An Unpleasant Development

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

On dry and dreary Dixie Highway, just north of downtown West Palm Beach--near Cheerful Street and Beautiful Avenue, not far from where Contentment Avenue once ran--Everee Jimerson Clarke sits in a blue, bunker-like concrete building, guarding a storehouse of memory.

A broad and handsome woman of 75 years -- graceful as only a Juilliard School-trained dancer can be -- she greets a visitor by appointment. She undoes two hefty locks on the gate across the front door and pulls back the heavy iron grillwork. "You didn't always have to keep so locked up around here," she says.

The doorway opens into a large front room about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide in which nearly every square inch of wall is covered by more than 300 photos and posters depicting local black history. A larger back room includes a dance floor and performance space; a small, well-worn library; and a long bank of used, donated computers with shelves of instruction and training manuals piled high overhead.

Michael McElroy
Everee Clarke's Heritage Gallery is in Pleasant City's heart. After visitors sign in at her desk, they see walls of photographs that describe the neighborhood's long, uneven past. Pictures of some of West Palm Beach's African-American luminaries fill the walls.
Michael McElroy
Everee Clarke's Heritage Gallery is in Pleasant City's heart. After visitors sign in at her desk, they see walls of photographs that describe the neighborhood's long, uneven past. Pictures of some of West Palm Beach's African-American luminaries fill the walls.
Some of developer George Currie's street names haven't aged well
Michael McElroy
Some of developer George Currie's street names haven't aged well
Above, architectural renderings of Merry Place, which might have transformed the area. Below, Executive Director Laurel Robinson acknowledges that the housing authority  has not always served Pleasant City well.
Michael McElroy
Above, architectural renderings of Merry Place, which might have transformed the area. Below, Executive Director Laurel Robinson acknowledges that the housing authority has not always served Pleasant City well.
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

Since 1996, Clarke has been the driving force behind the Pleasant City Heritage Gallery. It's part shrine, part performing-arts center, and all consciousness-raising effort. Here, the "sons and daughters of the pioneers," as Clarke calls the neighborhood's early settlers, have deposited the artifacts, memorabilia, and oral history of Pleasant City, the 27-block traditional heart of West Palm Beach's black community. "This was once a beautiful place with tree-lined streets and businesses all up and down Spruce Avenue," Clarke says. "It was tight-knit, like family."

Photographs on the gallery's walls recall the Pleasant City of that era. The "Wall of Achievers" features the professionals of the community: black educators, politicians, soldiers, and businessmen from the 1920s and '30s to the present. Other snapshots reflect a history stretching as far back as the late 19th Century that includes the worlds of family, church, home, and school: Ordinary people of every age going about the business of everyday life in a black universe that paralleled South Florida's white one.

But the memories are mocked by the Pleasant City of today, a ravaged landscape of trash-strewn streets, empty lots, and block upon block of dilapidated, crumbling, and boarded-up housing. "New people brought crime and drugs, and the young moved out," Clarke says. "All you had left were old folks afraid to leave their houses at night."

Every so often, one or another representative of the media treks down these mean streets to give Clarke a pat on the back and a glowing write-up. Sometimes, it's a politician: U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, both sent cards on her last birthday.

What the journalists have never described and what the pols ignore is how angry she is. Clarke spits fire once she gets going. And she sprays it in all directions -- at government, religious leaders, the media, and her own beloved community. "The city officials, they had lots of meetings here over the years," she says. "Said they were going to save the neighborhood, stop crime. They talked about midnight basketball. Come down here on Friday night and tell me how much basketball you see."

This spring, however, for the first time in decades, a good thing seemed about to happen in Pleasant City. The West Palm Beach Housing Authority proposed to tear down three blocks of rot and replace them with a quality, affordable-housing complex called Merry Place. Planners touted it as a spur to neighborhood revival. But there were doubts both in the community and at city hall. On April Fool's Day, the West Palm Beach City Commission approved, then in a political back flip ten days later shot down, the Merry Place plan. Not the right project, they said -- needs more study.

