In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Char Miller, a professor at Pomona College. Miller discusses his recent book, West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, which explores how Latino communities mobilized around environmental fairness and forever changed the politics of San Antonio. After a devastating flood in 1921, the city built a dam that controlled flooding in the city’s downtown core—but not for the overwhelmingly Latino residents in San Antonio’s West Side neighborhoods. Organizers from a group called Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) then fought back, and Miller contends that their approach to reforming the city offers valuable lessons to environmental justice advocates today.
- Disparities in San Antonio’s response to flooding: “The dam worked brilliantly—and continues to work brilliantly—but the West Side, in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, went underwater every single time a flood erupted … One of the ways to think about that is that public funds were used to protect private property and private real estate values, whereas on the West Side, little was done to do any of that. That’s part of the pattern of discrimination that had existed before and that now gets really concretized—literally made solid—by the consequence of the construction of the dam.” (9:51)
- Latino leaders organized San Antonio for change: “The West Side got angry. It had an organization now that had been cultivating connections and grassroots organizing for the prior two years … That 1971 flood was the galvanizing moment that COPS came to the surface of political life in San Antonio, and, in a series of very bold moves, fundamentally changed the political structure of the city.” (13:16)
- Lessons for broader environmental justice movements: “When we think about justice—both environmental and climatological—it seems to me that what COPS did can be transferable and scaled up … When we’re now talking about a global existential crisis, we need to make sure that everyone is engaged, and most especially recognize that local communities have the resilience, the talent, and the insight. What we can help do is facilitate the building of alliances across this planet that may actually help us survive this human-caused anthropogenic climate change.” (25:51)
Top of the Stack
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College, and a senior fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. Char has recently published a new book called West Side Rising: How San Antonio's 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement.
It's a fascinating look back at how decades of environmental discrimination led to a new type of organizing and activism among the city's residents, even before the term environmental justice was widely used. Char will help us understand not just the history of the movement, but how it has blossomed over time to shape the politics and policies of today and tomorrow. Stay with us.
Okay. Char Miller from Pomona College out in California, thanks so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Char Miller: Thank you so much, Daniel, for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Char, we're going to talk about a new book that you have called West Side Rising. We'll tell folks more about that book in just a couple of minutes. First, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues. What steered you into this field of research?
Char Miller: Oh, that's a great question. I would say there are two sources, one of which is academic, and I'll get to that in a moment, and the other is multifaceted in terms of recognizing at a fairly young age that the places my family lived in were interesting physically. I lived in Connecticut for much of my early life, and walking around the neighborhood in which I lived, which was pounded into marshland in Darien, Connecticut, I realized that, although it was really great to be able to skate in a swamp when it froze, that maybe that wasn't the best place for us. In any kind of weather—storms, hurricanes—everybody's basement flooded; I was seven or eight years old going down the stairs to this flooded basement, and I was looking at that going, "This doesn't seem right. Not a good idea."
I've pursued that more professionally, but it is interesting to see how the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s were built in places that required bulldozers to flatten things. Just walking around those neighborhoods, walking as I did as a child, playing with my friends in what’s now what we would call a second-growth forest, and coming across stone walls everywhere, clearly there was another set of people who lived there in a very different way.
That’s been part of my goal in life, is to try to figure out who those people are, and to excavate that past. It sounds like I knew that's what I was doing when I went off to do it in graduate school, and it wasn't. It's a retrospective analysis, but I think, in some ways, it’s helpful to know how one's own biography ultimately plays a role in one's professional life.
Daniel Raimi: Absolutely. We've heard so many stories of folks who have gone on to great careers after getting inspired by things in their childhood, which really sounds like it has for you. We're going to talk about floods in neighborhoods today, as they occurred in very different circumstances where you grew up. The new book that I already mentioned is called West Side Rising: How San Antonio's 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement.
Can you start off by giving us a description of the 1921 storm and the flood that ensued, and then how it affected San Antonio and its residents?
