Birds, Trees and Communities of Color

Salas Family Myers

At White Center’s Jubilee Days, the Salas family celebrates the preservation of the Myers Way Parcels (Peggy Sturdivant)

An alliance of open-space activists and environmental-justice advocates win an important victory

You can fight city hall and win!

Earlier this month, the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition (Green Spaces) and TreePAC saved the Myers Way Parcels, 33 acres of open space in the middle of neighborhoods with poor air quality, concentrated poverty and a high number of people of color. Myers is bigger than Madrona Park and Beach (31 acres) and much bigger than Gas Works Park (19 acres).

In order to preserve Myers, the activists had to persuade Mayor Ed Murray to change course. He planned to sell the property to raise $5 million for homeless services. Now he will preserve Myers and find the money to fight homelessness elsewhere.

How did they do it?

In 2014, Elaine Ike and Mary Fleck, who met while working on a community garden, approached Cass Turnbull, founder of PlantAmnesty and TreePAC, about retaining city-owned surplus properties as open space. As a first step, they obtained a list of surplus properties from the city and had it translated from bureaucratize into English.

“Myers jumped out at me,” recalls Turnbull. “I saw all that land. It had fields, which you never see in the city.”

They learned that the City was considering selling the property. In fact, in 2006, the City had a deal with Lowe’s to buy Myers, but that had fallen through.

The three women decided to organize. Ike and Fleck formed Green Spaces. The three of them began circulating letters, gathering signatures on a petition (eventually getting over 1,700 people to sign) informing neighbors and forming alliances with environmental and parks groups.

Eventually the three women grew to a group of around 15 active volunteers. They expanded their efforts to include a slide show, a power point and a booth for neighborhood events. They lobbied the city council and city departments. Support was slow in coming, however. “I was determined despite the fact there was zero chance we might succeed,” says Turnbull.

Then, on November 2, 2015, Murray declared Seattle’s homelessness a state of emergency. In order to raise $5 million for extraordinary measures, Murray would sell Myers. The most likely use, the open-space activists learned, would be for warehouses with plenty of truck traffic.

“We knew the fire was lit,” remembers Turnbull.

The campaign broadens

Fortunately, just around that time, Ana Vasudeo joined the effort. Vasudeo had recently moved to Seattle and had previously worked on environmental, racial and economic justice. Turnbull asked Vasudeo to review her presentation on Myers.

Right away, Vasudeo saw something important was missing. Turnbull’s presentation “was just about the environment, it needed to focus on environmental justice,” says Vasudeo. The activists knew that in 2014, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency had studied the air quality of the Greater Duwamish, an area that includes city neighborhoods around Myers as well as unincorporated White Center. The Agency reported that the Greater Duwamish had the fifth worst air quality in the entire central Puget Sound region, including all of King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties. “All the air stats were there,” says Vasudeo. “We changed the pitch. Let’s focus on community engagement and communities of color. They have been overlooked forever.” Murray’s plan to sell Myers for warehouses, with their accompanying high levels of truck traffic, would only make the bad air worse.

The activists not only broadened their own understanding of the issue but also changed their outreach strategies. They reached out beyond environmental and parks groups and found new allies.

The next major letter of support to Murray came from the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a community advisory group for the Duwamish River Superfund. Soon, neighborhood community councils joined the effort and began lobbying the mayor.

Then Murray played right into the activists’ hands. On April 22, Earth Day, 2016, Murray released his “Equity and Environment Agenda.” Murray’s Agenda noted that poor, communities of color have a disproportionate amount of pollution: “[B]ecause they also live near highways and heavy industry, residents in these neighborhoods face the greatest impact of a multitude of environmental hazards.”

In March, the activists got an appointment with Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District One). Herbold represents South Park, Highland Park and Top Hat neighborhoods near Myers, and isn’t afraid to take on the mayor.

Herbold immediately supported the activists. Vasudeo described the councilmember as “ballsy.”

At the end of March, the White Center Community Development Association became the next major ally to support the activists.

Murray kept moving ahead with the sale, however.

On June 30, the City held a meeting to inform the surrounding neighborhoods about the Myers’ sale.

The large and broad alliance, which Green Spaces and TreePAC had built, packed the house with over 150 people. Many ordinary people made spontaneous, heartfelt speeches about preserving the land, Turnbull says. When their opposition to the sale didn’t seem to have any effect on the city bureaucrats, the crowd became fierce, Turnbull continues. She says the meeting’s mood was so charged, it was a little bit frightening.

Two weeks later, after two years of organizing, the activists won. On June 13, Murray announced the  Myers Way Parcels would be preserved as open space. He thanked “those who shared their input.” In political speech that means, “Uncle!”

As the activists reflect on their struggle, they are very clear about the key to their victory. “It was the race and social justice issues that did it,” says Turnbull.

About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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