Everee Clarke's disdain for Merry Place speaks volumes about community distrust of local leaders. Her skepticism helps explain why it may be impossible to change this desolate place now or in the near future. "The housing authority ruined this neighborhood in the first place," she says. "Now they're going to build another project?" Hers is a widely held opinion in West Palm Beach's African-American community.

But Merry Place's supporters have a different tale to tell, and the debate over the project involves fundamental questions of public policy and local history. Not for the first time, who speaks for Pleasant City is an open question. The project is caught up in political pressure, and Pleasant City's fate is being decided far from its own street corners. While the bickering and backbiting goes on, the neighborhood stagnates.


Pleasant City's roots are tangled with those of Palm Beach, where the first hotels were built in the 1890s largely by black workers whom Standard Oil tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler imported. "It was black laborers and their families they hired," Clarke says. "There were ads in the Philadelphia papers and across the South. They came down by boat from Jacksonville.

"Flagler never planned to have workers living on the island, black or white," Clarke says. "But when the building was all done, the whites still had a need for them. The service, the menial work -- that was black."

An estimated 2000 African-Americans worked at the island's hotels, estates, and golf courses. From their arrival until about 1912, they lived in an area known as the Styx, a settlement in the vicinity of what is now the intersection of North County Road and Royal Poinciana Way, not far from Flagler's two hotels -- the Royal Poinciana, on Lake Worth, and the Breakers, on the ocean.

White historians describe the Styx as a squatters' encampment; blacks say the residents rented from white landlords. Whites always looked on the settlement as a place of squalor and lawlessness, an eyesore to be removed.

The fate of the Styx was long the most misreported highlight of Palm Beach history. Legend had it that Flagler, around 1912, spread word throughout the settlement that a circus was coming to the mainland. It was said he gave the residents free tickets and, while they were away, burned their houses to the ground.

The reality was not so dramatic, according to T.T. Reese Jr., a white Palm Beach old-timer. Reese, whose father was director of the landmark Beach Club casino, reports that the proprietors, the Bradley brothers, bought up the Styx. In February 1912, they cut the area into 230 residential lots and ordered Reese's father to clear the neighborhood.

It was perhaps Florida's first gentrification. "I remember watching the squatters and their belongings going across the old wooden bridge with handcarts and other carriers," Reese Jr. told the Palm Beach Post in a 1994 letter. "After everyone had vacated the property, my dad brought in gardeners from the Beach Club and cleared the land, piled up the trash, and burned it on the spot."


The demise of the Styx was a blessing for George Currie. A white West Palm Beach attorney and developer and former mayor Currie had begun planning for a "colored" neighborhood in the city long before the 1912 eviction. His subdivision ran from 15th Street on the south to 23rd Street to the north, with Dixie Highway on the east and the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks to the west.

Currie (for whom a West Palm Beach waterfront park is named) dubbed it Pleasant City -- "a high class, colored sub-division north of town," according to a Currie Investment and Title Guaranty Co. ad in the Palm Beach Post of December 4, 1913. "He gave the streets names like Merry, Cheerful, and Contentment because, he said, the Negroes were naturally happy people," Everee Clarke recounts. "Nobody gave it to us, though. We bought it."

Black settlement in the area, and elsewhere in West Palm Beach west of the tracks, predated Currie's project. But with the sudden influx of families, Pleasant City quickly became the hub of black life and commerce.

On November 20, 1929, the gates of segregation officially slammed shut. A city ordinance marked off the "negro district" along boundary lines that to this day define Pleasant City and the adjoining black northwest neighborhood.

Through the Jim Crow decades of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Pleasant City disappeared from the white press, and official notice of the black community was confined to the police blotter. "That's just the way white folks wanted it," says Paul George, a professor at Miami-Dade Community College. "Segregation meant invisibility."

Clarke remembers Pleasant City in that time as enterprising and largely self-sufficient. "Most people continued to work on Palm Beach, on the big estates and at hotels," she says. "But when they came home, it was a world of our own -- stores, schools, doctors, lawyers -- all black. We didn't have to go outside for anything."

