By Molly Samuel • July 18, 2017
In 2002, there was a flood just west of downtown, in the neighborhood of Vine City.
“I was home, and we received a call at night, it was about 9:15. We received a call saying there was a flood in Vine City,” said Rev. Dexter Johnson of the Higher Ground Empowerment Center, a church in the neighborhood.
“How could a flood be in Vine City when we’re not surrounded by any water?” he remembered thinking. “When we got over here, there were boats having to go in to rescue some of the residents.”
It was raw sewage, coming out of the sewers, untreated. People had climbed on top of tables and refrigerators to get out of it.
“People were swimming out of their homes,” said local activist Tony Torrence, who lived nearby. “Trying to climb out of windows. We had to drag people out of their houses. Kids, older seniors.”
Rain had overwhelmed the sewer system. The flood ended up being bad enough that the city decided to take over some of the affected land. People moved out, and about 60 houses were torn down.
The Source Of The Trouble
The problems with the sewers go back to how and where the city of Atlanta was built.
Take the downtown area known as the Gulch. It’s where CNN, the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome are all located; the low-lying area that’s actually ground-level, but is now below street-level. The walkways from MARTA to the Dome, or lots at the Georgia World Congress Center? Those subterranean-feeling roads and parking lots are the Gulch.
Atlanta’s Proctor Creek, a tributary to the Chattahoochee River starts there, in the middle of all those buildings and parking lots. It flows from the Gulch northwest through dozens of neighborhoods in Atlanta until it hits the Chattahoochee, near I-285. Probably not exactly what most people picture when they imagine what the headwaters of a creek look like.
“Instead of a pristine glacier, you have a lot of concrete, a lot of development,” Todd Hill, director of environmental management for the Office of Watershed Protection in Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, said, standing in the Gulch, right behind Watershed’s offices.
The rain that falls in the Gulch doesn’t sink into the ground, and, eventually, bubble into springs that form the creek. Here, the rain falls, hits the pavement, then goes straight into the sewers.
And about that sewer system.
“Most older cities, when they were built back in the 1800s, they dumped their sewage directly into creeks,” Hill said.
Atlanta did that. Then, when it built sewers, in some cases it built the pipes right in the creek beds. In places, Proctor Creek basically became the sewer.
If it rains too much the pipes get overwhelmed, and the sewage mixed with rainwater overflows into the creek – and sometimes neighborhoods. That’s what happened in Vine City in 2002.
This is actually the case for creeks all over Atlanta. Many neighborhoods have similar problems with flooding, and there’s not a creek in the city that’s not polluted.
Sewage overflows used to happen regularly in some Westside neighborhoods. And the water that doesn’t make it into the sewers can cause flooding, too, creating lakes in the middle of streets.
Can It Be Fixed?
“The things you find when you clean up Proctor Creek are crazy,” said Donna Stephens, a member of the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, which advocates for cleaning it up. “The tires are always there. The construction debris is always there. The mattresses are always there. Those things are issues.”
Stephens said the creek’s problems don’t stay in the creek. They affect the neighborhoods around it. She said she’s seen decades of disinvestment on Atlanta’s Westside.
“If you have the blight that’s caused by the flooding and the soil erosion, you don’t have the taxpayers. You don’t have the investment, so you don’t have the economic development,” Stephens said.
Schools have closed. Banks and grocery stores have left. It’s not all because of Proctor Creek, but floods of sewage definitely don’t help.
“I think this is a classic environmental justice case,” said Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, co-chair of the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council and board chair of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
Jelks got involved with Proctor Creek as a college student in the ‘90s. She said initially, she was inspired by older residents who told her what their relationship to the creek used to be.
“This creek used to be such a source of pride for northwest Atlanta communities. People played in this creek, fished in this creek, learned how to swim in this creek,” Jelks says. People were baptized in the creek, too.
“It was seen as this positive amenity, which has, in some ways, turned into sort of a nuisance and something that is hazardous,” she said.
Atlanta has been working to fix Proctor Creek. There are fewer spills and less pollution than there used to be. But it’s not all fixed.
Stephens said after all this time, it’s hard for some people to imagine it ever will be.
“You have those residents who have been around 30-40-50 years, and they’ll just tell you, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime,’” she said.
A History Of Activism
Environmental advocacy in the Proctor Creek area goes back a long time.
“At least to the early 20th century,” said Will Bryan, an environmental historian at Georgia State. “Environmental racism went way back, and people were challenging it way back.”
For instance, in the 1900s, residents brought a lawsuit against a furnace company that was dumping trash into Proctor Creek, instead of burning it. The residents won — and these were African-American residents, during Jim Crow.
“You see people having to navigate this really racially difficult climate to challenge issues that aren’t traditionally issues that you see people challenging at that time,” Bryan said.
The neighborhoods near the headwaters have strong ties with the Civil Rights Movement: The Atlanta University Center is there; it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. lived. In the 1960s, Civil Rights and environmental concerns overlapped, Bryan said: there were environmental health protests, and Maynard Jackson represented residents of Perry Homes in a complaint against the city over cholera.
Many of those older fights were about particular problems. People didn’t necessarily identify them as larger environmental issues, but still, Bryan said, the activism along Proctor Creek pushes back the boundaries of when people think about the “environmental justice” movement starting by about 80 years.
“One of the things that consistently surprised me is just how old this activism was,” he said. “That is what makes Proctor Creek really interesting. In a lot of ways it predates this idea of environmental justice that we have.”
Fixes Are Coming
Atlanta has been working to fix Proctor Creek. It’s spent billions of dollars on its sewers, after being sued in the 1990s. There are fewer spills and less pollution in Proctor Creek than there used to be.
It’s not all fixed. But a lot is happening now on the creek, and in the neighborhoods around it.
This story is part one of two exploring Atlanta’s Proctor Creek. Part two will focus on the city’s clean up efforts.
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