Char Miller: Gladly. Here's a story that anyone in the Gulf Coast region could tell about their cities at one point or another: a tropical storm floated overhead, dumped a lot of rain, and all of a sudden, floods started flashing in a particular way.
Texas has its own framing of this kind of story. Harvey, most recently, which dumped an astonishing amount of water on Houston, knows this tale well, but San Antonio—by its site, where it's located—has a particular history involved here that's climatological. To its immediate north is what's known as the Hill Country, the Edwards Plateau. That high ground, as it turns out, is crucially linked to the Gulf Coast itself and to the Gulf of Mexico.
As warm air pushes ashore in a southwesterly fashion, as it does normally, it rises up to hit the Edwards Plateau. When warm air rises and hits colder air, all sorts of interesting things happen, including thunderstorms. When we lived in San Antonio for 26 years, there were some doozies that literally rocked our house.
When those waters started falling in 1921 from this hurricane that is also floating through this same kind of geography and physical structure of South Texas, it unleashed an amazing amount of rain in a very short period of time. San Antonio only got about seven inches of rain to its downtown core, but to its north, the watersheds of its West Side creeks, and the eponymous autonomous San Antonio River, got well over 17 inches in some places. Two waves of water washed through San Antonio. On the West Side, the creeks blasted through the barrio, the site of some of the poorest communities in San Antonio—at the time not exclusively Hispanic or Mexican heritage, but mainly so—and then another wall of water came roaring down the San Antonio River that flushed the downtown core where the Anglo-power elite had its businesses, its banks, its commercial entities, and the like.
Those two flows of water joined in ways that they shouldn't—unless it's in a flood—so that more than a mile-wide flow of water captured both the West Side and the downtown core, and 80 people or more were killed. It had a dramatic and traumatic impact on San Antonio. Its residents across the board were flushed out of their homes, and those who survived, at least on the West Side, were very lucky to have done so.
Daniel Raimi: Can you now take us through the next step in the story? Obviously, we’re skipping over lots of interesting details, but one of the next important steps is that after that 1921 flood, there's a response that the city takes that contributes to an already existing pattern of discrimination in terms of housing and environmental justice. Can you talk a little bit about the response and then the effects, particularly for the folks who lived in the barrio, the West Side of San Antonio?
Char Miller: Here's a thing that I think we often think about when we see disasters and need to interrogate more. It isn't that the disaster happens, even though in this case that was clear. It's the aftermath. What do cities do in subsequent days and years to think out how, policy-wise, they're going to defend their city, whether it's a coastal place, or a place like San Antonio, which the National Weather Service has indicated sits within what it calls a “flash flood alley”?” That was part of what I was doing, thinking about the response to this flood and what that indicated about the community pre-flood, as well as post-flood.
One of the things to note is that there are basically two narratives. The first of which covers the first three days after the September 9th or 10th flood of 1921 in which all of the newspapers, both Spanish language and English language, were narrating the struggle of the West Side: the death, damage, and disarray that flattened that community. Within about three days, the narrative started to shift, at least for those powerful elite or the large property owners downtown. They all gestured and said, "Yes, this was terrible for the West Side." But what they really wanted was a dam that would prevent future floods from ripping through the downtown core: a dam to be built at a pinch point on the San Antonio River. You can immediately see the policy gears start to move as R the US.Army, which was very involved in rescuing people and others, began to articulate how to build this dam, what it would cost, and what its benefits would be. While they're having that conversation and galvanizing public support for what would ultimately be a $4,000,000+ US dollar bond issue to build what's now called the Olmos Dam and straighten and concretize the San Antonio River, they still gestured to helping the West Side.
But as it turns out—and I've gone through the city council meetings for the next decade—the funds that were promised were, I think, rarely spent. I say that because there's very little conversation about what was done and what was not done. The consequences are that the dam worked brilliantly—and continues to work brilliantly—but the West Side, in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, went underwater every single time a flood erupted. That suggests that what was supposed to have been done in the 1920s was not.
Daniel Raimi: Right, and that the benefits of what was done accrued to a specific set of people with entrenched power in the city.
