Flight Path Part 1: How F-35s galvanized neighbors in Eken Park

The proposal to base new fighter jets in Madison inspired an extraordinary and fast organizing effort.

The proposal to base new fighter jets in Madison inspired an extraordinary and fast organizing effort.

Flight Path is an in-depth report on grassroots opposition to the basing of F-35 fighter jets in Madison. Available as an audio documentary and a four-part written series, Flight Path is a partnership project of Tone Madison, Communication, and Northside News. The Air Force officially chose Madison as a site for the jets in April. But the fight continues in areas that stand to bear the brunt of the F-35s’ noise, environmental, and economic impacts. These efforts have already brought neighbors together to organize and advocate for their communities in a changing Madison.

It wasn’t your typical protest. People were swaying to a marching band rendition of the song “Get Down On It,” by Kool And The Gang.

Any organizer would tell you that you want your protest to be visible to call attention to your cause. Here were hundreds of people marching, chanting, singing in front of a mostly empty street. Across the street: four cops and a gate. No other people. No passing traffic.

But any organizer would also tell you that a protest is symbolic. It’s one way of showing collective power.

This protest was designed for its target. 800 miles away, the Secretary of the US Air Force Barbara Barrett held in her hands the power to make a decision that could make some of these protestors’ homes unlivable—basing a group of the military’s new F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field on the north side of Madison. The signs the protestors carried showed a long list of grievances. And although there was no response, no sign of anyone at the Air National Guard Base across the empty street, they hoped, that even 800 miles away, she was watching. The protest was also aimed at Wisconsin’s Democratic Senator, complete with chants of “Tammy Baldwin what do you say/ how many bombs did you buy today?”

Activists protest outside of the 115th Fighter Wing base on February 29, 2020. Photo by Oona Mackesey-Green.

Activists protest outside of the 115th Fighter Wing base on February 29, 2020. Photo by Oona Mackesey-Green.

I grew up in Madison. When it comes to the question of basing a group of the military’s new F-35 fighter jets at Madison’s Truax Field, I am not a disinterested party. I work on the north side and live on the east side. I’ve lived in four homes over the last five years, and all of them have been under the flight path of the F-16 fighter jets that currently fly out of Truax. I care about this issue. I care about the people who will be most affected by the F-35s if they come to Madison.

But this story is about more than just the F-35s. It’s about the important work neighbors can do when they come together. For instance, a small neighborhood group called Eken Park Resistance got together to oppose the F-35s, but is also helping residents in the working-class north-side neighborhood cope during quarantine.

As we deal with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the failure of institutions to protect the people that we love, I am finding some hope in seeing the ways that we are turning to each other for support. The ways that neighbors and friends and family are asking for what they need to stay safe and healthy right now, and the abundance of offerings in response.

I know that’s not everyone’s experience. There are a lot of needs that still need to be met so that we can all make it through this. And that will be true even after the social distancing and “Safer at Home” orders are lifted. When news stories are no longer talking about struggles to pay rent or put food on the table, people will still be here, finding a way. Supporting each other. Living between the headlines.

When a policy debate comes home

That protest took place in the long-ago, pre-“Safer at Home” days of February. But as of this writing, the struggle to oppose F-35 fighter jets in Madison is still ongoing.

On April 15, the Air Force announced its decision to base a squadron of F-35s at Truax, the official culmination of a long and contentious process. Military officials expect that the first of the squadron will arrive here in 2023. Immediately after that announcement, people organizing against the F-35s announced that they were continuing to oppose the jets and considering legal options.

Regardless of how familiar you are with this issue, if you live in Madison, you’ve probably seen the yard signs popping up around the city since last summer. The signs opposing the F-35s were printed by Safe Skies Clean Water Wisconsin. Safe Skies formed when the Air Force announced Truax Field as its preferred site to base new F-35 fighter jets. The F-35s would replace the F-16 fighter jets currently flown by the 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Many of the people who lead Safe Skies live in neighborhoods under the flight path of the F-16s.

In addition to the signs from Safe Skies, you may have seen royal blue yard signs that say “We support the 115th Fighter Wing and the F-35 Mission.” There’s one across the street from me in my neighbors’ yard. The sound of the jets is loud here, but there are neighborhoods much closer to the Air Base that will be more impacted on a daily basis than we are. Eken Park, Carpenter Ridgeway and Truax Apartments are a few.

