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The East End and an act of interpretation

My World's on Fire
The East End and an act of interpretation
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #84 • View online
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Today, an article I’ve been reporting since September is out in the world. To get a little personal, publication days always feel strange to me – when something I’ve poured so much time into is offered up for consumption, the final product inevitably a shred of the conversations and research that went into it. Even when working with the best of editors, it’s hard for me not to second-guess myself, and I hope I was able to convey the weight of the issue at hand and respect the dignity of those featured – the final residents of the East End of Freeport, Texas.
‘Everything’s going to pieces’: how a port took over a Black US neighborhood | Texas | The Guardian
The East End is a community built on a racist decree, which required all Black residents of the city to live there. For years, it was neglected by the city and lacked basic infrastructure; to this day, the majority of neighborhood roads remain unpaved. But longtime residents say the East End thrived in spite of this, becoming a place where neighbors helped each other build homes and businesses and residents had their pick of churches, as well as local gardens to snag some fresh produce for dinner. 
At least, that’s what I’ve been told – to visit the East End today is to drive down largely empty roads, a far cry from the photos residents showed me of packed blocks of family homes. The remaining houses are now dwarfed by industrial buildings; industrial pollution leaves an almost burnt taste in the back of your throat if you spend too much time outdoors. Though remaining residents recognize it is not a healthy place to stay, they also are resistant to leave behind their longtime homes, both for sentimental and monetary value. 
However, they no longer have a choice.
95% of the East End has been bought up by the neighboring Port of Freeport, which has been undergoing an expansion for years. The Port’s methods of acquiring this land, including the use of eminent domain, are currently the subject of a Title VI racial discrimination complaint, as I further detail in the the article.
“What I accumulated, I thought I would enjoy it and my family [would] inherit it, but now, everything’s going to pieces while I’m here,” Henry Jones, a 70-plus-year resident of the East End, told me.
Henry Jones photographed by Arturo Olmos for The Guardian
Henry Jones photographed by Arturo Olmos for The Guardian
This article is a bit of a departure from most of the work I share in here – it’s not explicitly about a disaster, at least not by the common perception of that term. But I kept coming back to a quote from Critical Disaster Studies as I was reporting this piece about what constitutes a disaster as we know it.
“There are floods and earthquakes, wars and famines, engineering failures and economic collapses,” editors Jacob A.C. Remes and Andy Horowitz write. “But to describe any of these things as a disaster represents an act of interpretation.”
I spoke with Remes and Horowitz for this newsletter last year, and Horowitz dug a bit more into this central question, saying:
“I could never actually figure out what this acute moment of disaster really was. My questions as a historian were always about, well, why were some people in harm’s way and others not? What makes some things count as an emergency and other things not?”
If you give this article a read, I hope you’ll keep that question in mind as you learn about the hazards and challenges these residents have faced. And I also hope you’ll consider sharing it to introduce more people to the historic East End.
As Pam Tilley, Henry Jones’ daughter, said: “Even if we lose every timber, every building, you still can tell the story.”
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