and with their feeling that Ward 5 sometimes gets the short end of the stick from city leaders.

Parisa Norouzi, the executive director of the nonprofit group Empower DC, walks into the residential heart of Ivy City to the corner of Capitol Avenue and Mt. Olivet Road.

Mt. Olivet is a busy four lane road 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 lies the large but non-descript modern building that houses Bethesda Baptist Church, and an empty lot where Norouzi says some row houses were recently torn down.

But Norouzi says it's Ivy City’s place in the city’s economic spectrum that is just as important as its geographic location.

“Where we are right now is we're on the precipice of still being a low-income community that gets dumped on and suffers environmental injustice — and being gentrified, and that’s a scary place to be,” she says.

Ivy City residents have a strong sense of community, but are concerned their voices don't reach city leaders.

Air quality from bad to worse

That feeling of environmental injustice is, in part, what led Empower DC to file a lawsuit against the city more than a year ago. The suit asks 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 DC and residents, finding that city leaders had failed to adequately consult the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and avoided a mandated environmental 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 in comparison to other parts of the District, but now the city has located acres and acres of buses and trucks,” Norouzi says.

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’s School of Public Health. He says over the years Ivy City has seen more than its fair share of heavy duty traffic and industry.

“They share a 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 community — many [residents] are low-income, many are people of color — they're disproportionately burdened by these hazards,” Wilson says.

Both health and pride affected

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 us is ANC Commissioner Peta-Gay Lewis, who owns one of the newer houses in Ivy City.

Lewis’ 11 year old daughter has asthma, and it got worse after the move to the neighborhood in 2011.

“My daughter at this point, she doesn’t go outside. We have a beautiful yard, a beautiful home," she says. "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’ home looks out over the Crummell School, a historic red-brick renaissance style building that was closed in 1977. Ivy City residents have long been clamoring for 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,” Lewis says.

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 DC’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.

“Ultimately, the Crummell School will become a community center,” she says. “My hope is that the residents of Ivy city will still be here to benefit from it and enjoy it.”

Music: "Brooklyn's Nightmare" by Drop Electric from Finding Color in the Ashes

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