Char Miller: Right. One of the ways to think about that is that public funds were used to protect private property and private real estate values, whereas on the West Side, little was done to do any of that. That's part of the pattern of discrimination that had existed before and that now gets really concretized—literally made solid—by the consequence of the construction of the dam.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. Just one more follow-up question. I've been to San Antonio several times, and I imagine some of our listeners have too, and there's that rRiver wWalk downtown, which is super touristy now, but it's also fun. Is that concretized river walk part of this set of investments, or does that come along later?
Char Miller: It comes along later, but it was only possible because the dam existed. Once you could control the flow of the San Antonio River, you can then do whatever you want to do at the river level, which, for decades, people had been talking about, "Let's build this thing that we now call the Rriver wWalk." But every time they tried to put in trees and other kinds of things, a flood would rip through and tear whatever they had done apart.
Now that there was a dam, you could do two things: one of which is to start to imagine a river walk, which is what happened and was built during the 1930s, and the other is at the street level. Local funds and venture capital money flowed into San Antonio simply because the dam was there that built the first skyline of the city. One of the chapters in the book looks at these construction projects as a direct consequence of flood control, which meant that the downtown core, which was already the central economic hub of the city, became even more so. Though, if you walked a mile and a half to the west and entered into the West Side, the economic conditions, the housing structures, and the discrimination against its Mexican, Black, and poor white populations continued unabated.
Daniel Raimi: Let's turn now to probably several chapters later, zooming forward more than 50 years to 1974. What happened in 1974? How did organizers and residents on the West Side who had suffered this long history of discrimination respond?
Char Miller: Another flood in 1974 blew out of the Zarzamora Creek, which is one of the five creeks that run through the West Side. It flushed entire neighborhoods out of their homes (no one died, thankfully), washed away cars and bridges, and left a bunch of debris everywhere.
Something miraculous happened—miraculous only because not everyone in the city knew that this was about to occur. The West Side got angry. It had an organization now that had been cultivating connections and grassroots organizing for the prior two years. The genius behind this is a guy by the name of Ernie Cortés, who had spent the previous two years walking through neighborhoods, talking to parish leaders, gathering together, mostly women, to build this new organization that in time would call itself Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). That 1971 flood was the galvanizing moment that COPS came to the surface of political life in San Antonio, and, in a series of very bold moves, fundamentally changed the political structure of the city. It seems like it's a movie script, and you wouldn't believe it if a movie script did it except it's true.
There's a couple of things that happened, the first of which is that COPS organized a public meeting with the city manager of the city of San Antonio. He came to one of the local high schools not knowing what was about to happen, and frankly, probably no one really knew what was about to happen, and he thought he was going to talk to people about flood control. Well, it turns out they were going to talk to him. They ran a slide projector show, showing him what has been happening over the decades. They pulled out the budget for the city over the last 30 years and said, "See, this is where you committed to the funding of flood control on the West Side, but it hasn't been done. Now, what are you going to do about it?" Well, if I were the city manager, I would be perplexed because rarely had the West Side been there in force on political discussions before, but now, it's very clear that this is a totally different world that's about to unfold. And so, when he said to the crowd, "Look, I don't make the decisions." They said, "Who does?" He said, "The city council." They said, "Put us on the next agenda."
Well, the city council showed up for its next meeting and there were 500 people in the small city council chambers. The moment the first speaker rose, the whole audience rose and then went up and wrapped themselves around her so that the council suddenly was alerted that this is not your ordinary city council meeting. They turned it into a withering critique of the city's neglect of the West Side and its systemic racism that is embedded in that neglect. At one point, the city's mayor said to the city manager, "Is what they're telling me true?" He goes, "It is." He said, "You have four hours to find the requisite money that we have promised for 40 years and never spent." It happened. He came back in four hours;, they found money.
