A divided California Public Utilities Commission is poised to approve or deny a controversial proposal to store 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas three-quarters of a mile beneath 700 homes in Sacramento's Avondale/Glen Elder neighborhood.
One of five PUC commissioners has announced he will vote in favor. Another intends to vote against it. A third commissioner, Catherine Sandoval, wants to get a firsthand look at the site and the neighborhood before the vote. She has scheduled a tour of the gas storage site and the Avondale/Glen Elder neighborhood Monday afternoon followed by a public meeting at the Coloma Community Center in east Sacramento.
To understand why the neighborhood association and so many of Avondale/Glen Elder's longtime residents oppose the project, it helps to know the history of the place. The neighborhood grew out of the rigid racial housing segregation that divided Sacramento for most of the 20th century, a history that lingers today.
Drawn by jobs at the Sacramento Army Depot and McClellan and Mather Air Force bases, African Americans began migrating to Sacramento in large numbers during and after World War II.
Housing in most neighborhoods was closed to them. "Redlining revisited: Mortgage Lending Patterns in Sacramento 1930-2004," an article UC Davis sociologist Jesus Hernandez wrote in 2009, documents how racial covenants attached to the deeds of homes in almost every residential neighborhood severely limited where blacks and other minorities could live.
The Federal Housing Administration, which guaranteed the vast majority of home loans, established policies that effectively barred banks from lending to minorities. Ethics codes for real estate professionals prohibited agents from selling homes in white neighborhoods to African American, Latino or Asian buyers.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, redevelopment of the West End and along Capitol Avenue and the construction of the W-X freeway obliterated the few areas in Sacramento where minorities could live. Slum clearance or "Negro removal," as many of the displaced called it, deepened the crisis.
Eventually, civil rights lawsuits put pressure on the real estate industry and the government to create places where blacks could live. Out of all that, Avondale/Glen Elder was born, a neighborhood built on the southeast industrial fringes of the city.
Gloria Peters and her late husband bought their house there in 1955. She remembers the billboard that beckoned them: "Glen Elder," it said, "Sacramento's most beautiful interracial subdivision." The Peters paid $100 down. The house cost just $10,000, "a good deal of money in those days" she recalled.
Nearly all the early residents were black, most of them soldiers, airmen or civilian employees at the military bases. The modest tract homes were mansions compared with the cramped conditions where they had lived before. A thriving community flourished for a while with a very active Little League and even a swim team. Harvard professor Cornel West, one of the nation's leading authorities on race, was raised in the community during those years.
But the neighborhood lacked many basic amenities: sidewalks, streetlights and proper drainage. Some 20 years later, after most of its original residents had moved on, Glen Elder slipped into blight.
In 1976, former Sacramento City Councilman Lloyd Connelly was swept into office with the overwhelming support of Glen Elder residents. Back then, "25 percent of the homes (in Avondale/Glen Elder) were boarded up. There were no streetlights, no sidewalks, no street maintenance. It was a nightmare," recalled Connelly, now a Sacramento Superior Court judge.
Pushed by residents, Connelly helped spark a mini-renaissance. Sidewalks and streetlights were put in. Abandoned homes were fixed up. Streets that ended abruptly, cutting the neighborhood off from surrounding communities, were opened. Property values rose again. New immigrants moved in. The ethnic makeup changed.
Longtime resident Peters adamantly opposes the gas storage proposal. Despite reassurances from the Sacramento Natural Gas Storage company, she insists "it's dangerous. No amount of money is going to take care of you or your family if you are hurt."
Peters remembers when gas was originally pumped out of the Florin Gas Field, a natural geologic deposit beneath the neighborhood, three decades ago. She thinks the pumping damaged the foundation of her home.
Last month two vans loaded with more than a dozen of Peters' neighbors traveled to San Francisco to testify before the PUC against the project. Emmett Harden, who moved to Glen Elder from his native Louisiana in 1970, drove one of the vans.
Five years ago, gas company representatives tried to get Harden to sign a lease agreement that would allow the company to store the gas. They showed up in the neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas with $500 checks, gas cards and other inducements. Many people in this low-income neighborhood signed, but not Harden.
"I was vigorously pursued," he said. "My biggest concern was how safe was it? What was the risk management plan? Nothing was presented to me that made me feel it was in my best interest."
When gas was pumped out the first time, Harden, like Peters, believes the pumping cracked the foundations of homes, created sinkholes in people's yards and caused fence lines to sag. Fruit trees in his backyard died, which he attributes to pumping out the natural gas.
Constance Slider, who grew up there and whose grandmother still lives in the area, said Avondale/Glen Elder remains a "throwaway community." It has no grocery store. Regional Transit ended bus service to the area two years ago.
A community organizer and former director of the Coalition for Regional Equity, Slider complains that the neighborhood has become something of a dumping ground. Her organization has documented dozens of toxic sites, industrial uses incompatible with a residential neighborhood, facilities she said would never have been sited near more affluent, white neighborhoods. The gas storage facility is just the latest.
Opposition to the storage project is by no means universal. In fact, most residents signed leases with the gas storage company. Robert Hudler, who studied geology and has lived in the area since 1987, said he thinks the gas storage project poses less of a risk than many of the industrial facilities that already exist nearby.
Harden remains unconvinced. He worries that the gas can't be contained underground as the project's sponsors promise, that it will leak, damage people's health or even explode.
When he gets an opportunity to speak at the public meeting Monday, Harden plans to tell Sandoval what he told the full commission in San Francisco last month: "Consider the danger you're putting on my grandchildren."