Walking through those neighborhoods on Madison’s north and east sides, you can tell from the yard signs that there are people firmly opposing the F-35s and others who support them. There are plenty of homes without signs, too. I joined a group canvassing in Eken Park the week after the February protest. The majority of people we talked to said they weren’t very excited about the F-35s, but that they thought it was a done deal. They also had questions. What would it mean for our neighborhood, and what, realistically, can we do about it? Canvassing was one of the rare moments when I saw people actually having a conversation about the issue.

If you read an article or post about the F-35s online, the comment section looks like you would expect it to for any divisive topic these days. Not much dialogue. Even the facts of the issue are obscured. Are the F-35s louder than the F-16s? Will there be more flights if the F-35s are placed here? Will the Wisconsin Air National Guard base close if Madison ultimately doesn’t receive the F-35s?

There are answers to these questions both in statements and in the final Environmental Impact Statement from the Air Force. I’ll include some of those answers here. But this is not a story about the numbers.

F-35s coming to Madison isn’t just another divisive issue — for a lot of people it’s the issue. It’s personal and emotional. They worry about the noise, but also about their health, and their kids. There are concerns about pollution. About the economy — jobs, property values, having to move.

When something happens that affects you, your family, your neighborhood, and your city, trying to make a difference can feel overwhelming. Even if you know where to go and who to talk to, it can feel like you’re shouting at an empty street. This is a story about what pushes us, in the words of one protestor, to get our backs up off the wall, and what can happen when we do.

Organizing in Eken Park

Tehmina Islam, Eugenia Highland Granados and Omar Poler all own homes in the Eken Park neighborhood. It’s a small neighborhood across Packers Avenue from the old Oscar Mayer factory. Omar, his wife Twyla and their newborn, Rowan, moved onto Kedzie street in 2016. Rowan is almost 4 now and they have a new baby, Fen, who is almost two months old. Eugenia moved into the neighborhood in 2013 with her husband at the time when she was pregnant with her daughter Naydalyna. Tehmina bought her home in Eken Park in 2015. They all chose to move here for somewhat similar reasons. Affordability was a big one, but the culture of the neighborhood was too.

Eken Park is a historically working class neighborhood that sprang up in the 1940s. Many of the homes were built around the same time. I used to live in Eken Park. Walking down Myrtle Street, you can tell where people had made additions to the two-bedroom template that was so familiar in most houses in this area. At the far end of our street, there was a chain link fence with little league fields on the other side, at the corner of Packers and Aberg. When the wind was blowing a certain way, we joked that we could smell the ghosts of hot dogs past wafting from Oscar Mayer.

Like much of Madison, the neighborhood has experienced changes over the last 10 years, but its character remains much the same. Housing prices are going up. There are some new businesses. The longtime neighborhood tavern, the Tip Top, was revamped by new owners about six years ago, but in a tribute to the Oscar Mayer employees who lived in Eken Park and frequented the tavern, it still has a fried bologna and American cheese sandwich on the menu.

Homes on Myrtle Street in the Eken Park neighborhood. Photo by Mark Riechers.

Homes on Myrtle Street in the Eken Park neighborhood. Photo by Mark Riechers.

“I arrived in this neighborhood for so many reasons, and chose this neighborhood for so many reasons. One it was one of the last affordable places that I think I could have lived in and still have some of the luxuries of being close to the Capitol, and close to being able to bike to places and not too far from the outskirts of town,” said Islam. “And as a person of color it was really important for me to be in a diverse neighborhood. And Eken Park is such an income-diverse and such a racially diverse neighborhood. It reminds me a lot of the neighborhood that I grew up in in Texas and so it really spoke to me.

“I also serve my community as a home birth midwife and care for a number of people of color and I really wanted them to have a safe place to seek care and not have to worry about walking in and out of my home office and worry about white neighbors calling the cops on them, or worry about whether neighbors would wonder about who my clients were, who my families were. The decision to move here was partly for me, partly for what made me feel most secure and comfortable, and also partly what made my families that I care for also most comfortable, and for them to feel like this home and environment and neighborhood is accessible for them, economically and also just kind of energetically. I have loved being here. I love being close to Starkweather Creek, and I love knowing my neighbors, and I’ve cared for probably over 15 families in my neighborhood and so that feels like what Eken Park is to me. It’s just this beautiful diverse neighborhood.”

