West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement is the first book focused on San Antonio’s enduring relationship to floods, which have had particularly severe consequences for its communities of color. Examining environmental, social, and political histories, author Char Miller shows how disasters can expose systems of racism, injustice, and erasure and can, over time, impel activists to dismantle these inequities. He draws clear lines between the environmental injustices embedded in San Antonio’s history and the emergence of grassroots organizations that combated flooding’s devastating impact on the West Side.
Q: How did you become interested in environmental justice?
While I was living in San Antonio, from 1981 to 2007, I became aware of what we now call environmental justice or injustice. Communities Organized for Public Service, or COPS, and activists on the East Side were taking strong stands in opposition to an imbalance of spending on the West, East, and South Sides. They framed these issues as social injustices in ways that I grew accustomed to thinking of as environmental issues (drainage, housing, sanitation, health). Working in Trinity University’s urban studies program and serving on a variety of city advisory boards, including those aimed at open space and tree preservation, added to my understanding of the ways systemic racism was scored into the ground, literally and figuratively.
Q: Can you recall instances of environmental or geographic inequality in your hometown?
I grew up in a very white suburb of New York City and was aware that only one African American family was living there. But it wasn’t until high school that I learned how bastions like this were intentional in their exclusivity, their segregation. When we moved to San Antonio these enclaves were everywhere on the North Side. They were impossible to miss. My first essay on the city was about this form of urban segregation.
Q: In your academic field, do you see more action on the part of historians to bring overlooked or ignored injustices to light?
My colleagues in environmental history have been probing the consequences of environmental racism and injustice since the 1990s. Many of us came to the field through our work in cities like New York, Saint Louis, Houston, Los Angeles, and Gary, Indiana. Most of our scholarship initially focused on communities of color that shouldered a disproportionate burden of environmental problems and social ills.
West Side Rising is a result of those efforts, but it also emphasizes that communities of color, if organized, can challenge the power structures that enmeshed them in sacrifice zones like the West Side. COPS and other San Antonio activists remain strong examples of the power of collective action and individual agency—especially important now, in this climate change-charged environment. If we have any hope of mitigating climate change’s impact on all species, we need to remember what COPS achieved. We must avoid, at all costs, the flawed strategy of the city’s elite Anglos to ignore the injustices they helped create.
Q: Do you see any crucial differences in public awareness of the various types of injustices, such as environmental?
West Side Rising as a warning to us all about how we must respond to current and future environmental challenges. Climate justice requires us to act with an awareness of our role in shaping the conditions we live in and the pressing need to make our communities more sustainable, resilient, and just.
Q: What actions can readers take to become more aware of environmental injustices in their communities? How can they help?
Look. Observe. Listen. Empathize. And then look again. Most of what I have come to understand about San Antonio, Los Angeles, and other places I have lived or written about has been stimulated by walking or biking through neighborhoods to get a feel for how they were put together, and then by reading and engaging with issues that seemed to animate them. My book Deep in the Heart of San Antonio, like its successors On the Edge and Not So Golden State, were framed around my attempt to write my way into the life of the Southwest, from San Antonio to Los Angeles.
If we can know the places we inhabit and the people and species we share these spaces with, we can gain a deeper appreciation for them. Out of that understanding can come a more engaged community that listens and responds to the concerns of the whole, that seeks to correct the injustices afflicting these places. West Side Rising grew out of my evolving love for San Antonio, a love that is not blind to its faults but that uses its imperfections as a starting point for a conversation about how to build back better, to make this city, like all others, more habitable, green, and inclusive—a place where everyone, every species, can thrive.
Q: Did you learn anything surprising while doing your research for this book?
Because I was developing this book for more than twenty-five years (!), I was surprised by different issues at different stages. My first piece about the 1921 flood appeared in the Texas Observer in 1996, and surprisingly (now) it contained a good portion of the book’s narrative arc. At the time I was staggered simply by the city’s gross disparities (the vast wealth gap between rich and poor) and by its physical siting. Poor communities lived in the region’s watersheds and flooded out, while the rich were moving to elevated ground by the early twentieth century.
Those distinctions were reflected in the city government’s decisions about who would receive protection through construction of the Olmos Dam. The same set of decisions were reached in New Orleans after the 1927 flood and are revealed every time a hurricane smashes into Miami and the South Texas coast. Hurricane Harvey hammered parts of Houston that were less protected than those that were better armored. What happened in San Antonio in 1921 is not new, but it is particular to this city and historic commitments that favored one group of residents over other groups.
Q: What will it take for environmental justice movements to become preventative rather than reactionary? Should they start with city, state, and national administrations, or are grassroots movements more effective?
Rebuilding cities and their social fabric, and investing in greater justice and the distribution of economic and other benefits, must begin at every level—local, state, and federal. It cannot be solely bottom up or top down. Here again San Antonio’s story helps identify the need for an intersectional approach to environmental justice. COPS built a powerful grassroots organization that had tremendous impact (and still does) on urban governance. But Rep. Henry B. González, active at the same time, demonstrated through his enduring commitments to flood control, housing, transportation, and other social needs that channeling congressional funds to the city was just as essential. If we want to attack the impacts of climate change we must relearn that lesson: every generation, every sector, every level of government must respond collaboratively to this existential crisis.
Char Miller, formerly a professor of history at Trinity University, is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. He is the author of the award-winning Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas, and Public Lands/Public Debates: A Century of Controversy, as well as the editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio and Fifty Years of the Texas Observer. His most recent books for Trinity University Press are Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest. Miller is a frequent contributor to print, electronic, and social media.