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Anything-but-Pleasant City

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.

The workers, who lived in a Palm Beach shantytown called the Styx, toiled through the summer for the promise of a steady income. But when the hotel was completed, Flagler realized that his chichi guests wouldn't fancy staying at a hotel, however posh, if blacks lived in shacks nearby. So in reward, ostensibly, for completing the hotel on time, Flagler sponsored a carnival on the opposite side of the Intracoastal, in what later became the city of West Palm Beach. While the workers and their families enjoyed the festivities, Flagler had the Styx set ablaze, according to the book "Palm Beach Babylon," a social history of sorts that gives detailed accounts of island scandals. The Styx was razed, but Flagler created for his workers a new town to be built on property that he already owned north of the carnival site. That property became Pleasant City.

A century later Pleasant City offers but a few bright spots. There are more than a dozen churches, for instance, in the 35-square-block neighborhood, and each is filled every Sunday with congregants who typically live in other, safer West Palm Beach neighborhoods. There is also the newly dedicated $1.2 million community center -- freshly painted in a creamy yellow hue and already well used for after-school programs -- courtesy of the city of West Palm Beach.

Some of the old-timers, meanwhile, who left Pleasant City years ago, have recently returned. Theora Jackson, for instance, returned in 1995 to the neighborhood of her fondest childhood memories after living elsewhere for more than 40 years. The first step to restoring Pleasant City, she believes, is to find people to buy -- and live in -- houses there. "You can't maintain a community with rentals and absentee landlords," she professes. And she too questions the glacial pace of the redevelopment effort.

In the CRC's first year, the city provided the agency with $200,000 to repair and rebuild rundown homes. But most of the money went unused because the unpaid staff lacked the time or resources to forge ahead with a concrete plan. The city gave them $40,000 in subsequent years, according to Faye Outlaw, West Palm Beach's director of housing and community development, and in those years the agency built four respectable single-family homes.

Although it is evident the project is moving forward too slowly, city housing administrators and commissioners decline to take a more active role. It appears in this instance that the existence of a CRC actually impedes progress because, once a CRC forms, the city prefers to allow the community-based organization to control its own projects. A commendable goal, except the projects in Pleasant City are moving along too slowly for everyone's tastes. "You can't force things to happen," insists West Palm Beach City Commissioner Howard Warshauer. "It's much better to go in and help the existing groups that are there."

Warshauer, who cannot point to any specific recent examples of how West Palm Beach has worked with the CRC to build homes, attended agency meetings in its early days and became friendly with Tyson, the group's founder. But more recently the commissioner's involvement with this community-based organization within his district has tapered off. He does not attend their meetings, he says, because he does not receive sufficient notice. "I think it shows a lack of administrative ability," he contends.

Tyson's involvement has likewise tapered off. The CRC was so ineffective that the minister started his own organization under the auspices of his church. This group is so new it has not yet received official nonprofit status, yet it has already completed its first project. On Saturday Tyson's Human Resources Development Corp. dedicated a renovated four-unit apartment building across the street from the church. The Reverend has found that is it far easier to work with his church -- where support and financial backing are guaranteed -- than with a quasi-public entity such as the CRC, which relies on grant money. "I hope money is not being wasted," he says of the CRC's lack of productivity, "but the community isn't benefiting from it."

Thomas became the agency's executive director in March 1996 after going through a series of social service jobs. First, in 1991, he left the State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services after working there for less than five months. He was then fired from the Palm Beach County Children's Council in 1992 after only four months of employment, according to Gail Battle, a human resources associate. He was fired yet again from the Private Industry Council of West Palm Beach in 1993 after a month of employment, and again in March 1994 after serving thirteen months as director of the Riviera Beach Housing Authority. Board members cited "administrative failures" as the official reason for his dismissal. Thomas admits that he was fired from several jobs in a row but points out that prior to that he worked for more than nine years at Sears and for a total of fifteen years at two different government social service agencies.

 

Though Thomas has worked in the public sector before and has received criticism there, the recent complaints still appear to agitate him. Who else can he work with, he beseeches, where else can he receive financial and technical help, he wonders, what else can be done?

"It's easy to say we don't know what we're doing," says the exasperated Thomas. He stands now across the street from the row of shotgun shacks on A.E. Isaacs Avenue, where the smoky aroma of burnt wood still lingers in the air from a fire that leveled a condemned home and damaged two others during the recent cold snap. Thirteen people were left homeless. "So OK, come and help us."

Forming any cohesive approach to community development has been an ongoing problem for the CRC.

Although it is evident the project is moving forward too slowly, city housing administrators and commissioners decline to take a more active role. It appears in this instance that the existence of a CRC actually impedes progress because, once a CRC forms, the city prefers to allow the community-based organization to control its own projects. A commendable goal, except the projects in Pleasant City are moving along too slowly for everyone's tastes. "You can't force things to happen," insists West Palm Beach City Commissioner Howard Warshauer. "It's much better to go in and help the existing groups that are there.


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