“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Hilton Kelley stood smiling in the clear April sunshine outside Kelley’s Kitchen in the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, and extended a hand. Kelley, 53, is a big-framed man, with generous, gentle eyes and white stubble. The sign on the small corner restaurant reads Delicious Home-Cooked Food, but Kelley’s Kitchen is no longer serving. Kelley opened the place up in his beloved hometown in 2010 and managed to keep it running for about two and a half years. “It was going fairly well,” he told me. “But, you know, the town really doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on this side of Port Arthur anymore.”
Kelley’s Kitchen is the only structure left standing on its section of Austin Avenue, just two blocks from the main downtown thoroughfare. In every direction are more vacant lots and dilapidated buildings—windows blown out, many of them empty for years, even decades. In the bright sun, the streets at midday on a Friday were ghostly quiet.
“This area was once a thriving community,” Kelley said. “It was traffic up and down Austin Avenue here.”
He invited me inside, out of the glare, and we sat at one of the tables in the well-kept place, which he now rents out for private parties and special occasions—there’s even a small dance floor complete with shiny disco ball. But that’s not all that goes on at Kelley’s Kitchen. The space doubles as the office of the Community In-Power & Development Association, or CIDA—the small, tough, grassroots community advocacy and environmental justice organization that Kelley founded in 2000, soon after returning to Port Arthur from California, where he was working in the movie industry as an actor and stunt man. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental justice activism. Kelley has testified before the Texas Legislature and the US Senate, addressed UNESCO in Paris, and met President Obama at the White House.
Just a few blocks from where we sat is the historic African-American community of West Port Arthur, where Kelley was born and raised in the Carver Terrace housing project, on the fence line of two massive oil refineries—one owned by Valero (formerly Gulf Oil) and the other by Motiva (formerly Texaco). In fact, the recently completed expansion of the Motiva refinery, which Kelley’s group fought hard against, makes it the largest in the nation, having more than doubled its capacity to 600,000 barrels of crude per day. Nearby are five more petrochemical plants and the Veolia incinerator facility. Port Arthur is on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the southern leg of which—cutting through East Texas communities—went operational in January. But the industry brings few jobs to West Port Arthur, where unemployment is over 15 percent. Workers commute to the plants, and economic development has moved north since the 1980s, along with white flight, to the newer Mid-County area along Highway 69 toward Nederland, where you’ll find a sudden explosion of malls, big-box stores, hotels and theme restaurants with busy parking lots.