The Avenging Angel: Hilton Kelley's Fight to Save His Hometown
Kelley always sits facing the door. "I'm an environmental activist in Texas," he says. "I've gotta see what's coming at me." He says grace and eats two helpings of gumbo before getting into his car, a black SUV, and driving toward Carver Terrace. "I drive around the West Side a couple of times a day," he says, "just to feel the mood." Sometimes he brings along a machine called a Cerex UV Hound that looks like a giant lunch box and measures toxicity in the air. Other times he brings his checkbook and pays off electric bills so residents won't get evicted, or so a high school senior can afford her college application fees. Once in a while, Kelley will just stand in a vacant lot and dream up plans for new businesses and better housing.
The emptiness and darkness here are staggering. Downtown, glass crunches beneath your feet when you walk. Otherwise it's silent. "On the West Side, you don't see much traffic," says Kelley, "because people cannot afford cars." Dozens of buildings are empty. Port Arthur Savings, with its grand Ionic columns, is bolted. The arched Roman windows of the old Federal Building are boarded. A windowless metal-and-brick structure on the corner of Houston and Howard actually has the letters HUH suspended, in relief, above its door.
HUH, the building says—a remnant of signage that once reflected commerce. Now it seems to ask everybody who passes by: What on Earth happened here?
Carver Terrace is the federally subsidized housing project that was built in 1952 opposite the Gulf and Texaco refineries, which are now considerably expanded facilities belonging to Valero and Motiva. They pump out almost $60 million a day in refined crude. That's $21.9 billion a year, roughly the gross domestic product of El Salvador. Hilton Kelley was born in the back bedroom of apartment 1202E, in 1960. "There are 200 families here," he says, slowing his car, cruising among the symmetrical rows of two-story, barracks-like dwellings. At Kelley's Kitchen, we were 27 short blocks away from the refineries. Here, we are less than one. This is what is meant by the term fence line, residential developments literally abutting acres—in this case, more than 7,000—of industrial might, hardly any distance between homes and toxic conditions. "People are breathing benzene out here," says Kelley. "That's a known carcinogen. They're breathing sulfur dioxide, a toxin that messes with your respiratory system. People call that the rotten-egg smell," which grossly understates the issue, making it sound more comfortably domestic than it should—inhaling sulphur dioxide feels like swallowing burlap. "Clean, breathable air," says Kelley, "is a basic human right the folks out here have been deprived of."
Tonight there are precisely zero people outside at Carver Terrace. The only signs of life are the empty swings being pushed ghostlike by the wind, on a playground that overlooks the massive fractionation towers and flare stacks. Some fluorescent light emanates from a shabby food van parked at the back of the complex. "That's their grocery store," says Kelley. "There's no grocery store on the West Side. People walk up to that truck and buy bologna and cheese for three times what it costs at the supermarket because the truck is here and can charge whatever it wants." Across the board, this is a neighborhood in need. There are 3,500 people on this side of town, Kelley estimates. Jobs are sparse. The unemployment rate in Port Arthur as a whole is approaching 15 percent. On the West Side, Kelley thinks it may be as high as 20 percent. There's no healthcare clinic here, either, in a region where pediatric asthma is common and the cancer rate is higher than in the rest of the state. As we turn out of Carver and drive up Terminal Road between the refineries, Kelley is listing the issues, explaining how he must address all of them in order to even begin resuscitating these streets.