Austin Avenue_Port Arthur
Austin Avenue, Port Arthur, Texas, October 2021. Photo: The Author.

Ruin and Fury

The most amazing place I saw during a recent tour of flood damaged towns and cities on the Gulf Coast, was Port Arthur, Texas. The ruin of its downtown, combined with the fury of its petrochemical infrastructure, can only be called sublime. That’s not a good thing. The vacant lots and gutted buildings downtown—which recall Pompeii after Vesuvius—are tokens of a vicious system of racial capitalism. The oil refineries—a tentacular network of pipes, distilleries, smoke stacks, and storage tanks—leak so many cancer-causing pollutants that adjacent residential areas are sometimes called “sacrifice zones.”

The ruin and fury that characterizes Port Arthur today is so overwhelming, that it seems timeless and impervious to change. Breaking the spell of the sublime is therefore one of the most important tasks of environmental justice activists in Port Arthur. And as I learned, that’s precisely what they’re doing.

Boom Town

Port Arthur was a boom town, born in the weeks after oil was struck at Spindletop Hill, in nearby Beaumont on Jan. 10, 1901. The Lucas Gusher shot oil 150 feet in the air, 100,000 barrels a day, for nine days, totaling over 4.2 million gallons, about half the amount spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker. A year later, a lit cigar ignited a fire at Spindletop that destroyed drilling rigs and storage tanks; a dozen men died. The epoch of oil was thus ushered in by ecological and human catastrophe. But profits were enormous, and petroleum soon began flowing to refineries in Port Arthur and beyond. Successive world wars assured U.S. dominance of the oil business and prosperity in southeast Texas.

Keystone View Company, “Spindle Top, An Important Oil Region Near Beaumont,” c. 1915. Photo: The Author.

By 1950, Port Arthur was a bustling city of nearly 60,000, buoyed by Texaco, Gulf, Sunoco, and Mobil. Together, they employed around 12,000 unionized workers. While the best paying jobs at the refineries were reserved for whites, Blacks too were employed, and unusually for a southern state, were able to join the unions. Unfortunately, they were mostly restricted to maintenance work, directly exposing them to dangerous refinery products. (There was almost no work for women in the petroleum industry.) Though the refineries were considerably smaller then than now, cancer risk—in the absence of EPA monitoring and regulation—was sky high. Even today, the chance of contracting cancer by living or working in the vicinity of the Port Arthur Veolia ES plant is 11 times EPA’s already high “acceptable” rate.

Public school enrollment in Port Arthur during its midcentury heyday totaled about 18,000. Black students went to schools in West Port Arthur, and whites to schools on the east side. Children and adolescents would sometimes cross the color lines to socialize, listen to music together or shop, but it can’t have been easy to be a Black kid traveling in the white part of town, or a white kid socializing with a Black friend. According to Hilton Kelley, a Goldman Prize winning environmental activist, white teens in the mid 1960s would sometimes harass Black kids. “They’d drive over to the West Side,” he told me, “and taunt us with ‘n—–‘ while we were riding our bikes, and even try to run us over or force us off the roads.”

Janice Joplin attended Thomas Jefferson High School on the east side of Port Arthur and her father was an engineer for Texaco. When she graduated in 1960, white resistance to school desegregation was fierce, and her affection for the music of Big Mama Thornton, Lead Belly and Bessie Smith earned her the epithet, “n—– lover”. Her first recordings were of songs made famous by Smith, and in 1967 she performed Thornton’s Ball and Chain at the Monterey Pop Festival. “That girl feels like I do,” Thornton said about Joplin’s version of the song. The Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur contains a Hall of Fame with a nice display dedicated to Joplin, including her high school yearbook and a replica of her psychedelic Porsche.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, downtown Port Arthur had a bustling main street that included the ten story Sabine Hotel, Bluestein’s Department Store, the First National Bank, and the six story, Adams Office Building. The African-American west side had its own thriving businesses – groceries, barber shops, clothiers, honky-tonks, a YMCA, and the 850 seat Hollywood Theatre, advertised as “an exclusively colored theatre and completely air conditioned.” It was located just to the west of the railroad tracks on Texas Avenue. Further west were blocks of Black single-family homes and after 1957, the subsidized Carver Terrace apartments where Hilton Kelley was born. (They were demolished in 2016.) Beyond that were the oil refineries.