Born on Merritt Island on July 6, 1926, Clarke spent her early youth in Jacksonville, where she lived with an aunt. She spent summers in Pleasant City on her father's farm near the railroad tracks at what is now 19th Street. "Daddy was a preacher," Clarke says. "But we got a lot out of the land. My brothers used to sell fruits and vegetables to whites on the highway. They'd go out at night and get turtle eggs from the beach -- it was legal, then -- they'd sell them too."

Clarke later lived years at a time in Pleasant City, attending the all-black Industrial High School, then Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1944, she moved to Newark, N.J., where she worked at a General Electric plant and commuted to New York City's prestigious academy of performing arts, the Juilliard School. At Juilliard, she studied dance with Martha Graham, Anthony Tudor, Doris Humphrey, and José Limón. "I dreamed of being the first black ballerina at the Met," she says.

In 1951, she met and married Vospher Clarke, an electrical engineer, and they quickly had two daughters, Renee and Frances. Raising a family took precedence, and Everee gave up the stage. When she returned to the arts in 1960, it was as director of the Everee Clarke School of Charm and Dance, in Newark. "It wasn't just about beauty," she says. "We'd had black girls refused at a pageant, so we organized our own, 'Miss Teen,' and took it to schools everywhere. We taught poise and personal development."

Clarke was active politically, working on the New Jersey campaigns of black candidates for city, state, and federal posts. "In Newark, if you swept the steps of city hall, that was political," she says. "With politics and my school, I had so much going on up north...." But Newark decayed in the early 1960s, and in 1965, Clarke moved back to Pleasant City with her two young daughters. "This was home," she says. "It was a better place for the girls."

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."


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.

Other efforts had limited results. In 1992, a Ford Foundation-sponsored community development nonprofit called the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) organized a citywide urban-infill project. After building just six houses in Pleasant City, it fizzled out.

The last wager on the neighborhood's revival came in the late 1990s, when city officials joined with the housing authority and several LISC-organized groups to file grant applications for HOPE VI, a federal program for the demolition and reconstruction of decayed public housing. The local team struck out three times on funding rounds, in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

The authority's housing stock, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. By last year, its board considered demolishing Dunbar Village but couldn't attract funding. In Pleasant City, a test renovation of one housing complex ended up costing $25,000 per apartment. "Redoing them all just wasn't feasible," Laurel Robinson says.


The housing authority's controversial new plan rose from the ashes of HOPE VI, when LISC program director Annetta Jenkins introduced Laurel Robinson to Ed Horton, executive director of the Pleasant City Faith-Based Community Development Initiative, a new coalition of local churches. "We spent many afternoons driving and walking through the neighborhood brainstorming," Horton tells New Times. "Pleasant City needed housing, even if it wasn't on the scale of HOPE VI."

Beginning in summer 2000, Robinson and Horton developed the plan for Merry Place in consultation with representatives of the West Palm Beach City Planning Department, LISC, and the Bank of America (for financial expertise). They concentrated on an area around Merry Place and Comfort Street, where the remains of rusted cars and crumbling foundations poked up through weed-infested lots. "We liked the idea of transforming some of the very worst blocks," Robinson told New Times. "Could we really make the streets' names true?"

The new plan was ambitious. The project would cover four square blocks totaling 14 acres, including several blocks of boarded-up housing that are the failed remains of the authority's past. The planners enlisted nationally recognized Miami architect Rafael Portuondo, whose design included 170 rental apartments in two-story buildings clustered around courtyards, 30 single-family homes with detached garages on 50-foot-wide lots, a generous arrangement of parks and squares, a community center, and a strip of ground floor commercial spaces. The price tag for the project was $18 million. "We went top-shelf here," Robinson says. "We weren't grubbing around to do something cheap....We wanted Rafael to give us a new face."

Tired of getting burned on applications to the feds, the housing authority turned to the same source that private developers use to build most of the nation's affordable housing -- low-income housing tax credits.

