Noxious New York Redux

Controversy erupts (via Lawyers, Guns & Money) over a plan to remove toxic sediment from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and “dewater” it in a yet-unbuilt facility in Red Hook, where it will be mixed with cement. This, the EPA suggests, will render the material inert and also allow it to be used as landfill to expand a dock property owned by a connected developer.

This may be all legit. But there are a few things to consider:

First, even if there is no future catastrophe–a Sandy-type storm, i.e.–the plan emphatically redistributes risk. It takes material that is undeniably putrid, but somewhat contained in the Gowanus Canal, and moves it to a location where it is temporarily much more exposed and vulnerable to dispersal by flood water, wind, or trucking/containment failure, augmenting risk to human health in Red Hook to ameliorate risks to developers’ and politicians’ interests in now-trendy Park Slope-adjacent areas that abut the Gowanus.

Second, the procedural equity of this decision-making process appears to be sorely lacking, meaning that the people bearing the proposed risk are positioned like the pins at the end of the bowling alley–once the ball’s rolling, they’re at a profound disadvantage, forced to bear the burden of proof that they face risk, constructed in the media as NIMBY opponents of job growth, and accused of blocking something that will benefit all New Yorkers.

Third, and this is something that many academics would do well to understand better, in the age of neoliberal governance, the arrival of the EPA on the scene is not the equivalent of the cavalry arriving in Stagecoach. As Ryan Holifield points out [1], the EPA has absorbed the critical demands of the environmental justice movement by recasting itself as a manager of the triad of community concerns, legal remediation requirements, and budgets, whether or not this translates into, uh, y’know, environmental protection.

Fourth, any time is a great time to re-read Julie Sze’s Noxious New York [2], but especially now.


[1]  Holifield, Ryan. “Neoliberalism and Environmental Justice in the United States Environmental Protection Agency: Translating Policy into Managerial Practice in Hazardous Waste Remediation.” Geoforum 35, no. 3 (2004): 285–297. [see also this volume]

[2] Sze, Julie. Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. Urban and Industrial Environments. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.

This Much Irony Might be Fatal

I have a talk to give on Friday at the Atlanta Studies Symposium about the 1990s tax revolt in Fulton County. I am seriously considering peeling off and relating the life story of Moreton Rolleston instead. He was a player in that tax revolt, though his significance as a figure in making present-day Atlanta is probably better summed up by his early days as a segregationist and the nearly unbelievable turn of events in his later life, a coincidence that is too amazing for me not to blog about it now. I suppose that for many Atlanta residents the climax of the story might be well-known fact, but I find it absolutely mind-blowing.

In 1964, Rolleston, the owner of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, filed suit immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Rolleston was part of a semi-organized movement of businessmen who hoped to fight integration on the hill of private enterprise by claiming the right to operate a private business by serving whatever customers they chose. The United States Supreme Court said otherwise. Rolleston didn’t do too badly all things considered, as he sold his hotel for more than $11 million rather than be compelled to operate it on an integrated basis. I imagine that took some of the sting out.

Nonetheless, Rolleston was not done fighting the power on behalf of affluent white Atlantans, launching litigation against Fulton County tax reassessments in the early 1990s that rectified an effective tax subsidy for the county’s richest residents that resulted from longstanding underassessment of property. His North By Northwest Civic Association won in a lower court, but the Georgia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by Atlanta and Fulton County’s tax assessor. Once again, Rolleston lost a big battle.

But that was nothing compared to what lay in store….

Rolleston’s Buckhead home was seized to satisfy a legal malpractice judgment for a former client against Rolleston. The property was sold to the African American filmmaker Tyler Perry, who demolished Rolleston’s former house to build his new 30,000 square foot mansion. For reasons that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter D.L. Bennett could only hint at, Rolleston sued Perry, claiming to be the true owner of the property. This aggressive litigation culminated in Rolleston’s disbarment at age 89 in 2007. I can only speculate about his motives, and Rolleston insisted he was the legal owner of the property to the end, but I can only imagine that seeing a ridiculously wealthy black man bulldoze his house to put up a significantly larger one was something that the segregationist crusader wouldn’t take lying down.