Over the next decade, COPS was able to wrangle federal monies like Model City monies coming out of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and a host of state, and most especially, local budgetary, outlays—half a billion dollars in the next 10 years to build flood control, to harden the streets, to bring in potable water, to do all of the things that any neighborhood should have had, but these neighborhoods did not have access to. There are parts of the West Side up through the 1960s that did not have water, even though a mile away, (which is where many of them had to walk), there was potable water everywhere. The neglect is not just historic—and it's not just racist, though it is—it's also an environmental justice issue that COPS is calling the question on. It really radically changed the nature of life in San Antonio because then they went after the political structure.
Real briefly, San Antonio at that time was at-large elections. Members running for city council were voted by everybody in the city. Well, the West Side’s political relationship to the city had been attenuated, in part because nobody listened to it, so nobody voted, or few people voted, which meant that Anglos dominated the city council.
The Department of Justice came in at roughly the same time and told the city that that was an illegal form of governance. COPS rallied its neighborhoods, everybody voted to support what's now called a single-member district, and instantly, city council in the next election began to actually look like the demographics of the city itself. Henry Cisneros was first elected and ultimately would become mayor. The triumph is that this grassroots organization, COPS, was able to develop the political calculus to change not just the environmental justice issues, but also the political representation issues that had been long lacking in the city of San Antonio.
Daniel Raimi: That's so fascinating. It makes me think about the legacy of that because there have been numerous leaders coming out of San Antonio, andLatino leaders in particular. I'm thinking of the Castro brothers who have been very successful, and there are probably other examples as well.
Char Miller: There are, and the Castro brothers stood on the shoulders of Henry Cisneros. Henry Cisneros stood on the shoulders of Henry B. Gonzalez who was elected as the first Hispanic congressional representative from the state of Texas in 1960. Gonzalez really broke one of the barriers that had been long troubling the West Side: once he got seniority, he started turning the spigot to funding the first kind of flood control in the West Side that had been promised in 1921 that had never been delivered. And then COPS emerges on his shoulders, as would Henry Cisneros, and we have essentially a pipeline; Cisneros became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Julián Castro who wrote the forward for the book, becomes the secretary of HUD, and many others have gone out that way.
One of the things to note about COPS' behavior and activism is that it didn't just keep its ideas on the West Side. It created what became called, at least informally, the University of COPS. Activists from Tucson and Phoenix and Los Angeles and Chicago and Miami and Houston flowed to San Antonio to learn what COPS had done. Members of COPS went to these other places to both train and activate community organizations. So Ernie Cortés left San Antonio, his hometown, ended up in Los Angeles, and did for the eEast side of Los Angeles what he had done for the West Side in San Antonio. There's this intersectional play that's taking place that is really a radical transformation in the southwest and in communities that had large Mexican or Mexican heritage barrios everywhere in the United States.
Daniel Raimi: That's fascinating. We've been talking about this concept of environmental justice, and we've had other shows on environmental justice where we've spoken with other experts. Different people trace its roots to different times and places. One common origin story comes from the late 1970s in North Carolina around the sighting of hazardous waste. Did the activists in the COPS organization think of themselves or think of what they were doing as environmental justice? Was that term around? Then just how do you see these events as fitting into the larger narrative of the emergence of the environmental justice movement?
Char Miller: Yeah. That's a great question. They did understand, and I used the term “streetscape environmentalism” to describe the coupled network of issues that COPS was raising. They were looking at flood control. They were looking at streets, literally the streets themselves. They were thinking about water and water mains and access to such things because they were also worried about public health issues. The West Side had historically been racked by communicable diseases that depended upon the fact that its people did not have ready and free access to potable water. In fact, one of their early names was going to be “Committees Focused on Drainage” or something like that, but they went more broadly with public service. But they saw public service as an environmental set of issues, and we know that in part because no sooner had they made inroads in the city political life than they immediately went to the east side and developed relationships with grassroots organizing there for bettering streets, bettering housing, bettering public health, and also linked up with north side Anglo activists to protect the community's sole source of water, the Edwards Aquifer.
So they were thinking broadly about environmental issues, though they don't use the language of environmental justice—that wouldn't really come to fore for maybe a half a decade or more later in North Carolina, but that's what they were doing. Some of what I'm trying to do in the book is not only surface what the West Side was doing on its own behalf and through its own language and activism, but also to say that there are multiple sources to this environmental justice movement. And it has a long reach.