Racial Capitalism

The decline of Port Arthur beginning in the 1970s may be attributed to multiple factors that fall beneath a single rubric: racial capitalism. The physical division of the city between Black and white corresponded to a racialized division of labor, with whites getting the best paying, and Blacks the worst paying and most hazardous jobs. When school desegregation was mandated by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the entire edifice of racial exclusion and exploitation in the southeast Texas oil industry seemed to be in danger, and a long period of white resistance began. Following the civil rights acts of 1964 to 1968, it grew into a full-scale counter-revolution that lasted a generation, with protests, local and state laws preserving segregated schools, Department of Justice lawsuits, consent decrees and still more litigation. By the time the struggle to desegregate the Port Arthur schools was finally won in 2007, the victory was Pyrrhic: There were almost no white students left in the district. Whereas in 1970, 58% of 17,000 students in Port Arthur were white and 42% Black, in 2002, the population of 10,000 students was 8% white, 56% Black and 27% Latino. The impact of the middle-class white exodus on municipal and school budgets was devastating.

An additional reason for Port Arthur’s economic decline was the decrease in employment at the refineries from the 1970s onward, despite constant growth in refinery capacity. Between 1950 and 1970, the average size of petrochemical facilities in the U.S. increased 10-fold, even as employment levels gradually fell. They have continued to fall ever since, especially in Port Arthur. Motiva Enterprises, wholly owned by Saudi Aramco, is now the largest oil refinery in North America, processing about 630,000 barrels a day. Valero, also in Port Arthur, has a throughput of 400,000 barrels. (Their combined daily energy output is the equivalent of eight minutes of total, planetary energy use.) Yet they employ just 2,000 people, few of whom live in Port Arthur. When Motiva cut 200 jobs last year, the city’s mayor said: “I don’t think it has such a bad effect… because of the inability of Port Arthurans to be considered for employment there.”

Part of the Valero oil refinery_Port Arthur_Texas October 2021 Photo- Harriet Festing
Part of the Valero oil refinery, Port Arthur, Texas, October 2021. Photo: Harriet Festing.

The petrochemical industry has always been capital intensive compared to other large enterprises but has recently become even more so. It deploys a “continuous flow principle” whereby a complex network of machines, pipes and tanks, feed, process and store a vast quantity of oil and petrochemicals with little human intervention. The cost of labor in the industry in the 1970s was less than 1% of total production costs, and that share has further decreased in recent years. Indeed, the labor cost of downstream products such as ethylene, benzene, toluene, and propylene (an ever-larger share of the industry), is even cheaper. Beyond a certain threshold, almost limitless increases in output are possible without any increase in labor at all. The BASF plant in Port Arthur has grown to become “one of the world’s largest steam crackers,” but employs only 256 workers. It turns what is essentially refinery waste into synthetic rubber and plastics. Most of that plastic is used for packaging which soon becomes waste again: 65% of it winds up in landfills; 15% is burned for energy and goes up in smoke; and 5% of it goes into the ocean. (The latter equals some 14 million tons a year, globally.)

Today, Port Arthur is a ghost down with vacant lots and boarded up buildings. On Austin Ave downtown, the gutted, beaux-arts Post Office Building, stands near the wrecked Adams Building and Hotel Sabine. There are no banks, pharmacies, groceries, beauty salons, hotels or restaurants. The only business open on a recent Friday afternoon was the Port Arthur Health Department and even it looked deserted. I stood in the middle of the avenue for 20 minutes taking pictures and not a single car passed. The recent string of hurricanes hasn’t helped. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded the city and caused $1.3 billion in damage. After Hurricane Laura in 2020, residents had to decide whether to evacuate to shelters and brave COVID or remain in their flooded homes without water or electricity, exposed to waterborne contaminants from the petrochemical industry. Under conditions of global warming, the question of another devastating hurricane isn’t “if,” but “when.”

