Anything-but-Pleasant City

Efforts to revitalize this rundown West Palm Beach neighborhood have failed. Miserably.

A pair of mangy dogs, too languid to bark, scratch and sniff themselves in front of a row of weathered wood houses set atop cinder blocks. A sign is tacked on the door of each of a dozen or so dwellings on this block in the northern section of West Palm Beach known as Pleasant City. It's written in the language of city code-enforcement bureaucrats, but the message is clear: condemned. Occupants have fifteen days to clear out.

In Pleasant City -- a dozen blocks from the resurrected, Mayor Nancy Graham-era downtown of West Palm Beach, with its trendy cafes and nightclubs and Disney-clean streets -- drug dealers and prostitutes still congregate as dusk falls, selling their wares on the corners of streets called "Beautiful" and "Cheerful."

David Thomas would like to turn those road monikers into literal truths. "What we set out to do is see if we can revitalize this neighborhood with single-family homes," declares Thomas, the executive director of the Pleasant City Community Redevelopment Corporation (CRC). The nonprofit agency's goal is to use local grant money to provide affordable housing for the community's 1500 residents and lure prospective homebuyers into the area.

It's been slow going.
In the four years since the agency's creation, Thomas and his volunteer board of Pleasant City church leaders and West Palm Beach businessmen have overseen the construction of only four homes. "We haven't built the number of homes we thought we could within this time frame," he willingly admits. He cites several reasons for the lackluster pace: a lack of funds, a high crime rate that scares away potential buyers, and the difficulty encouraging people to buy homes, at any price, in a largely run-down community with unkempt lawns, piles of trash dumped haphazardly, and city zoning regulations that allow for a mix of residential and low-grade industry. For these reasons even Thomas chooses to live in a middle-class community in suburban West Palm Beach.

While not discounting any of these concerns, many outside observers -- even those who have attempted to cooperate with the agency -- question Thomas' administrative abilities.

"One of the indications that this whole process is working is producing units and bringing in funds," asserts Annetta Jenkins, the program director of the local chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), a nonprofit community-development organization that provides technical and financial assistance to community-development groups. "When that's not happening, you have to look and see if something needs adjusting."

A neighborhood redevelopment project in Lake Worth, for instance, also had difficulties when it was established in 1993. But by creating a partnership with the city government and receiving technical and financial assistance from LISC, the nonprofit agency completed its first project in the summer of 1996. The organization, known as Project Lake Worth, constructed four single-family homes and restored a fifth. Jenkins predicts the group will build twelve more homes in the next year -- all without paid staff.

In Pleasant City, where the CRC's $85,000 budget allows for a $35,000 salary for its executive director, relationships with city administrators have yielded few concrete results, and partnership attempts with nonprofit agencies have failed. Thomas, a man who moved through four social service jobs in as many years before going to work for the CRC, believed redevelopment would be much easier if he could simply bulldoze existing condemned homes and begin again from scratch. But when the CRC started four years ago, the board recognized the impossibility of this method and saw that they didn't have the technical skills to succeed. The agency asked LISC to help, but this relationship "fell apart," according to Thomas, who, like Jenkins, declined to go into further detail.

"We've had some different views and different approaches on how things should be done," Jenkins says diplomatically. "I'll just leave it at that."

In fact, forming any cohesive approach to community development has been an ongoing problem for the CRC since its inception in 1993. That was the year an elderly woman, a congregant of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church, died without anyone noticing. It wasn't until days later that she was found, alone, in her public housing apartment. Angry they could not provide a more caring environment for senior citizens, several church members, the church pastor, and Thomas, a deacon there, discussed building an assisted-care center close to the church. But an informal church survey revealed that this was not a popular idea. "Clean this neighborhood up," demanded the congregants, most of whom live outside of Pleasant City, "and we'll consider it," Thomas recalls. From that the CRC was conceived.

The Rev. J.B. Tyson, the full-time St. John's pastor, became the nonprofit's part-time, unpaid executive director. The first order of business was to begin mending the neighborhood's dismal housing situation.

The housing problems in this area are more than a century old, beginning in 1894 when oil-and-railroad tycoon Henry M. Flagler contrived a scheme to get rid of blacks who lived on his island-paradise creation -- Palm Beach. At first Flagler hired thousands of unemployed black laborers to help build the Royal Poinciana Hotel and transform the island from a swamp to an opulent landing spot for wealthy socialites along his Florida East Coast Railway.

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