Three years ago, a voice called to Rick Roach as he walked across the bridge over Williams Creek at the intersection of Chestnut and Biddle.
“It came from deep inside me and it said ‘You remember what made you happy. Now do something about it.’”
The creek, which he had loved since childhood, wasn’t the same as when he and his friends used to sneak off from home to catch minnows and frogs and turtles and tadpoles and splash in the sun-dappled shallows. Over the years, Williams Creek had turned into little more than an open sewer that supported limited aquatic life in widely separated sweet spots, was choked with trash and carried the odor of rotten eggs. It disgusted him, and he has worked tirelessly since that night to clean it up.
The voice spoke to him in January 2007, after his friend Lida Mayer invited him to go with her to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where he is a lifetime member. The subject of the meeting was King’s “Beloved Community” concept, and the facilitator wanted to know what the biggest issues in the community were and how they could tackle them together. Roach immediately thought about Williams Creek, which flows from Chilhowee Park southwest through the heart of East Knoxville, fringed by an urban forest of mature hardwoods interspersed with kudzu-choked illegal garbage dumps that are home to packs of feral dogs. The creek meanders past tidy neighborhoods, stately mansions, and community landmarks like the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and the Williams Creek Golf Course as well as crumbling, neglected properties and the soon-to-be-demolished low-income public housing complex, Walter P. Taylor Homes, on its way to meet the Tennessee River.
That night at the meeting, Rachael Bliss, who worked for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, informed him that Williams Creek had not only been declared a public health hazard and placed on the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s 303 (d) list of impaired streams, but was also considered the most polluted creek in Knox County.
TCWN had sued the Knoxville Utilities Board for allowing storm sewer overflows to pollute the ground water, and ultimately the creek. KUB and the city entered into a consent decree obligating the utility, among other things, to spend $167,000 on an environmental project to acquire property around Williams Creek to establish an urban forest that an EPA press release said was meant “to protect, restore and enhance water quality, wetlands areas and riparian areas within the Williams Creek watershed and to prevent any use of such properties that will impair or otherwise interfere with the restoration and preservation of the property to its natural condition.”
Another part of the consent agreement required KUB to spend $2 million on a Supplemental Environmental Project to help moderate-, low- and very low-income level residential property owners to repair their privately owned sewer pipes that connect into KUB’s sewer system.
Roach’s first reaction was to wonder why so little had been done since the consent decree was issued in December 2004. His second reaction was to be angry that signs hadn’t been posted warning the community that the creek constituted a health hazard.
His third reaction, which came later that evening on the Williams Creek Bridge, was to form a group he called the Friends of Williams Creek, which at first was pretty much himself and Lida Mayer, who had some experience working to clean up the Bull Creek watershed.
Roach got his feet wet, literally, by pulling old tires and and garbage from the creek. He worked with AmeriCorps volunteers to clean the creek bed and banks. And he’s working to get his neighbors involved in a community garden planned alongside the stretch of Williams Creek at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Harrison Street.
Roach says he’s not the best person for the job, just the one who was called.
“There are others who have more expertise, education, and knowledge than I do. But you know how you know when something’s out there? I’m going to keep on asking questions. I asked Rachael to define environmental justice and she said it usually involves elements of race and class—one or the other, many times both. People who are very powerful utilize communities that don’t have a lot of power. Our neighborhood fits the bill.”
He still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up. His parents, Bette and Elwood Roach, were teachers who started their careers in the segregated Knoxville school system. While Roach was at Vine Jr. High School, he was interviewed by representatives of the Anne C. Stauffer Foundation, which sent promising minority students to some of the most prestigious prep schools in the country. He was accepted, and given a choice of St. Albans in Washington, D.C., St. Andrews-Sewanee, or the Asheville School for Boys, which is the one he picked. Things didn’t go as planned.
“I spent two years at Asheville screwing up academically and chasing white girls,” Roach said. “ I ended up messing around with the daughter of the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who had a restaurant across from the school and then I ended up with a shotgun put in my face. There was a whole bunch of scrambling to figure out if I was worth keeping in the program. Test-score wise, I was good to go, but my performance was lacking.”
He transferred to St. Andrews his junior year. It was run by the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross and Roach, an Episcopalian from the cradle, thrived there. He graduated in 1972 and broke his father’s heart by joining the Navy instead of going to college. He was discharged four years later, went to work for the telephone company, and returned to St. Luke’s, where the parish priest, Matthew Jones, had been a civil rights stalwart and the first serious African American candidate for mayor (in 1967). He became Roach’s role model.
He’d been involved in some political activities over the years, particularly the losing effort to keep the county from moving the Burlington Library out to Asheville Highway. He wanted to see it built on the corner of Harrison Street and Martin Luther King, a site he now has hopes that the county will acquire for a community garden plot he’s been working on.
Friends of Williams Creek has become the Williams Creek Consortium, facilitated by Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation. TCWN Executive Director Renée Victoria Hoyos, whom Roach calls his hero, is a member, as is Ruth Ann Hanahan, coordinator of education and outreach at UT’s Water Resources Research Center. She runs the Knox County Adopt-a-Watershed program brought AmeriCorps volunteers to work on Williams Creek cleanups. City Greenways director Donna Young has big plans for connecting the area to her existing 41 miles of greenways.
Evans says Roach has been “tirelessly plugging away, and now this group has kind of circled around him. On one particular day, I had three meetings where Williams Creek came up in the conversation. I thought, there’s something to this.”
Faced with all these signs of progress, Roach is proceeding cautiously. Even the possibility of a big EPA community engagement grant doesn’t make him break his stoic wait-and-see approach.
“The whole issue revolves around community control,” he said “And there’s still so much more to be done.”