Against the Sublime

In 1757, Edmund Burke, the great British apologist for monarchy and hierarchy, wrote a book called A Philosophical Inquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In it, he argued that:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible…or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."

Philipp James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale at Night, London, Science Museum, 1801.

It’s important to note that for Burke and a later generation of Romantics, the experience of the sublime, whether derived from contemplation of nature or works of art, was ultimately enjoyable. Indeed, it was delight at one’s own security in the face of apparent danger that constituted the aesthetic of the sublime. By 1800, that pleasure could be derived from witnessing the terrors of modern industry, for example the Coalbrookdale ironworks, (also known as Bedlam Furnace) in Shropshire, England. In 1776, the noted agriculturalist Arthur Young visited the furnace:

“These iron works are in a very romantic spot…. Indeed, too beautiful to be much in unison with that variety of horrors art has spread. The noise of the forges, mills, etc., with all their vast machinery, the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of the coal and the smoke of the lime kilns, are altogether sublime.”

That’s what de Loutherbourg’s painting represents: the sublimity of fire and smoke billowing from the coke-fired blast furnace, and the relative indifference to it of the country folk in the fore and middle ground.

The experience of the sublime encourages passivity; that’s probably why Burke liked it so well. It urges contemplation not action, admiration not intervention. And for years, the petrochemical industry in Port Arthur successfully promoted such sentiments. The plants, pipes and storage tanks are vast and monumental; they emit smoke, flare methane, and occupy thousands of acres. When young Hilton Kelley and his friends joked about the rotten egg smell outside their houses, his mother would say: “Oh y’all quit playing. That’s money you smell. If we didn’t have that then this town wouldn’t be anything.” Hilton added: “You would hear that from people all the time in this community. They would say, ‘It’s just the smell of money!’ That’s the way they looked at it back then.”

People in Port Arthur don’t look at it that way anymore—they’ve rejected the sublime. To begin with, many of the jobs are gone; racism, capitalist consolidation and automation are responsible for that. So now when folks smell chemical pollution, they don’t think money, they think cancer. That’s what I heard at a community meeting of mostly elderly residents of the Montrose neighborhood, along with Hilton and his brilliant associate, Michelle Smith. They want to save their homes from flooding, toxic industry, and the neglect of local, state, and federal officials. And they want to be able to leave something of value to their kids. Hilton Kelley’s organization and mine are trying to help.

When I asked Hilton what he thought about the future of Port Arthur as a whole, he was guardedly optimistic. Would the planned redevelopment of downtown Port Arthur—partly funded by Motiva—proceed despite the many delays? He thought it would. Did it make sense to invest in green infrastructure to reduce flooding, and to raise houses on stilts, when the pollution was still so bad, and hurricanes were a sure bet? He replied immediately:

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Yes, it does. It’s the city, the state and federal governments that forced us to live up against the fences of those refineries. Jim Crow was law down here and enforced by the police. So, the government has an obligation to make things right: to help people either by buying out their properties if they want to leave, or by elevating their homes and adding green infrastructure if they want to stay.”

“But what about the hurricanes?” I asked. “And what about the petrochemicals that further contaminate the soil after every flood? Should people be living here at all?” Again, he was quick with an answer:

“You met some of the older folks at that meeting in Montrose. Where are they gonna move and still have neighbors they know, and family members to help them? And even the younger people to the east, further away from the plants—they have a reason to stay too. The pollution isn’t so bad there—we’ve been monitoring it. So yes, with good planning and support, I think it is still possible to make a thriving community in Port Arthur.”

Hilton is a brilliant and charismatic justice advocate and I trust his judgement. But after our conversation, I took another look at the flood maps that predict the future of Port Arthur. They offer a mixed picture. The good news is that by 2050, the city has a pretty good chance of remaining above the tideline. The bad news is that although it might not be inundated by sea-level rise, it still has an “extreme risk of flooding” over the next 30 years: downtown, the east and west sides, and the industrial zones. But absent a state or federally coordinated plan to move whole communities like Montrose to higher ground, Hilton’s solution—to help people go who want to go, and help people stay who want to stay—probably makes the most sense.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.

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