COPS was particularly brilliant in moving beyond itself, but interestingly, in the 1920s, there was a group that predated COPS by 50-something years that had emerged on the West Side. It was called Cruz Azul (Blue Cross) that had literally jumped into the waters of the 1921 flood to rescue people. It too was parish-based, it too was led by women, and it beat the Red Cross at its own game of providing food, shelter, and clothing to the devastated. Then it immediately sent out chapter representatives to other inundated communities’ similar organizations. So there's been this long tradition on the West Side of reaching out to others who are equally destitute, equally powerless, and saying, "You know what, this is how we build power. This is how we build resilience." That to me says that environmental justice, whether it's got that title or not, is a longstanding attribute of San Antonio's West Side and its efforts to reach out to other communities that are suffering similarly.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. There is such a rich history here, and obviously, we're just scratching the surface. We've been talking about the past. Let's talk briefly about the present and the future. As climate change exacerbates numerous environmental risks, including severe weather, like heavy rainfall during storms, hurricanes, wildfires, other risks, what are some of the lessons or insights that you would glean from this experience that you describe in your book, West Side Rising, that can really inform movements, either local grassroots movements or larger policymaking efforts at the federal level?
Char Miller: I think there's a direct line between the environmental justice activism that emerged in the 1970s as it was described—although I think it's got a longer history than that—with those who are calling for a climate justice movement. In fact, they share both heritage on the one hand and conception on the other.
If we think about climate justice in a place like Miami or Mumbai or Lagos, Nigeria, we're looking at the impact that sea level rise will have on low-lying neighborhoods around the globe. We've got all of the maps we ever need to see what is happening. The Bay Area in the United States will lose much of its Bay shore, in part because it's infill, and that's not going to last.
When we think about justice, both environmental and climatological, it seems to me that what COPS did can be transferable and scaled up. I think COPS is not alone anywhere on the planet. There are many organizations that have been working on this, but part of what I would suggest is useful, in terms of thinking about COPS, is that the work that somebody does in the Cook Islands, which are starting to disappear, and other coastal areas that are troubled, need to be connected with, and we need to be aware of their efforts so that we can build capacity, share best practices, and galvanize communities that think they're fighting, and rightly so, for their own safety, when in fact, that safety is tied to my safety, and to yours, and to those who are listening to this podcast.
One of the things that I learned directly from COPS and living in San Antonio for as long as I did, and watching its broad-based activism be intersectional in its reach, is that that's what we need to be mimicking. When we're now talking about a global existential crisis, we need to make sure that everyone is engaged, and most especially, recognize that local communities have the resilience, the talent, and the insight. But what we can help do is to facilitate the building of alliances across this planet that may actually help us survive this human-caused anthropogenic climate change.
Daniel Raimi: As our last question, before we go to the Top of the Stack segment, just zoom in one more time back to San Antonio. As you said, you lived there for a long time. You don't live there currently, but I'm sure you still have a good finger on the pulse of what's happening in the city. How would you describe the current state of environmental justice issues in San Antonio?
Obviously, you described some amazing progress that occurred in the 1970s and beyond, but what do you think things look like today in terms of the progress that's been made? What more still needs to be accomplished?
Char Miller: One of the things that the legacy of COPS—and it's still pushing these things, but it's not the only one who's pushing them—has done is tried to make San Antonio much more resilient, in a way that is striking to me, at least. Those very West Side creeks that were the source of so much death, damage, and disarray and the 1921 flood and floods before that and floods after that, until the flood control issues, went into play. This is really a two-step process. Let's say you finally convince, as COPS does, the city to spend money to build the flood control networks: deeper creeks, wider creeks, concretized creeks. That's not a really pretty site. It works, but it's not going to draw people back to those creeks. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was this idea that emerged, and I was lucky to be on the Open Space Advisory Board for the city at the time. I walk into the first meeting, and the folks on this, a highly diverse organization with people from all over the city, were talking about creating linear parks along the West Side creeks. I just went crazy.