There’s a lot to dislike about Tyler Perry’s films, but if he goes down as the guy who drove Moreton Rolleston around the bend, that’s a point in his favor that not even another dozen Madea films can erase.


Bennett, D L. “22 Years of Twists, Turns for Tyler Perry’s Property.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, September 26, 2007.

———. “Attorney Disbarred over Turf War Ending with Entertainer.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 10, 2007.

———. “Fed up with Foe, Perry Files Lawsuit.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 24, 2007.

In Case You Heard Differently, Property Taxes Have Often Helped White People in Atlanta Stay Richer

In my research for an upcoming talk on the 1990s tax revolt in north Fulton County, I’ve had a revelation of sorts about one way in which white privilege is institutionalized and perpetuated (to be clear, this is a personal revelation, not a thought unprecedented in the annals of urban political economy). Ironically, this mechanism, the ad valorem tax on real estate, has been a principal boogeyman in the reactionary politics of privatism, public retrenchment and racial resentments of what George Lipsitz and Barbara Tomlinson describe as

a small cadre of affluent individuals—who comprise what surely must be the most sullen, surly, self-pitying, and sadistic group of “haves” in the history of the world.[1]

How can this be? Aren’t taxes the instrument by which the poor, minorities, liberals, and other members of the 47%  steal from upstanding taxpayers? Let’s do some quick history, drawing first on a Research Atlanta report by David Sjoquist and Drew Warwick [2], whose analysis is the basis for my summary of events below, to frame the conditions of the tax revolt.

In 1989 Fulton County’s tax digest (its list of every assessed property and its assessed taxes) was rejected by the Georgia Revenue Commissioner, who found that the county was

1. Violating state law because its overall tax digest fell nearly 10 percentage points short of the statutory requirement for property to be assessed at 40 percent of fair market value.

2. Assessing property at wildly uneven rates; a few properties were assessed above 40 percent of fair market value, most were assessed less, and some, mostly high-value residences, were assessed at much less than 40 percent.

These determinations were made through a sales ratio study conducted by the state Department of Audits on the order of the Revenue Commissioner. A sales ratio study compares the ratio of tax assessments to the sale price of properties sold in the jurisdiction that year to determine if assessments were in line with market value.

Atlanta and Fulton County’s flunking of this audit precipitated a fateful series of events. Atlanta and Fulton County, and their Joint Board of Tax Assessors, hired the firm of Cole, Layer and Trumble to perform a mass reappraisal of all Fulton County properties (more than 230,000!) based on a comprehensive sales ratio study. Fulton County was forced to acknowledge that it had been breaking state law by underassessing property. New legislation passed in 1988 also forced the two governments and their joint tax board to take swift and decisive action, or face stiff fines from the state. Atlanta and Fulton elected to bite the bullet and impose the assessment hikes all at once, rather than ratcheting up assessments gradually. The results were dramatic; virtually no property owners were spared an upward reassessment, but the most dramatic assessment hikes affected the owners of more valuable properties. It wasn’t unusual for residents of affluent neighborhoods to see their assessments double.

One might think that, since a sales ratio study makes the “free market” the yardstick by which tax assessments are evaluated, political opposition would be minimized, and the right-leaning homeowners who are prone to protest their tax bills would be placated. After all, it wasn’t some county bureaucrat arbitrarily making assessments, but the aggregated wisdom of the “free market”–the same force that was helping them to grow equity.  As Sjoquist and Warwick put it,

Despite the shock that residents face in dealing with the new assessments, the new state procedures should result in more equitable assessments.[2]

