Scorched by history: Discriminatory past creates heat waves in minority and low-income neighborhoods

Scorched by history: Discriminatory past creates heat waves in minority and low-income neighborhoods
Scorched by history: Discriminatory past creates heat waves in minority and low-income neighborhoods

NEW YORK (AP) — Ruben Berrios knows the burning truth: When it comes to extreme heat, where you live can be a matter of life and death.

The 66-year-old lives in Mott Haven, a low-income neighborhood in New York City’s South Bronx where more than 90 percent of the residents are Latino or black. Every summer, the South Bronx becomes one of the hottest parts of the city, with temperatures 8 degrees (4.5 degrees Celsius) higher than the Upper West and East Sides — more lush, predominantly white neighborhoods less than a mile away.

The heat isn’t just unpleasant. It’s the leading cause of weather-related deaths nationwide, killing an average of 350 New Yorkers each year, according to a city report. Taking a break from shooting pool at an apartment complex and senior citizen community center that serves as a designated cooling space, Berrios recalled a recent heat wave: “I lost two people. They were close to me.”

Tens of millions of Americans are facing severe heat waves, with temperatures consistently exceeding 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius). But in big cities, the heat hits people of color and low-income residents hardest. In New York, black residents are twice as likely to die from heat stress as white residents.

“Only a quarter of New York City’s population is African American, but half of the heat deaths are African American,” said Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York. “So there’s something massively disproportionate.”

Death rates from cities across the country show that heat kills on socioeconomic and racial scales.

In 1995, a deadly heat wave killed 739 people in Chicago. Most of the victims were poor, old and black. Last year, black people accounted for 11 percent of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, despite the fact that black residents make up only 6.8 percent of the county’s population.

During heat waves in Memphis in the 1960s and 1980s, “there were people who were too poor to turn on their air conditioning” and they died, said David Jones, a professor and historian of science at Harvard University. Some elderly people in public housing died at night because they were afraid of burglars and were unwilling to open their windows or go outside to sit on their porches.

Environmental justice advocates blame these disparities on decades of discriminatory housing policies, most notably redlining — the government practice dating back to the 1930s of assessing the investment value of neighborhoods based on race and denying mortgages to minority buyers.

Labeling minority neighborhoods as risky limited resources for generations. It also starved those areas of parks and trees and affected how residents experience heat today. A comparison of redlining maps from the 1930s with recent heat-sensitivity maps from the New York City Health Department reveals startling correlations between how areas were categorized and where residents are most likely to die from heat.

“Those heat islands — they’re really in those historically red neighborhoods, and that’s where the trees need to go,” Ulfelder said, referring to the urban heat island effect, in which heavily paved areas with sparse vegetation trap more heat than outlying areas.

In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. gave Mott Haven a “D,” the lowest possible, for “hazardous.” For the adjacent Morrisania neighborhood, the agency cited “infiltration by Negroes and Puerto Ricans” and “outdated housing” as “detrimental influences.”

Today, the South Bronx has some of the lowest per capita green space in the city and is crisscrossed by power plants, garbage stations, and freeways that produce high levels of noise and air pollution. Residents struggle with high infant mortality rates, cognitive impairment, heart disease, and asthma—so much so that Mott Haven is sometimes nicknamed “asthma alley.” These conditions increase vulnerability to heat.

“Environmental racism in the South Bronx is on full display,” said Arif Ullah, executive director of the environmental justice group South Bronx Unite.

Similar disparities have been found across the country. In 2022, a Boston University analysis of 115 metropolitan areas from San Jose, California, to Louisville, Kentucky, to Hartford, Connecticut, found that air conditioning was less likely to be available in places with more residents who identify as Black or African American or Hispanic or Latino.

To combat rising temperatures, New York City Mayor Eric Adams activated the city’s emergency response plan for a week on June 18, designating hundreds of locations as air-conditioned facilities where residents can cool off during the day.

New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol said the city is distributing “cool kits” and indoor thermometers. He urged more funding for a program that helps low-income residents with heating and cooling needs. It has received 21,000 applications so far this year.

For people with limited mobility, installing air conditioning — which actually increases the outside temperature — or reaching cooling centers may not be possible. In areas like Brownsville, the South Bronx and East Harlem, residents also report that venturing outside to cool off puts them at risk for encounters with crime and drug activity.

Selene Olivaria, a South Bronx resident for nine years, took her two grandchildren, ages 9 and 4, to cool off in the fountains at Willis Playground. She said the opioid epidemic has led to drug users shooting up in the restrooms. She worries that a child could pick up a needle.

Environmentalists say one solution to tackling heat in sprawling cities is to plant more trees, create green spaces such as parks and meadows, and cover roofs with plants.

“Lower income, communities of color, often immigrant communities — that’s where we need to focus,” Ulfelder said. Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have 33 percent less tree canopy than majority white neighborhoods. That can make them up to 13 degrees warmer (7 degrees Celsius) than neighborhoods two miles away.

Last fall, the New York City Council passed legislation that added trees to the city’s sustainability plans and required the city to develop an urban forest plan to increase tree cover from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2035.

On a recent sultry day, Howard Shillingford, a 58-year-old janitor who grew up in the South Bronx, said he’d “never felt heat like this.” It’s especially bad when he cleans school stairwells, where windows often don’t open.

“Oh my God, those stairs are like ovens,” Shillingford said as he read the news on a computer in the Mott Haven Public Library, another cooling center.

Residents of heat-prone neighborhoods are resourceful. Berrios holds a wet towel around his neck. Olivaria squirts her grandchildren with toy water pistols. Jorge Morales, a 54-year-old graffiti artist and South Bronx native, showers twice a day and rinses his Chihuahua, Buggsy, in the sink. Sometimes residents unscrew fire hydrants, sending water flooding sidewalks and streets.

“I don’t like wasting water, but that’s what people do here. It’s a survival technique,” ​​said Morales, who is Puerto Rican and Cuban, as he charged his phone in the same library.

Extreme heat is likely to become the new normal, experts say, and it should not be underestimated. Last year, the U.S. experienced the most heat waves since 1936.

“As things stand, the heat waves in 2044 are going to be much worse than they are now,” said Jones, the science historian. “This is not an anomalous heat wave. This is a taste of what’s to come.”


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Ryan Doan-nguyen, The Associated Press