Writing Catalog

Nate Ford

Grade: 10

University High School

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

I Can't Breathe: The Legacy of Redlining in Cleveland

Critical Essay

I Can't Breathe: The Legacy of Redlining in Cleveland

In February of 2022, a 7-year-old boy named Cayden Dillon was playing outside with some of his classmates in Cleveland's Slavic Village. As he was enjoying his time outdoors, he began to have a severe asthma attack that provoked a call to 9-1-1 and eventually an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Children like Cayden are at high risk for asthma because of the increased air pollutants in Cleveland. As described by Cayden's mother, the whole ordeal was "very scary" for this family as "they just didn't know what was happening or if it was something bad" (Dillion quoted in Czekalinski). Clean air in the modern world is becoming increasingly precious, and Cleveland is no exception. The pollutant-infested air that we breathe in is the reason that Cleveland has some of the highest asthma numbers in the nation ("Asthma Capitals 2022"). By exploring Cleveland's past, we can also see that Cleveland's racist habits in the mid-1900s affect air pollution patterns. These racist habits have caused various detrimental health issues, including asthma (The Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition). However, steps can be taken to lessen such health disparities among disadvantaged communities. By way of innovation and mitigation, we can move in a positive direction when it comes to working against our racially infiltrated past and environmentally polluted present.

The causes of air pollution in Cleveland - industrial plants and freeways - can be traced back to Cleveland's racist past. Redlining, a discriminatory practice that prioritized certain neighborhoods rather than others, can be blamed for the increase in asthma in these areas. Redlining began in the 1930s when the Home Owners Loan Corporation created maps that segregated certain neighborhoods. The HOLC created a four-point scale for neighborhoods: A: most desirable, B: still desirable, C: definitely declining, and D: hazardous; redlined. The areas characterized as less desirable contained a higher level of black residents/immigrants and hazardous pollutants. The environmental pollution hazards in redlined neighborhoods still negatively affect residents in these areas today. The D-level neighborhoods contained several contaminants, and the HOLC stripped them of many freedoms, such as obtaining "federally backed loans or favorable mortgage terms." The implementation of redlining in the early to mid-1900s restricted their capacity to create wealth through home ownership. Many communities of color placed into inferior neighborhoods nearly a century ago are still trapped in polluted and racially segregated areas today (Lane).

Cleveland, an Industrial frenzy, has many industries, such as steel mills, oil refineries, and chemical works. The center of this industrious superstorm - industrial valley - spits out polluted air containing carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and various other pollutants (Sreenivasan). Slavic Village, a neighborhood near Cleveland's industrial valley, has asthma numbers that are through the roof, having "some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the nation — regardless of race or ethnicity" (Czekalinski). Furthermore, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Cleveland ranks second in the 100 Most Challenging Places to Live with Asthma ("Asthma Capitals 2022"). Not only are the industrial plants making asthma rates worse but so are the freeways laced throughout redlined communities. These freeways are the breeding grounds for harmful byproducts like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, and formaldehyde which come out of cars at an alarming rate ("Reducing Air Pollution from Cars"). Inhaling these harmful pollutants is a harsh reality that many redlined communities must face daily.

More specifically, to Cleveland, Ohio, the University of Richmond's interactive map magnifies the relationships between redlining and air pollution-related diseases. Previously called neighborhood D15, Slavic Village is a clear example of a redlined area. In the 1930s, when the redlined maps were created, Slavic Village contained 70% foreign residents, including some Polish, Slavish, and Czech. This area is deeply affected by poverty, defined (in 2022) as a three-person household making less than $23,030 per year. It is quite unfortunate that their poverty rate is 42%, which is very high compared to the national average of 12% (Creamer). Additionally, this area is right near a hazardous pollution source — Industrial Valley — which has likely contributed to the abnormal rates of asthma and other harmful diseases. On the other hand, neighborhood B16 — Edgewater — was on the other side of the spectrum regarding redlining. In the 1930s, Edgewater contained 0% foreign residents, and most of its occupants consisted of white-collared businessmen. Compared to the astounding asthma rates of other redlined neighborhoods in Cleveland, Edgewater's asthma rate is 9%, one of the lowest in Cleveland. However, although 9% is deficient for Cleveland, the national average for asthma is 7.8%. Cleveland's average is so elevated that even the lowest rates in northeast Ohio are a full 1% higher than the national average. This data is very concerning, and the HOLC's racist behavior in the mid-1900s has a more profound impact than most think (The Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition).