Since you’re reading and I’m writing this, you might correctly surmise that many taxpayers focused more on the “tax hike” aspect of the reassessment than on the “bringing assessments into compliance with the law” aspect–let alone any consideration of “paying one’s fair share.” In fact, the reassessments prompted the formation of taxpayers’ rights organizations, and launched the careers of many north Fulton Republicans who capitalized on the convergence of spiking tax bills and the prevailing sentiment that the region’s affluent were being soaked to support welfare recipients. The two most notable of these were Robert Proctor and Mitch Skandalakis, who were joint counsel in a taxpayers’ organization lawsuit against Atlanta, Fulton County, the Joint Board of Tax Assessors, and Cole-Layer-Trumble over the reassessment [3], and who used their new identities as tax warriors as a springboard to further political endeavors. In Skandalakis’s case, this involved a successful run for Chair of the Fulton County Commission and an unsuccessful 1998 run for Lieutenant Governor marred by extensive race-baiting of black Atlanta-area Democratic officials in his Ralph Reed-managed campaign. Proctor continued to sue virtually every government agency in Fulton County over taxes and, significantly, affirmative action, along with representing a Waffle House franchisee accused of discrimination against black customers in a briefly notorious lawsuit. (Ironically, after Skandalakis led a campaign to install a new county tax chief, Proctor served as legal counsel for a realty trust that specialized in buying tax liens at discount from the county and seizing the properties).

Proctor (as a civilian gadfly) and Skandalakis (in county government) were among the leaders of a movement that consolidated taxpayer resentment, white racial grudges about black political power, and a rising base of Republican party strength in Atlanta’s northern suburbs into a force that  transformed the state and has brought political conflict on the congruent axes of race, party, and geography to a head in Fulton County.

The most ironic part of this is that, far from soaking rich northsiders, the property tax system in Fulton County had been actively subsidizing them for decades. The pattern that the CLT study found in 1989 was the same one discovered by an Atlanta Urban League study of tax assessments in 1971, at the height of white flight.[4] A study by Research Atlanta, Inc. in 1975 referenced the Urban League’s study and a similar national investigation carried out by HUD [5], and rather delicately explained how race meshed with the “failure of assessment to keep pace with the rapidly changing property values in the county”:

The geographical distribution of neighborhood assessment-sales ratios mentioned above generally follows the trend of upward and downward transitional property values. Thus, houses in the city’s northern neighborhoods, where property values have been rising, had lower than average assessment-sales ratios. On the other hand, inner city neighborhoods, where property values have either declined or not risen as rapidly as the rest of the city, had higher ratios.[6]

Research Atlanta emphasized that the divergence was an effect of assessments lagging behind changes in the market–assessors devoting limited human resources to assessing newly developed property, for example–rather than deliberate attempts by assessors to favor any racial or ethnic group or any neighborhood area. I would not rule out the possibility that pro-development officials on the Fulton County Commission placed some thumbs on the scales so that rapidly booming northside and north Fulton areas would continue to grow without higher tax assessments, but this kind of malfeasance isn’t necessary to support an argument that tax assessments were racially biased against black Atlantans; the kind of property value instability happening in this era–both in terms of property that fell in value and that rose rapidly–was intrinsically tied to the racial identity of owners and neighbors. Further, if properties were reassessed at long or irregular intervals, that meshed with racial bias in the housing market to structure the tax system in whites’ favor.

In an era when (as David Freund ably argues) white suburbanites crafted a political identity around property ownership and a political agenda of racial exclusion justified by the need to protect property values, those homeowners scored a second windfall when tax assessors, whether through sloth, understaffing, or collusion with development interests, allowed tax bills to lag far behind that rising property value. So, while north Fulton tax revolt leaders like attorney Robert Proctor mounted soapboxes to lament the waste of their tax dollars after reassessment, they were utterly silent about the decades-long diversion of taxes whose collection was mandated by state law from the region’s schools and governments. They certainly didn’t thank any of the residents of low-value neighborhoods, whose relatively high assessments represented both a disproportionate share of the costs of government and public services and an effective subsidy to the underassessed rich.

Put it another way: Every dime of difference between the state-mandated assessment of 40 percent of market value and the actual assessment imposed on homeowners was a theft from the public at large.


[1]: Tomlinson, Barbara, and George Lipsitz. “American Studies as Accompaniment.” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 1–30. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0009.

[2]: Sjoquist, Keith R., and Drew A. Warwick. Fulton County’s Mass Reappraisal: Why Was It Necessary? Atlanta, GA: Research Atlanta, Inc., 1993.

[3]: These suits were ultimately decided in favor of the governments. See Lomax v. Lee, 408 SE 2d 788 (GA Supreme Court, 1991).