During a group call on April 12, just a few days before the Air Force officially announced its decision, I asked Tehmina, Omar and Eugenia when they first learned that the Air Force was considering bringing the F-35s to Madison.

“I was looking back at my journal and I realized that I had written an entry in September of last year where I wrote oh I think these military jets are going to land in my neighborhood,” said Islam. “But I don’t think I had made the connection about all the implications that that would entail, including water quality and sound quality and what it meant to property values, what it meant to the children who live in this neighborhood. I don’t think I had made that connection.

“I think at that time I had just written a letter to Tammy Baldwin to say you know, I obviously oppose this, and she had written a form letter back and just said well here are the reasons I am in support, and it was so basic and I really hadn’t gotten involved with the pure environmental and social impact of this decision until later. But I think September was the first time I knew about it.

“What about you both, Eugenia and Omar? When did y’all kind of first hear, do you remember?”

“I don’t really — I think I heard about it before that but it didn’t really sort of filter into my awareness until probably about that time,” said Poler. “It just felt like it was farther out and then all of a sudden it was like, a rush, you know like all of a sudden it was immediate that it was going to be happening, or was a potential very soon. So yeah, it went from just a vague awareness to being suddenly aware.”

“I realized because I received something in my mailbox that said that there was going to be a meeting or something around the, something that was gonna — it was actually informing me that there is something going on around these planes coming here,” said Granados. “So that’s the first time that I heard about it, and then I started looking at posts, Facebook posts that Brandi Grayson was doing, here in Madison. And I really pay attention to everything that she says. I really believe in the knowledge and the leadership of Black women, especially in this city. And she started talking about that and I’m like oh, that’s important, that’s something that I need to listen to and that’s why I started to get more informed about it. And then Tehmina got that letter.”

It took the leadership of local activists like Brandi Grayson and Safe Skies Clean Water, as well as local elected officials, to draw attention to the F-35s and what they might mean to communities around the air base.

The letter to Tehmina that Eugenia mentions was from Alder Syed Abbas, who represents many of the neighborhoods that would be impacted by the F-35s, including Eken Park, on the Madison Common Council. Alder Abbas and a couple other alders sent postcards inviting people who lived in those areas to a public meeting.

“I think that I realized it was personal, now that I’m realizing it, that maybe Omar and Eugenia didn’t get the postcard actually to that neighborhood meeting because it was a specific invitation for people who were in the 65 decibel zone or higher, and that’s why I got invited to that meeting at Shabazz,” said Islam. “Everybody who showed up was part of that, I think, original invitation. I can’t quite remember but that’s what I think the language said on the postcard.

“And so that was the first time I thought like oh okay, this isn’t just some removed issue of like, you know, kind of dealing with the F-16s and just dealing with the sound, and just like okay, another set of planes that I just have to deal with.”

Stuck in the 65 decibel zone

You may have heard of the 65 decibel zone. It’s part of what sparked a surge of opposition last fall.

The Air Force released a draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, last August. The EIS is filled with data about how the F-35s would impact people and the environment if they come to Madison, including the potential noise exposure to homes and businesses near Truax Field.

The reason that people are paying so much attention to the 65 decibel zone is because that is the noise exposure that the EIS calls incompatible with residential use. And there are more than 1,000 homes and 2,700 people who live in that zone.

“65 decibels is like the sound of a vacuum cleaner,” says Darcy Haber, the owner of Solidarity Realty, a local business that became part of the opposition to the F-35s after the draft EIS came out.

“So you say well that’s not so bad, I can handle a vacuum cleaner now and then. No, 65 decibels is the average sound. So on average, these people have a vacuum cleaner in their ear, all the time. In fact it’s a little different, they have really really loud noises and they have quiet. But even if the average were only a vacuum cleaner all the time, that would be horrifying.

“The reason why people aren’t supposed to be exposed to, it’s not compatible with residential use, is that if you’re outside and one of these planes goes up, you know, the decibel level could be as high as 120. That could hurt — they say, they actually say the highest it could be in their report is 119. I believe they say that because 120 can actually hurt your eardrum permanently. Do permanent damage to your ear drum. So they said they topped out at 119 were their projections, which was convenient enough. But even if it didn’t do eardrum damage, it’s traumatic. It’s traumatic especially when you’re outside and kids playing in the playground, kids at school, it’s very distracting. So that’s why they don’t recommend people reside in such areas.”

