An Unpleasant Development

The plan to build Merry Place could rekindle an inner-city dream

Clarke arrived just as the civil rights movement reached Pleasant City. With Vospher as the family breadwinner, she took up the cause. "I didn't need work, but I'd go apply for jobs just to break the color line," she says. When her daughter Renee died in a 1974 swimming accident at age 17, her burial broke the race barrier at Royal Palm Memorial Cemetery.

Clarke served with the local NAACP and on a long list of government advisory panels. In the early 1970s, she twice ran for the West Palm Beach City Commission, losing each time in runoffs. Her chief focus, however, was minority business development. In 1969, she had founded a chapter of the black National Business League and tried to foster a Pleasant City commercial district on Northwood Road.

As segregation gave way, however, and black people were able to live, shop, and play outside the ghetto, Pleasant City's black-owned business community shriveled. A long, fruitless effort to transform an abandoned department store in the area into a supermarket and office complex broke Clarke's spirit, and she moved from Pleasant City to Lauderhill in 1977. "Pleasant City was devastated," Clarke says. "The children of the old families moved out. They sold off the old homes to absentee landlords. They rented them out and didn't do a thing about upkeep. So many of the new people were transient and poor -- they didn't care."

The Rev. Joseph Tyson contends that the area's pastors were kept out of the loop on plans for Merry Place
Michael McElroy
The Rev. Joseph Tyson contends that the area's pastors were kept out of the loop on plans for Merry Place

As Pleasant City imploded during the crack and AIDS 1980s, the West Palm Beach Housing Authority emerged as the neighborhood's biggest landlord, and community residents began looking upon it as an occupying power.

A quasi-governmental hybrid, the authority is an offspring of the Federal Housing Act of 1937. The first national effort to provide shelter for the poor, the law provided federal funding for low-income housing but required that the programs be initiated, owned, and operated by locally appointed, state-authorized bodies.

The West Palm Beach Housing Authority was created by the city in 1938. Its board is appointed by the mayor, but it is autonomous, with the power to issue bonds and to seize property by eminent domain. In the late 1960s, in addition to building new homes, it took over administration of the federal Section 8 program of rent vouchers for the poor.

The authority's first two projects, completed in 1940, were separate but equal. The white one was Southridge, 248 units south of downtown. The colored one was Dunbar Village, 246 apartments across the railroad tracks to the west of Pleasant City. Another colored project, the 118-unit Twin Lakes, was completed in 1956, in the still-segregated Northwest neighborhood.

Dunbar Village has deteriorated badly -- enough that its name has become a buzz word for housing authority failure -- but it was a success in its time. Clarke remembers it as a refuge for Pleasant City residents, who fled there in hurricane season from their own, less-well-constructed dwellings. "One time, folks thought you were something if you lived in Dunbar," she says.

Pleasant City's problem with the authority began in the mid-1960s, when the agency began to buy property in the area, flooding the little neighborhood with scattered-site housing -- 132 apartments in 33 quadplexes. The new buildings' tenants were income-restricted, and -- deservedly or not -- were stereotyped as drug addicts and welfare mothers. "The authority brought all these low-income people into a neighborhood that was already on the way down and washed their hands of it," West Palm Beach Mayor Joel Daves says. "The authority let the tenants basically trash everything."

Pleasant City's sorry state has been well-documented. Median household income for the neighborhood in the 1990 census (the most recent for which economic data is available) was just under $12,000 per year. Of 432 households, 95 reported zero earnings. Nearly half the population lived below the poverty level, one-fifth below half the level.

The 2000 census shows a continuing decline. Compared to an estimated 3000 residents in 1980, the area now has a total population of just 1024, of whom 930 identify themselves as African-American. The survey shows one-fifth of all housing units stand vacant, with fewer than one in five owner-occupied (a figure the city puts at one in 20).

"Pleasant City was a neighborhood of homeowners before the authority moved in," complains Isaac "Ike" Robinson Jr., West Palm Beach's only African-American commissioner. He calls the housing authority "the biggest slumlord in the city."

Laurel Robinson, executive director of the West Palm Housing Authority since 1999, agrees that the authority could have done a better job. "Certainly, there wasn't enough emphasis on maintenance," she says. But when it comes to blame for Pleasant City's social decay, she says, "There were broader social forces at work.... You have to deal with underlying pathologies, not just housing. Where were the police? Where were the social welfare agencies? The middle class was already moving out when we showed up."

The housing authority was not the only force at work. The county closed Pleasant City's elementary school in 1965, busing the community's children to ten different schools for racial balance. Funds for community recreational facilities were caught up in territorial squabbles. A series of mayors in the 1980s -- including two who were black -- didn't do much for the housing situation, managing little more than to create task forces, rewrite building codes, and hire consultants.

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