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Historic Newtown activist group holds open house
Organization fighting environmental effects of landfill, industries in community
Annette Westbrooks talks about a display of memorabilia at the Newtown Florist Club headquarters Sunday. - photo by Tom Reed

As part of Black History Month, Newtown Florist Club opened its doors Sunday to people interested in learning about the organization’s long history of environmental battles.

Visitors could tour community gardens and see an exhibition of memorabilia from the civil rights movement.

“We wanted to have this drop-in so people can see all the history we have here and the work we have done over 63 years,” said Faye Bush, executive director of the club.

The club was formed when residents of Newtown, a mostly African-American community in southeastern Gainesville, were collecting money for funerals and would sometimes come up short. Members later discovered that the community had disproportionately high rates of lupus and cancer.

Concerns were that neighboring industries were causing illness, so the organization launched into environmental activism.

The community itself was built on top of what had been discarded rubble and other refuse following a devastating tornado in 1936.

The house where the club is based belonged to people who died of cancer.

“The kids wanted us to have the house,” Bush said.

Residents have long complained about the smell of chemicals and other bad odors.

And the fight continues to this day, with Newtown voicing opposition this past fall to a proposed landfill off Monroe Drive near Athens Highway.

“The proposed construction of this site would in effect continue the practice of environmental racism that has produced more than 13 industries within a two-mile radius of our community,” stated an Oct. 29 letter from the organization to the county planning department.

“We believe and have supporting scientific research that shows this policy has created an environmental toxic cocktail that has increased the levels of cancer and illness in our community.”

The walls of Newtown’s headquarters at 1064 Desota St. are lined with photographs and newspaper articles depicting the organization’s origins and public battles.

“A lot of people don’t realize what we’ve done over the years and how hard it is to get things done,” Bush said.

“You think you’ve got one thing taken care of and then something pops up and you have to start all over.”

Annette Westbrooks, a club member for 20 years, said she believes “the harder we work, the harder things get, and you wonder if it will ever end.”

She did note that one nearby plant, Cargill, which is off West Ridge Road, “is working with us and eliminating a lot of what they put in the air.”

Gainesville resident Sheila Gray said that before she began filling various roles for the organization in 2010, she knew nothing about its past.

“I can relate to the area because where I was raised in Delaware is the same identical situation — everyone around my age has died of cancer and we found out we were built on top of a landfill,” she said.

“You hear the noise and smell the smell at times and ... it’s frustrating.”