From Dumps to Solar Farms, One Houston Neighborhood Is Planning its Own Future

After decades of fighting landfills and pollution in their community, residents of Sunnyside are working to build a more sustainable future.

January 5, 2021, 10:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Houston's downtown skyline

D.L. / Flickr

Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood, a historically Black community in the southeast of the city, is no stranger to community organizing and self-reliance. Sunnyside has long borne the brunt of Houston's unchecked sprawl as the site of landfills, concrete plants, and other industrial uses that pollute the environment and harm quality of life for residents. For decades, local activists have fought to shed light on environmental injustices, prevent harmful industrial uses, and restore the community through grassroots projects and mutual aid. In a profile by Leah Binkovitz, Efrem Jernigan, a Sunnyside native and president of the South Union Community Development Corporation, outlines the work happening there and his dreams for the neighborhood he grew up in.

Jernigan and fellow Sunnysider Roy Guillory are just two of the residents actively working to bring sustainable economic development to the area. The two have been purchasing vacant lots with plans to turn them into community gardens, housing for veterans, and other community-oriented projects. At his childhood home, now equipped with rooftop solar panels and an aquaponic garden, Jernigan hosts dozens of children at an outdoor classroom where they can explore STEM through nature and technology. As president of Sunnyside Energy LLC, Jernigan is eager to put a solar farm on the site of a former landfill, transforming the use of the lot from a dumping ground to a healthy, clean source of energy.

With a long history of "sporadic interest and promises" from outside organizations that often go unfulfilled and a dearth of resources from the city of Houston, people in Sunnyside are wary of redevelopment plans. Even as a local, Jernigan knows he has to prove himself in a community wary of his intentions to "create a new narrative" for a historically overburdened area.

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