Op-ed: San Jose can reckon with and heal the damage of redlining and racism
Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

We love San Jose. We also recognize and clearly see that San Jose is one of the many communities connected to America’s struggle with equality and justice.

As so much of America seeks to heal and reckon with this, we have a chance to address that here in San Jose. The Reid-Hillview Airport is our example of redlining’s destruction of our communities and environmental racism. Since 1965 the development and political protection of this site has perpetuated a public health crisis that is poisoning our families. It’s time for this land to be returned to the community so we may clean the toxic soil, to heal the community that has been harmed, and break the systemic racism stranglehold on East San Jose — which includes reparations.

The American effort to undermine communities of color through zoning — known as redlining — has very deeply and darkly drawn lines in East San Jose. These racist policies of the past continue to cause under investment and bad land-use decisions in our neighborhoods. These policies have created a larger amount of pollution in East San Jose, hotter temperatures due to a lack of trees and green spaces, drastically under-funded schools, and of course the highest COVID-19 rates in Santa Clara County. Our efforts for change are not directed at the pilots and staff at the Reid-Hillview Airport, but it is time for this use to end and to stop poisoning our children.

While our community had chances to address this poisoning in the 1960s, since day one this airport has been harming communities of color. Originally “Garden City Airport” opened in 1935 between San Antonio and Story Road. Redlining policies were in effect between 1936 and 1939. The flight path for take off and landings at Garden City Airport was north of the airport, allowing planes to fly directly over the part of the city with the largest concentration of Mexicans in the community. A 1937 Official Area Description of the area surrounding the crosshairs of East San Antonio and present day Highway 101, labeled the area as “extremely undesirable” from a racial standpoint.

In 1937 the Garden City Airport land was purchased by the state for Highway 101 Right of Way and in 1939, the airport was moved to its current location on Ocala and Capitol Expressway. Then in the 1960s the airport expanded with a new runway, and was treated as a jewel of our city, despite now dumping more toxins into our children’s lungs. Since Supervisor Blanca Alvarado’s efforts to close the airport no other political leader has been bold enough to protect the families of East San Jose until this issue was taken back up by Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Now is that chance. Because today, flights from the Reid-Hillview Airport continue to fly over a part of East San Jose with a large number Latinx residents as well as other people of color including Filipino, Vietnamese, and Indian immigrants.

Time after time, various health studies have shown that Latinx, recent immigrants and low-income communities in the U.S. are far more likely to live, play and work in places that expose us to toxic chemicals, including lead, increasing our risk for cancer and other serious health conditions. We do not need to look far to see how our local families are disproportionately impacted, however.

An Aug. 3 lead study published by the county and conducted by a leading expert scientist in the field showed an alarming amount of lead in the blood of children living within a 1.5 mile radius of Reid-Hillview airport. The study found that “children proximate to Reid-Hillview airport experience an increase in blood lead levels in excess of what the children of Flint (Michigan) experienced during the Flint Water Crisis.” This is a literal injustice that enters and pervades our physical bodies. This health injustice must end and reparations must be paid to impacted families.

Our children are just as worthy of the opportunity to achieve their educational and professional dreams as children living in more affluent neighborhoods. Instead of cutting their dreams short, we should give local residents a seat at the decision-making table and allow them the power to reimagine how the 180 acres of publicly-owned land at Reid-Hillview Airport could be better used.

To continue to operate the Reid-Hillview airport is to further systemic racism in areas of environmental justice, public health and education. As such, we support immediate airport closure and a reuse plan and process with a lens towards reparations.

Alternative reuse options that serve victims of the airport might include teacher housing to support local public schools that are currently underfunded and a better quality education for residents, recreational facilities to support mental and physical health of resident-victims of the airport, and public open space in dedication of the Ohlone people who were the original stewards of the land.

We are East San Jose residents. We are educators, advocates, professionals, neighbors, and the daughters of generations that have fought to have their voice heard, but we are the generation of change.

Corina Herrera-Loera is the board president of the Alum Rock Union School District; Mayra Pelayo is the executive director of LUNA; Darcie Green is the executive director of Latinas Contra Cancer; and Maricela Lechuga is a Santa Clara County Airport commissioner and member of the Cassell Neighborhood Association.

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