by David Bacon
HUNTINGTON PARK, CA (1/31/99) -- The noise starts at two in the morning, sometimes even as early as midnight. The air begins to smell bad, and acrid fumes make people cough in their sleep. The West Coast Stainless Products foundry has begun yet another round of pouring molten steel into sand molds.
Across from the foundry, on 53rd Street, Vincent and Littia Flores and their five children sleep on in their one bedroom in apartment #3. But on many nights, Vincent Jr., 7 years old, begins to get short of breath. In the same room, his little brother, Daniel, begins wheezing, and then the coughing starts.
Both Vincent Jr. and Daniel have asthma. "Vincent Jr. began coughing back when we lived in Elysian Valley," Littia remembers. "But after we moved to Vernon, he began having asthma attacks."
Vincent Sr. is a construction worker. Three years ago, he moved with his family into a building they were renovating in Vernon, where his son's asthma started, and stayed there a year. Then they moved a short distance away, into a little dogleg neighborhood of Huntington Park that sticks up into the Vernon industrial belt. Some residents of the neighborhood call it Asthmatown.
"I had reservations when we got here," Vincent Sr. says, "but we had to find a place fast, almost anywhere."
Daniel, the youngest of the Flores children, was born in Asthmatown. After he was a little over a year old, he too began coughing. His parents took him to the doctor, and got the dreaded news. Daniel had asthma like his brother. "We were kind of scared when it happened to Vincent Jr., especially when he kept coughing this dry cough, and couldn't get his breath, and we couldn't find any way to stop it," his father recalls. "When we got the news from the doctor about Daniel, we just felt sad and depressed. I thought, 'what a shame he has to go through this too.' I'm used to thinking of anything as fixable, but there wasn't much we could find to do for him."
Vernon is a city of only a few hundred residents, created to provide a safe haven for industry. Huntington Park is a city of many thousands, just to the south. But the Asthmatown neighborhood looks more like Vernon than Huntington Park. Three isolated apartment houses sit next to each other on 53rd Street. Factories border them on either side. West Coast Stainless Products is across the street. Behind the homes is a busyard, and other industrial plants cluster all around.
While the people who live in the apartments on 53rd Street identify West Coast Stainless Products as the source of many of the fumes which plague the neighborhood, it is clearly not the only industrial plant in Asthmatown. The community is full of other small, and not-so-small industrial facilities. Many of them have records with the Air Quality Management District as emitters of toxic substances. Residents breathe a chemical soup from many sources. And the cumulative impact of exposure to many chemicals at one time is potentially different, and much greater, than exposure to just one substance from one source. It can weaken the body's immune system in particular, making it much more difficult to fight off infections. And children are the most susceptible of all.
"At first I liked this neighborhood because it's kind of secluded. I still do," Vincent says. "There are a lot of good people who live here. "Low-income residents fill the three apartment buildings. Almost all have come from Mexico in recent years. Vincent and Littia, however, see themselves as Chicanos, not Mexicans, and unlike many neighbors speak English in preference to Spanish. A few African-American people live in the buildings too.
But the Flores family is getting increasingly concerned that living in Asthmatown is not good for their kids. They worry when they find a silvery dust on the sidewalk in the mornings, or when a coarse mist hugs the ground. The fumes in the air at night make even Vincent Sr. and Littia's throats scratchy, and have gotten so strong that twice the fire department was called.
In the mornings, Littia walks the kids the few blocks to Vernon Elementary School. They don't like them to walk by themselves, since they have to cross Santa Fe Avenue, a heavily-travelled industrial artery. More than once, as she's stopped at a corner with her stroller, waiting for the light to change, bobtail trucks or semi-trailers have jumped the curb as they've taken the turn at high speeds. "I've had to jump back, and pull the stroller quickly. I worry that the kids could be hurt," she says.
It's not hard to see the family is dreaming of a change. The oldest child and only daughter, Sarah, makes a drawing of a happy scene. Her mom and dad stand next to each other, in front of a tall house. On either side neat round trees have large fruits in their branches. Behind them, tall hills rise into the distance. At 11, Sarah is a good artist. She's already won $50 in a school competition. Her parents like the Vernon school, since Sarah's teacher found a way to draw out the normally shy girl. They want to leave her there until she goes on to middle school.
"But I dream of a ranch with two acres," Vincent Sr. laughs. "Littia dreams of having a house, and the kids just want a place with a room of their own."
Fifty-third Street's other residents have dreams too, ones that are sharply at odds with the reality of their neighborhood. In the doorway of the larger, three-story building, Myrna, Luis and Sandra, lean on the metal grillwork. Myrna, in her late teens, has lived in the building all her life. Her mother, Delia Galvin, is the manager.
"There are a lot of sick people here," she says. She describes a long list of arrivals who have moved into the building, and then left after the air at night got to them. Some mornings, she says, a green liquid has seeped out of the factory yard across the street. "It smells really terrible, just like the fumes," she remembers.
Asthmatown isn't an organized neighborhood. Each family has been left to face their children's illnesses alone. No one knows exactly what's making people sick, and fear makes them reluctant to ask.
"If there was some kind of conflict, who would have to move - the factory, or us here in the apartment building," Myrna asks.
It's not an unreasonable question. In LA County, like many other industrial areas, that's the response of many public officials and regulators. Low income people living in industrial neighborhoods, they say, are just in the wrong place.
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