Sunday, May 29, 2022 May 29, 2022
Dallas, TX
Local News

John Oliver Takes on Shingle Mountain

Shingle Mountain attracts more national attention, a perverse emblem of inadequate, harmful zoning.
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Stacking them deep: From the top of the pile of old roofing material in southern Dallas, you can see downtown. Joseph Haubert

Shingle Mountain over the years became a poignant visual for national media outlets looking to explore the impact of industrial zoning near neighborhoods. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did exactly that on Sunday, bringing up a number of examples from across the country—including a pipeline in Memphis that was re-routed through Black neighborhoods despite it being a more direct path through majority-White communities—that began with the monstrosity in Floral Farms.

“Black and Brown folks are forced to live side by side by heavy industry in a way that nobody else in Dallas is forced to live,” said Jim Schermbeck, the longtime environmental activist and founder of Downwinders at Risk.

Oliver mostly pulls from a 2021 BET documentary on Shingle Mountain, which included interviews with all the major players, from southern Dallas Councilman Tennell Atkins to the Blue Star Recycling CEO Chris Ganter who rented the land and started stacking the shingles.

Marsha Jackson lived next door and waged her own fight to get the shingles removed. It would take over a year for the city to haul them away to the nearby McCommas Bluff Landfill, all of a mile away. Oliver hits on the absurdity of that matter: the shingle stack was illegal, the landfill has permission to exist. And folks like Jackson live around it, largely on land deemed agricultural.

To live on agricultural land is to not have the same rights allotted to residents who live in areas zoned for residential. This land, here in Floral Farms and elsewhere, was acquired by the city decades ago and zoned that way like an afterthought. Homeowners on agricultural land aren’t given a formal review before an industrial use begins operating next door, as those who live in homes on single family would be allotted.

Oliver gets into all this, about how Black and Brown residents are more likely to live in these parts of town, how the city still doesn’t have many mechanisms to block industry from moving in next door. In West Dallas, residents are fighting the GAF shingle manufacturer for similar reasons—they risk illness when they go outside.

And when those protections don’t exist, homeowners like Jackson are at risk of an operator coming in and doing something it has no permission to do—like stack shingles to the clouds.

“That was the only place we found that had the zoning where we could rent the space,” Ganter told me in 2019. “If it could have been anywhere else, it would have been anywhere else.”

That’s largely because of redlining and other manmade decisions that created two cities here and elsewhere.

The city is undergoing a rewrite of its land use policy, and advocates are pushing the city to do what it can to add protections for homeowners like Marsha Jackson. It won’t be easy; removing an existing use is difficult in Texas, and declaring something a non-conforming use and working to acquire the property takes lots of time and resources.

But it’s a start. As Oliver argues, cities owe it to their residents to right the sins of their past. Because industry, as Marsha Jackson knows, is always waiting to take hold in parts of town where it has permission to operate. Often—in Joppa and West Dallas and points south—that means near where people live.

Dallas shows up at about 4 minutes into the video below. (Of course, some of the language gets a bit spicy. But it’s funny. And unbelievably depressing.)


Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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