Anything-but-Pleasant City

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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.

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Michael Freedman