According to the EIS, the Air Force doesn’t consider incompatible with residential use to mean uninhabitable. 65 decibels is a standard that the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, has used since the 1970s, but it’s not legally binding in any way.

A military analysis divides the area around Truax Field into different zones according to how much noise they’ll likely experience from the F-35s.

A military analysis divides the area around Truax Field into different zones according to how much noise they’ll likely experience from the F-35s.

The designation of incompatible with residential use caught Haber’s attention last fall and was part of how she ended up connecting with the Safe Skies Clean Water Coalition.

“My background being in real estate and I’m also a recovering attorney, so this first caught my attention when a fellow agent said oh look at this map here, this real estate is going to be incompatible with residential use. And I was like what, that immediately got my attention, like does that mean everything is going to be condemned, what does that mean? And then I looked at it and I said well that’s a huge bunch of people. I know those people, I’ve sold homes to them, I’ve helped them sell their homes — like that’s our neighbors right there, that’s terrible, that’s going to be huge. 

“And we decided, the 6 of us decided to take on adding it up, what the total was. Adding up all the value, the assessed value of the houses that were going to be in that zone and it turned out to be $255 million. And we’re like wow, that’s — they’re saying that there’s going to be $100 million in real estate activities, well they’re going to lose, now we have something to fight them with, we have this number 255, it’s a quarter billion of real estate. So that’s when I started getting involved in [Safe Skies Clean Water] is when I felt like I had something to add. I could add something unique that, there were so many talented organizers already involved, sometimes you feel like, you know, you don’t have anything to add, but that was what I focused on, and then the avigation easement stuff flowed from that.

“We also found out my assistant, who was working for Solidarity Realty the whole time, does live in that area and we found out later has an avigation easement on her home, so it became pretty personal.”

It struck me that Haber said that initially she didn’t feel like she had anything to offer Safe Skies Clean Water. Getting involved with issues like this, organizing, can feel intimidating. But sometimes the first step is just showing up.  Because they took that first step, Darcy and other folks at Solidarity Realty ended up digging up information on another issue that hit headlines this spring—avigation easements.

Avigation easements are a clause tucked into the deeds of some homes near the airport that essentially waive the rights of the homeowner to the airspace above their property.

“It was probably the second meeting I went to of [Safe Skies Clean Water] and one of the, Rebecca Kemble, who is an alder in City of Madison, said something about Avigation Easements and I’d never heard the term before, and I said navigation easements? And she said no, avigation easement. And I said aviation easement? And she said no, avigation easement. And I was like okay, well being a recovering attorney and a real estate agent, if I’ve never heard that term associated with a house there’s something really fishy going on because I buy and sell that real estate all the time, you have to reveal easements that are on the homes.

“A seller has to say oh there’s this easement that’s burdening my house and disclose at the time of sale and no one had ever done that for me on the sellers side, no one had told me they had that on the buyers side, I never, it was never revealed to me and my buyer, you know, that this was there. So I could tell there was some great injustice going on that people didn’t even know about. And I felt like they had a right to know.”

If the F-35s come to Madison, the more than 2,700 people who live in the 65 decibel zone will be faced with a very difficult decision. Stay, find ways to deal with the noise, or try to move. Either way, they’ll almost certainly face losses to their property values. Which might make it even harder to move, particularly given that housing near the airport is already some of the most affordable in the city. There is also public housing located just on the outside of the 65 decibel zone. It’s not technically incompatible with residential use, but the noise exposure across the street from that designated zone will be virtually the same.

There is some recourse for people who own homes in the 65 decibel zone—sound mitigation. Although the Air Force won’t spend money on buildings they don’t control, the FAA has a program to mitigate noise near airports.

Homes would have to meet certain criteria to be eligible for soundproofing, including being located within the 65 decibel zone. It would likely take years for that to take effect—if the F-35s come to Truax, there would have to be studies on the noise levels, and a long process before any one person or family might receive money for soundproofing. And, even with the F-35s, there is no guarantee that there will be funding for sound mitigation.

Coming up in Flight Path

May 7: Part 2: Rights signed away and forgotten

May 11: Part 3: “Loud but affordable”

May 12: Part 4: The fight continues

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