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Put no freeway in my backyard.

Post-earthquake plan aims at poor area

OAKLAND - Plans to rebuild the Interstate 880 Cypress Freeway in West Oakland have been threatened by a discrimination suit charging "environmental racism."

The demise of the freeway, a link to other major highways, occurred in October 1989, when the structure collapsed during a devastating earthquake, killing 42 people.

The federal government has allocated $700 million to rebuild it. The question remains: in whose backyard? The California Department of Transportation plans to build a replacement freeway, not in the same location but in a run-down, predominantly black neighborhood just west of the old Cypress structure.

The problem, however, is that the freeway is not welcomed there, at least not by a local black church and an environmental group, who hope to block the plan in court.

Earlier this month, the Church of the Living God Faith Tabernacle and the Clean Air Alternative Coalition filed a suit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the state transportation department and high-ranking officials within those agencies.

Opponents of the proposed freeway say it would come within 50 feet of that church and require several buildings to be demolished. They have developed an alternative plan that would widen roads to accommodate the traffic.

The team of attorneys for the group, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the discrimination case was enhanced by federal regulations that prohibit the selection of sites that deny civil rights, according to The Oakland Tribune.

"(The state) wouldn't propose this plan in an affluent area," said St. Joseph of Carondolet Sister Joana Bramble, who helped to set up the Jubilee West, initially to address housing problems in the area (see related story). The pollution, traffic and noise, as well as the three to four years it would take to build the structure, would devastate the neighborhood, she said, echoing the concerns of many in the community.

Objections to the plan stem, in part, from historical precedent. U.S. freeways built from the 1950s on ruined vast tracts of settled American inner cities, typically made up of blacks and other minorities. The land acquisitions for highways, overpasses and ramps also rapidly depleted urban housing stock and wrecked downtown economies.

This proved to be the case for the old Cypress Freeway. Three decades ago, 32 city blocks were demolished to make way for I-880, which then cut off West Oakland from the rest of the city like a Berlin Wall.

The consequence: About 3,200 residents and merchants gradually left the area, leaving behind many empty, boarded-up buildings. The poverty, already significant, worsened. "It looks like a bomb hit it," said Bramble. In the state's alternative plan, part of several backyards in Jubilee West's new 22-unit Marcus Garvey Commons would be stripped away.

Since the tons of concrete from the collapsed freeway have been carted away, West Oakland has rejoined the rest of the city, said Bramble, who calls that a blessing. But if the state proceeds with plans to rebuild the freeway, she said, it "really means destruction all over again."
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Title Annotation:Oakland, California earthquake repair
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 26, 1993
Previous Article:American Indians, panel discuss religious law.
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