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 Sites Unseen, sociologists Scott Frickel and James R. Elliott uncover the hidden histories of these sites to show how they are regularly produced and reincorporated into urban landscapes with limited or no regulatory oversight. By revealing this legacy of our industrial past, Sites Unseen spotlights how city-making has become an ongoing process of social and environmental transformation and risk containment.
To demonstrate these dynamics, Frickel and Elliott investigate four very different 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. And because manufacturers tend to open plants on new, non-industrial lots rather than on lots previously occupied by other manufacturers, associated hazards continue to spread relatively unabated. As they do, residential turnover driven by gentrification and the rising costs of urban living further obscure these sites from residents and regulatory agencies alike.
Frickel and Elliott show that these hidden processes have serious consequences for city-dwellers. 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. Since government agencies prioritize managing polluted sites that are highly visible or politically expedient, many former manufacturing sites that now have other uses remain invisible. To address these oversights, the authors advocate creating new municipal databases that identify previously undocumented manufacturing sites as potential environmental hazards. They also suggest that legislation limiting urban sprawl might reduce the flow of hazardous materials beyond certain boundaries.
A wide-ranging synthesis of urban and environmental scholarship, Sites Unseen shows that creating sustainable cities requires deep engagement with industrial history as well as with the social and regulatory processes that continue to remake urban areas through time.
SCOTT FRICKEL is professor of sociology and environment and society at Brown University.
JAMES R. ELLIOTT is professor of sociology at Rice University.