To combat the dangers brought forth by air pollution in Cleveland, there are two different items, both very important. The first step is to mitigate individual cases of asthma, and there are many ways to do this. When diagnosed with asthma, one must deal with afflictive asthma attacks. Depending on the person, these attacks can be provoked by various factors, but the primary asthma triggers include dust, mold, cleaning products, smoke, stress, and outdoor air pollution. To reduce the chances of eliciting an asthma attack, a person must do all that they can to eliminate these triggers from their vicinity. Vacuums, humidifiers, and air purifiers are all tools that can aid against these triggers. Additionally, a good strategy would be to keep the air moving, using fans and open windows. These mitigation tactics are an excellent remedy in the meantime ("Reducing Asthma Triggers at Home").

However, the best cure for a disease is prevention, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, climate change is an underlying issue that humanity has been struggling to shake off ever since the industrial revolution. Climate change, specifically air pollution, is an issue that needs to be ripped up from the roots for a proper elimination. This is a daunting task, and it will not be easy; however, we cannot continue living in a world where we prioritize things like money over the health of our planet. Many car companies are already making steps towards a world with cleaner air by transitioning from gas-fueled vehicles to electrically powered vehicles. This transition is vital and needs to happen sooner rather than later. According to the New York Times, "if the United States wanted to move to a fully electric fleet by 2050 — to meet President Biden's goal of net zero emissions — then sales of gasoline-powered vehicles would likely have to end altogether by around 2035, a heavy lift" (Plumer). The United States have also recently instated The Inflation Reduction Act which works to express incentives to American civilians. Such incentives include: tax credits on electric vehicles (which lower the amount of money one owes in taxes), saving large amounts of money per year, and overall, highlighting the progress that can be made with clean energy ("BY THE NUMBERS: The Inflation Reduction Act").

Furthermore, The United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a Clean Air Act in 1970 to combat the excessive amounts of smog and air pollutants. This act requires states to endorse plans to meet air quality standards ("Clean Air Act Requirements and History"). From 1970-1990, this act reduced (a median of) 850 thousand asthma attacks per year ("The Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act, 1970 to 1990" ). Finally, some industrial companies are beginning to transition from fossil fuel-based systems (i.e., coal, gas, and oil) to renewable energy systems (i.e., wind, solar, and lithium-ion batteries) ("What Is Energy Transition?"). These renewable energy sources are made from naturally derived sources that are constantly being replenished. In contrast, fossil-fuel-based systems use fuel that took hundreds of millions of years to form. We are depleting fossil fuels far faster than they are being produced while simultaneously warming our planet ("What is renewable energy?").

Cleveland does not have the cleanest record. It instituted racist policies in the mid-1900s, which were intolerant of minorities and favored segregation. These policies concentrated and worsened a plethora of issues, one of which was and is asthma. Our past behavior is unacceptable, and we must begin to work against our flawed record (Lane). Instances of hope are beginning to arise as we move towards cleaner air. However, we should not settle for the progress we have made, and we must strive towards a Cleveland in which residents of all the city's neighborhoods can breathe easily. In a city with clean air, kids like Cayden Dillon can enjoy playing with friends rather than worrying about asthma attacks and the ever-present danger of stepping outside (Czekalinski). To some, such a world only exists in the far stretch of their imaginations, and they have lost hope. However, these ideal circumstances are achievable. With logical mitigation tactics, we can tame the metaphorical fire that we know as air pollution. And with transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we can extinguish air pollution once and for all.