What a brilliant conception of a city that has both rivers and creeks running through it, is to think about those rivers and creeks, not just as natural systems, but natural systems that allow us to build passive recreation, bike lanes that allow people to commute down those creeks into the downtown core, and pretty easily as it turns out. So, you use nature as a way to do a couple of things that are absolutely crucial. It took time. This was in the 1990s, but today there are 60 miles of these linear creeks. I've walked some of them, particularly on the weekends. They are filled with folks who live nearby, who are bicycling, walking, picnicking. Turning those creeks, which once were flood channels, and before that these dry arroyos, into something that is bettering not only the physical nature of the community—you get rid of concrete, and you bring in trees and native grasses and other kinds of things—you make it aesthetically pleasing, even as it is helping the earth to breathe. Then, you better public health by giving people access to parks that are linear, in this case, but a joy to walk on with your peers.
So part of that is, let's think about a place like New York City or DC—Rock Creek Park is a classic example of this, but it can only serve so many needs—let's think about how we can use these natural systems, rivers, creeks, or whatever they may be, that will further the public health on the one hand and also the environmental health on the other. That's an interplay that I think can be really critically involved anywhere in the United States, and at least in San Antonio's life. The river walk was there first. It's basically been ceded to tourists, but these West Side creeks and east side creeks are actually helping the citizens of San Antonio even more. That, it seems to me, is a win-win.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's so interesting. As we close it out, I'll just congratulate you on the book and thank you for coming on the show. It's such a fascinating story that I had never heard of, and I imagine many of our listeners are new to it as well.
Let's move now to our Top of the Stack segment where we ask you to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard that is related to the environment—or not—that you'd recommend to our listeners.
I'll start us off with something that doesn't exist yet, but something you said earlier, Char, makes me think maybe it should. Maybe someone should option your book for a new movie. West Side Rising seems like a reasonable movie title, and given the dramatic nature of many of the events, it seems like it could lend itself pretty well to a screenplay. I know you're in Los Angeles now, or close to it, and maybe you could find somebody to hook up on that.
Char Miller: Yeah. I actually have my eyes on Alex Gibney who is, everywhere, the documentarian of the United States. We actually went to high school together, and I'm trying to reach out to him and say, "This is a really cool topic. It would be great to have a documentary, if not a full-fledged film." In part, it is a dramatic story and there are dramatic moments all the way through it, and that, for a historian, was a joy to surface and find in various ways. But these events also served a larger purpose because it forced me to think about questions I hadn't really thought of as a historian and an urban activist before, and to recognize, at least, when I moved to Los Angeles is, like San Antonio, in a flood basin. Los Angelis, like San Antonio, is a Spanish-built city in a flood basin. That many of the issues that both cities confront with flooding were quite similar. But unusually, it turns out that one of the things San Antonio has pioneered as a result of its floods should be adopted by California because of wildfires.
Let me just take a brief tour here. After the 1998 and 2002 floods, which devastated parts of San Antonio that had not received flood control, the county and city spent millions of dollars to buy up houses from willing sellers in the flood plains that those two floods identified and that no one had really thought about. It's a remarkable system that Houston has since copied after Harvey. When I was watching that, and now living in Los Angeles, I went, "Well, why don't we do that with fire zones? Why are we not getting in there after the fire zones and offering willing sellers the chance to get out of harm's way and incentivize the process in the before fire period?” We know where the fire zones are, and yet we build them to burn. That didn't seem like really good public policy. There's an adaptation that's possible also coming out of San Antonio. That too could be a really interesting piece to a documentary.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, Char Miller, thank you so much for coming on today to Resources Radio to tell us about your book, West Side Rising. We'll have a link to it in the chat, and when the movie comes out, we'll make sure to highlight it here as well, and we'll have you back and maybe Alex Gibney, and we'll do a movie release party or something like that.
Char Miller: That would be awesome. Thank you so much, Daniel.
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