Over the winter, while leaving an interview with a Rubbertown resident, documentary filmmaker Remington Smith was overcome by an odor that seemed to fill the neighborhood.
“It was this strong, acrid, plastic, burnt cough syrup smell,” Smith says. “I could feel it scratching my throat.”
He tried to call the Air Pollution Control District, but no one picked up, not even voicemail. For most people, a situation like this would probably be cause for concern. According to Smith, this is a frequent experience for many Rubbertown residents.
They call for help, and there’s no one there to answer.
That’s one of the reasons he decided to make a documentary about the unofficial neighborhood; Rubbertown is technically an industrial complex wedged between the Shawnee neighborhood to the north, Cane Run Road to the east, and the Lake Dreamland community to the south.
The area is next to a power plant and a toxic landfill site. And as WFPL reported in 2013, there is ongoing tension between industry and area residents — many of whom have “spent their lives worried about toxic emissions from Rubbertown.”
Smith’s film is fittingly called “Rubbertown.”
The 55-minute documentary follows resident Monika Burkhead as she tries to move her entire house to another county after suffering through years of regular leaks, spills, and occasional explosions at the nearby facilities — all alongside fellow residents reporting higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses.
Burkhead has been a resident of Louisville’s Riverside Gardens since 1975.
She became an environmental activist once she learned of the health risks of living in the shadow of LG&E’s smokestacks, the continued threat posed by the Lee’s Lane Landfill (where she has caught children swimming in a pond) and chemical plants nearby regularly having spills. Her daughter Jennifer developed a kidney stone disease, colitis and Crohn’s when she was 13, all of which she attributes to living in Rubbertown.
“How can you stick residential people in there like that,” says Burkehead in the film. “Just because we’re poor don’t make us daggone guinea pigs.”
Watch the “Rubbertown” trailer below.
Smith wasn’t familiar with the Rubbertown area until he came across a piece in LEO Weekly about a proposal for a coal ash pond in 2010.
“I investigated further and found out about these other industries in the Rubbertown area in the West Side of Louisville,” Smith says. “From there I started on the project that eventually became this feature documentary.”
“Rubbertown” presents the perspectives of residents who vary in race and class, but all have something in common: they fear their own neighborhood.
Smith says he captured this feeling through a series of impromptu conversations, first-person explorations of the industrial sites, and a brush with the police (which he filmed covertly).
“One person has already asked me ahead of the film, ‘Did you get arrested in the police scene in the trailer’ and I’d be a bad pitchman if I gave that away,” Smith says. “But I think the more important aspect of the scene is what it would be like to try and independently monitor or protest some of the chemical companies.”
He continues: “There is a certain intimidation factor that comes out. Even if you aren’t trespassing — you’re just there to protest or collect an air sample — security from these facilities will come out or the police will show up, and there doesn’t seem to be a cause.”
Ultimately, Smith hopes “Rubbertown” will amplify the voices of neighborhood residents and lead to citywide awareness.
“Rubbertown” premieres Friday, Sept. 30 at Baxter Avenue Theater. More information about the documentary is available here.