[4]: Report of the Atlanta Urban League on the Fulton County Property Tax, 1971, cited in [6].

[5]: Arthur D. Little, Inc, and United States. A Study of Property Taxes and Urban Blight; Report to U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1973.

[6]: Holmes, Donald E., and Robert W. Pinner. Assessment-sales Ratios in Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. Atlanta: Research Atlanta, 1975.

Racial Isolation in Metropolitan Schools

From a 1967 report Racial Isolation in the Public Schools by the United States Commission on Civil Rights:

To define the extent of racial isolation in the public schools, the Commission collected data on the racial composition of schools in more than 100 city school systems throughout the Nation. The data revealed that racial isolation in the public schools is extensive and has increased since 1954. School segregation is most severe in the Nation’s metropolitan areas where two-thirds of the country’s Negro and white populations now live.

My glib response on reading this in the archives today was “what else is new.” Of course, that’s not an intellectually defensible response, because much has changed. More than 80 percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas.


My students today discussed an article by Katherine Hankins and Elizabeth Egan Henry in JUH  about the small subsets of white parents in Buckhead and Northeast Atlanta neighborhoods who worked as advocates for public schooling from the 1970s to the 1990s.[1] Hankins and Henry paint a compelling picture of how neighborhood school activists, mostly women, mobilized and pressured their neighbors to keep their children in the public schools and school administrators to adapt curricula and resources to the preferences of parent organizations. They tell a story that is in many ways hopeful, in contrast to the story of white flight that Kevin Kruse tells, in which racialized interests in property and political control pushed whites to withdraw not only from the city of Atlanta but from public institutions they saw as racially tainted. I agree that it’s important to recognize the efforts of these activists, because the retreat from compelled desegregation and the Supreme Court’s rejection of voluntary systems of race-aware pupil placement for racial balancing mean that reversing the trend of racial isolation in public schools depends on affluent white people, who have access to a broader range of choice in the marketplace, choosing to live in the same school districts as minorities and to send their kids to those schools.

But understanding the motivations of these activists leaves me less than optimistic about the prospects of neighborhood school activists fully reversing white flight from Atlanta and its schools to the extent that it brings affluent families into urban areas and the children of affluent families into public schools (as my colleague Tyrone Forman points out, this discussion in Atlanta implicates affluent black families as well). In the first place, the return to the city’s public schools was predicated on the accommodation of the neighborhood schools concept in the notorious “Atlanta Compromise” settlement of the Calhoun suit against the Atlanta schools. This agreement affirmed neighborhood schools as the desired standard, rejected wide-scale busing or other measures, and affirmed an entitlement for parents in affluent and whiter-than-average areas to influence the schools their children attended. Residential patterns of racial and economic segregation were baked into this settlement and naturalized. In other words, while these public school-choosing parents consciously rejected flight from the school system, the limits to their progressive politics were sharply circumscribed by a racialized politics of place in which some schools and neighborhoods were “better” and more desirable than others.

The recent announcements of indictments against former Atlanta schools director Beverly Hall and a host of other reformist school officials as part of an apparent widespread conspiracy to doctor the answer sheets on standardized tests (which, in bitter irony, secured a half million dollars in performance bonuses for Hall but cost schools money when the cheating bumped them up in class from underperforming to performing schools) make me wonder how far the return to the city will go. From the point of view of affluent whites positioned to choose among metropolitan options, the cheating scandal highlights a number of fearsome elements: the context of low performance, the prospect of the system’s reputation suffering irreparable harm, and, perhaps most importantly, the system’s reorganization around a test-driven reform agenda that parents nationwide are beginning to recognize as detrimental to their children’s learning and intellectual growth. Perhaps the saddest part of the situation is that parents with the social capital, education, and time to mobilize against the “reform” agenda within Atlanta schools are the ones most likely to conclude that the system’s problems might be for other people’s children after all.


1. Henry, Elizabeth Egan, and Katherine Hankins. “Halting White Flight: Parent Activism and the (Re)shaping of Atlanta’s ‘Circuits of Schooling,’ 1973-2009.” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 3 (May 2012): 532–552.