A creation of the Reagan-era Tax Reform Act of 1986, the credits are awarded by the IRS through state housing agencies to local developers who, in turn, sell the credits at a discount to investors. The investors end up with tax write-offs worth more than they cost; the developers end up with cash to build housing priced at less than the market rate. "Everyone was pushing us to be more entrepreneurial," Laurel Robinson explains. "And we didn't want to be dependent on HUD largess forever."

By this past spring, the Merry Place developers had the political support of Mayor Daves and the financial support of the Palm Beach County Commission, which approved $500,000 in backing. But before the authority could apply for the tax credits, it needed a promise of seed money from the West Palm Beach City Commission.

On April 1, by a 5-1 vote, the City Commission -- sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), in which all five commissioners and the mayor have an equal vote -- approved a contribution of $200,000 for Merry Place.

But it did so with reservations. The city commissioners said they'd been hurried into a decision, that they hadn't had time to study the project. They worried about the financial implications for the city, chiefly a commitment to fund $2 million in improvements to Pleasant City's sewer and water system. And they questioned the plan's emphasis on rental housing rather than home ownership. "There is a crying need for affordable rental housing in this community," Laurel Robinson told the commission. "Home ownership is simply not an option for everyone."

The commission had bought into Merry Place on the strength of the housing authority's promises. Though the agency had let its Pleasant City properties deteriorate in the past, Robinson asserted it had changed. If there was no mention of single-family homes in the tax credit application, she said, it was because this was just phase one of the project -- 30 homes would eventually be built.

More than anything else, the commission assented out of weariness. "It's not a perfect world," Commissioner Ike Robinson told the group. "This is a beginning."

"That was a high point," Laurel Robinson told New Times. "It was a good deal for the city too: an $18 million project for 200 grand. Then, of course, we got whipsawed."


Less than two weeks after their initial vote, the city commissioners on April 11 rescinded their support for Merry Place. Commissioner Robinson called an emergency CRA meeting, at which he and Commissioner Al Zucaro reversed their positions and joined Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, who had opposed the project from the start. With Commissioners Jim Exline and William Moss absent, only Mayor Daves voted to continue support.

What turned them around in so short a time? "I had never seen the plans before," Commissioner Robinson told New Times. "I had nightmares later. The project called for over 150 units of rental housing with no possibility of conversion to ownership. There's nothing wrong with renters. But we have learned that homeowners build strong communities. My mama told me, when you make a mistake, you go back and reverse it."

Other forces arrayed themselves against the project, some from inside city hall, others from Pleasant City.

CRA Executive Director John Zakian led the charge from inside. An aggressive, often-abrasive administrator, Zakian complained to the CRA meeting that the authority's description of Merry Place had changed repeatedly during the planning process. He called the project "a vat of Jello." And after the vote, in an April 7 letter to the housing authority copied to the commissioners, he hammered away, insisting on a series of commitments and concessions.

More surprising was the opposition from Pleasant City. It came from a group that, on paper at least, cosponsored the project: the pastors of the churches of the Pleasant City Faith-Based Initiative, Ed Horton's employers.

The pastors were crucial to the project's success. The churches have deep roots in the neighborhood, outlasting those of any other local African-American institution. The larger churches are significant property owners in the area. Not least, the pastors have immense political clout in the broader African-American community and, consequently, at city hall.

The Rev. Joseph Tyson, of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, one of the neighborhood's largest and oldest congregations, was among the most vocal Merry Place opponents, objecting to its location, its design, and its emphasis on rental housing. "The housing authority has always been a big problem in the neighborhood," he told New Times. "Now it's taking over the best part of the neighborhood."

Tyson served as president of the Faith-Based Initiative from its inception in April 2000 until his resignation in March. He says that he and the other pastors were "not informed of the details of the project until very late in the process." He says Horton was "flying on his own," and he believes that Horton took advantage of the absence of the pastor under whom Horton worked most closely, the Rev. Frank Jefferson, who has been hospitalized with a lengthy illness.

