It sounds too good to be true, and it makes our utopian heart--what remains of it--sing. City officials in West Palm Beach are trying to foster a cool zone in the aging, historically minority neighborhood of Pleasant City. The embryo of the plan is an artist colony, Lot 23.
The idea, officials say, is that an influx of bohemians will revive the area to the benefit of both the indigenous community and the newcomers.
Gentrification, you cry? Well...
Pleasant City is the city's original black settlement, forever linked to the legend of The Styx. It's part of the city's Greater Northwood area, which already--after many years of false starts--has a delightful revival under way. Along Northwood Road and nearby streets is a pleasing, human mix of Soul Culture (the Blue Chip Barber Shop, the African American Heritage Bookstore); hipsterdom (Harold's Coffee, thedavidKspace salon); and even some Palm Beach glitz (Cafe Centro).
The first steps in the city's plan to extend that revival are small--eight apartments in two, two-story double townhouses on 23rd Street (thus Lot 23), with room for a total of eight sets of inhabitants--singles, couples or families (though a family would be cramped).
The street runs along the southern backside of the Northwood Road commercial strip. It's not particularly well-tended or manicured but it's clean and not truly dilapidated. East of the homes is the largish rectangular pocket of Blum Park; to the west are the FEC railroad tracks.
On an overcast afternoon the buildings are slightly disappointing. They have a cardboard boxy look, painted an annoyingly dull grey, with bands of purple trim. The grey is actually "silver," city rep Grace Joyce says, and maybe it's so--in brighter daylight. Silver and purple are the project's emblematic colors, she says. Tied by shiny purple ribbon to the property's fence are silver and purple balloons, fluttering in the breeze.
The deal is that artists will get reduced rents in exchange for participation in community arts programs at institutions like the Pleasant City Elementary School. The projects can take any form--visual arts, music, dance, photography, creative writing--and will be devised jointly by the artist and the institution. It's a sliding scale, with a 2-bedroom apartment for a little as $300 a month in exchange for 24 hours a month of service.
"Our biggest challenge right now is programming," Joyce told us. "We already have someone doing music training at the school. We're looking for more people who really get what we're doing."
Joyce says Lot 23 already has forty applicants, most of them from Palm Beach County, also from Broward and Miami-Dade, and as far off as Boston. "They're from every race and age group," she says enthusiastically. "One of them is an 80-year-old Korean War vet. We have veterans' preferences!"
Lot 23's sponsoring agency, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, owns a good deal more property in the area, and envisions additional transformations that will encompass a much larger swathe of ground. A building adjoining the homes is to be knocked down and replaced with 20,000 square feet of studios. Another building is to be a restaurant, with favorable rent in exchange for cooking classes for the neighborhood.
For a colony, Lot 23 doesn't have an air of colonization. Local residents stroll by and wave to the city reps; some sit and join them at a table covered with brochures. An older man who volunteers daily at the railroad crossing to oversee safe passage of local schoolkids leaves his post as the last of the children pass over. He joins the group at the welcome table, striding across the steps bearing a wooden staff of Biblical proportions, a wooden cross on a leather strand hanging down across his chest. The schoolkids, entranced by the silver and purple balloons, have begged Joyce to distribute them, and she does.
That would be a hopeful, uplifting image with which to end this column. And Joyce says the city wants its arts-as-renewal effort to "keep the equality in quality." But we can't, in good conscience, let it go at that.
We think the city's on the right track, but we have a caveat. The CRA certainly hopes Lot 23 will help property values rise (rents rising with them), and they know that will likely drive out at least some of the indigenous. They'll argue that the benefits outweigh the costs. But who'll benefit? A rising tide lifts all boats, so it's said. Yes. Except for those it drowns.