From a dive bar in New Orleans to a leafy residential street in Minneapolis, many establishments and homes in cities across the nation share a troubling and largely invisible past: they were once sites of industrial manufacturers, such as plastics factories or machine shops, that likely left behind carcinogens and other hazardous industrial byproducts. In a new RSF book, Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities, sociologists Scott Frickel (Brown University) and James R. Elliott (Rice University) uncover the hidden histories of these sites and document how they are produced and reincorporated into urban landscapes with limited or no regulatory oversight.
The authors investigate potentially hazardous sites in four cities—New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon. Using original data assembled and mapped for thousands of former manufacturers’ locations dating back to the 1950s, they find that more than 90 percent of such sites have now been converted to urban amenities such as parks, homes, and storefronts with almost no environmental review. Because manufacturers tend to open plants on non-industrial lots rather than on lots previously occupied by other manufacturers, associated hazards continue to spread across the cities. As they do, residential turnover driven by gentrification and rising urban housing costs obscure the potential hazards at these sites from residents and regulatory agencies alike. Frickel and Elliott show that these hidden hazards have serious consequences. While minority and working-class neighborhoods are still more likely to attract hazardous manufacturers, rapid turnover in cities means that whites and middle-income groups also face increased risk. By revealing this legacy of our industrial past, Sites Unseen spotlights how city-making is a process of social and environmental transformation and risk containment.