Horton insists that Tyson and the other pastors were regularly briefed on plans for the project. "[Tyson] is full of crap," Horton tells New Times. "He was told where, when, and the number of units." Horton says Tyson ignored Merry Place, focusing instead on the activities of his own development project, the St. John's Human Resource Development Corp.

The pastors' lack of support was fatal. "[Commissioner Ike] Robinson got lobbied by Tyson and the others," Mayor Daves says.

In an effort to heal the rift, Commissioner Exline and city planning boss Dan Cary hosted a May 23 meeting between the ministers and the Merry Place backers. But both sides were dug in.

The ministers offered to drop their opposition if the housing authority handed over deeds to certain properties, on which the ministers -- regrouped in a new faith-based initiative -- would build housing for their congregations. "The churches need a seat at the table," Tyson told the room. "We want economic participation."

Horton says the pastors' demands reflect another reason for their opposition to Merry Place. "There are developer's fees and salaries for board members of faith-based groups," he contends.

Horton's remarks are "untrue and beneath my dignity," Tyson responds. "I've put years of sweat equity into this community."

The housing authority balked at any land swap with the pastors. It's "very nascent," Laurel Robinson told New Times. "Let them come to me with a project first."

If they do, it's unlikely to please her. "They've got Pleasant City's best location for Merry Place," Tyson said. "That's where the homes should go."


The City Commission's reversal stalled Merry Place but didn't kill it. On June 11, in a well-attended public forum, the housing authority made one last appeal to the commissioners.

To assuage their concerns, the authority promised to hire professional management to prevent antisocial behavior by tenants. It pledged dedicated funding to assure physical maintenance of the project. But there was no change in the project's proportion of homeowner to rental housing.

The commission didn't even bother to vote. John Zakian, who has emerged as the pastors' point man at city hall since meeting with them in private April 18, called Merry Place "an object lesson in how not to do this sort of project." The city didn't have enough information to support it, he said. He called for further consultation, effectively killing the project for the moment.

Laurel Robinson says Merry Place is the right thing to do. "Our charter commits us to safe, decent housing for the poor of West Palm Beach," she told New Times. "Many of them have no choice but to rent. Those people are on no one's political screen." The housing authority is determined to find financing that doesn't require city approval, she said.

The Merry Place battle leaves Pleasant City in a development stalemate. That could be the worst possible result. "You think things can't get worse?" Mayor Daves warned the commission on April 11. "They can always get worse.... Vote this down and you're committing Pleasant City to further disintegration."

Some Merry Place supporters think their opponents' agenda is just that: gentrification à la CityPlace, where a West Palm Beach neighborhood disintegrated and was bulldozed away. "John Zakian's experience is in business," Ed Horton points out, "not community redevelopment."

"If you want to wipe out a neighborhood, property is property," Annetta Jenkins tells New Times. "Pleasant City is near the waterfront, near downtown. It's got to be tempting."

Zakian rules that out. "I know about CityPlace," he responded. "We won't let that happen here. I'm not here to get hoodwinked."


Back at the Heritage Gallery on a recent weekday morning, Everee Clarke is sitting at her desk working on grant applications. "I'm just getting by here," Clarke says. "You really going to write something? Tell them I need money."

In 1994, Clarke organized a Pleasant City reunion in West Palm Beach to coincide with the city's 100th anniversary celebrations. The Heritage Gallery grew out of that event, and Clarke moved back to the area. She settled in the Northwood district, just north of Pleasant City. "I'd love to be back in the neighborhood," she says, "but there's no good housing here."

Grants from the Palm Beach County Cultural Council were the mainstay of the gallery when it opened in 1996, she says, but funding has been a constant struggle. "The city signed off on a dance program here two years ago," she complains. "I'm just starting to see that money come through."

Asked why she keeps chasing her Pleasant City dream, Clarke smiles and points a finger at her right temple, like she must be crazy. It's hard to be hopeful, she admits. "There's so much petty jealousy here," she says. "The housing authority wants to take over. The ministers do for their churches. It's about control of the land. It's always been.

"If Merry Place were done right, it could be good for the area. But people don't want something shoved down their throats."

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