Maria Powell: Madison’s long history of racist planning and development

By Maria Powell | executive director, Midwest Environmental Justice Organization Oct 8, 2020

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Flying in the face of its stated commitment to racial equity and social justice, Madison is as racist and classist as less “progressive” cities — and when it comes to environmental justice, perhaps more so.

In summer 2020, the city of Madison approved the Oscar Mayer Special Area Plan, which includes high density low-income and affordable housing on the heavily contaminated former Oscar Mayer site.

Madison Metro plans to place its bus garage directly adjacent to this housing (over a plume of highly toxic trichloroethyelene, or TCE), exposing future residents to diesel fumes from hundreds of buses per day.

People living in this planned housing will also be exposed daily to intense noise and air pollution from military fighter jets taking off and landing a few thousand feet away at Truax Field — including the soon-to-arrive F-35s, which are said to be up to four times louder than the F-16s buzzing to and from the base now.

This is a familiar story. City planners and commissioners, predominantly privileged white people, make decisions that disproportionately expose low-income people and people of color to toxic pollution where they live, go to school, play and work.

Would Madison’s privileged planners and decision-makers be willing to live in the housing they proposed for low-income people on the former Oscar Mayer site? Would they want their children to grow up there?

Of course not. Madison’s privileged leaders have choices low-income people don’t have. They can — and usually do — choose to live in spacious, quiet, single-family homes away from horribly polluted factory sites, bus barns and military bases.

Further, if polluting facilities are proposed in privileged neighborhoods, people there have tremendously more economic, cultural and political resources — more “social capital” and hence more power — to successfully stop them. They also have the resources to move away; most low income people do not.

“Madison compromise” made by early city leaders divided city by class

West side neighborhoods like Regent and Dudgeon-Monroe have income levels and property values well above the city’s median levels.  The 2019 “Equitable Development in Madison” report, in fact, says most of these areas have “historically been out of reach for a large portion of Madison residents.”

Imagine if Madison Metro proposed a bus barn in one of these privileged neighborhoods? Or a large pollution-spewing factory was located nearby? A military base with fighter jets? How would privileged west side residents — and their alders — respond?

But this will never happen. Madison’s early leaders, largely privileged white males, made sure of that a long time ago. In the early 1900s, city decisionmakers crafted the “Madison compromise,” which purposely divided the city by class.

What was the “compromise”? Madison’s professional elites — university professors, doctors and lawyers, most living on the west side — didn’t want heavy polluting industry in the city, but agreed to it as long as the factories and “dirty, grimy” workers were not near their neighborhoods. So the west side was deemed the “residential district,” with single-family zoning and industry prohibited, while the east side was dubbed the “factory district,” where large areas were zoned industrial.

On the east side, home plots near industrial zones — the cheapest in the city — were advertised to potential factory workers, who could walk to “plants that support the laboring men of the city and through them the merchants and professional men.” Other advertisements promised investors and developers that they would profit greatly developing housing for workers.

On the west side, wealthy professional prospective home buyers were assured that “no lots would be sold for manufacturing, trade, or commerce,” that there would be “no flat or apartment buildings,” and that “it will be stipulated in your deed that everything will be done to make this the most delightful place for a home in all of Madison.”

Again, this is not a completely unique story. Variations of it have played out across America since the U.S. government and wealthy European American land investors began violently removing Native Americans — as they did to Ho-Chunk in the Madison area — so they could develop cities on their former lands.

As Juliet Ellis and her co-authors pointed out in a paper presented at the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 2002:

“Strongly influenced by traditional private property rights and capitalism, most zoning has historically supported uses of land that generated profit for landowners, taxes for governments, and the land values of the more affluent. As a result many zoning decisions allowed for the siting of industries that used or produced toxic chemicals as a lucrative means of making profit. In addition, the lack of environmental standards meant that polluting activities at these sites threatened the public health and the environment of adjacent communities. In many cases, toxic chemical use and disposal went unmonitored for many years, allowing toxins to be released into the environment via the air, water, and soil.”

Madison compromise still shapes the city today

The Madison Compromise “even today sends tremors through discussions of municipal problems,” Madison’s preeminent historian David Mollenhoff wrote in “Madison: A History of the Formative Years.”

In 2020, the Madison compromise still shapes housing patterns. Many west side areas were zoned non-industrial a long time ago. On the east side, large swaths of now-abandoned contaminated industrial lands, such as Oscar Mayer and a large area around it, are cheaper than uncontaminated land, and hence more attractive to the city for high density low-income and affordable housing

With some exceptions — such as the gentrifying Isthmus area east of the Capitol, low-income areas along the south Beltline — many stark east side vs. west side disparities in income levels and home values remain over a century after the Madison compromise was crafted.

Race disparities, not surprisingly, parallel income disparities. In all parts of Madison, more people of color live in areas with the lowest incomes and home values.

Privileged west side neighborhoods like Dudgeon-Monroe have very little low-income housing — and no subsidized public housing. Plan commissioners from these neighborhoods, whose constituents would likely oppose such housing, think thousands more affordable housing units at the contaminated former Oscar Mayer site are just fine.

Could these race- and class-based inequities created by Madison’s founders be reduced or eliminated? Could more affordable housing be placed in less polluted, wealthier parts of the city? What would the barriers be?

Firstly, Madison planners and commissioners are still predominantly white privileged people. That needs to change.

Further, classism is just as pervasive among privileged Madisonians as it was when the city was founded. Most people in wealthy west side neighborhoods — where median home values today are two and three times those on many parts of the north and east sides — don’t want low income housing in their neighborhoods because it would lower their property values.

Finally, there’s another more pernicious problem that’s deeper than privileged people’s concerns about protecting their wealth. Just as elite white professionals in the early 1900s publicly resisted the location of factories and “dirty, grimy workers” in Madison, and especially near their homes, many people living in the wealthiest parts of Madison now — though few would honestly or openly admit this — don’t want low-income people of color living near them.

More affordable housing in wealthier west side neighborhoods would allow more low-income children of color to live in less polluted areas and attend Madison’s best public schools. So why isn’t it located there? Racism and fear.

Madison has a long way to go before it can say it’s meeting its racial equity and social justice goals — or that it really cares about environmental justice.

Maria Powell, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization.

Author’s note: My great-great grandparents came to Madison in 1851 from working class northern England, found work in the newspaper printing and railroad industries, and eventually built several homes in the 4th Ward (Bassett neighborhood). So they played roles in the city’s classist and racist development and politics that are still shaping the city today.

Correction: A previous version of this column ran with the author listed as Jim Powell. The author is Maria Powell.