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Urban Removal

Mary Cleare's mother rarely talked about the place where she was born. Her home was a squatter's settlement for the African-Americans who built the Breakers Hotel for Henry Flagler. Construction and domestic workers used driftwood and the remains of old crates to construct a village of lean-tos and shacks at the north end of Palm Beach.

Only once did Cleare's mother even mention what happened to the place. Cleare, 71 now, remembers that conversation well, a bitter story that helped define the world a young, black girl would face.

It was one evening a few years before World War I, recounted her mother, Nellie Thompson, when all the black folks from the so-called Styx settlement were summoned over to the mainland. There was some kind of a party, maybe a Mardi Gras event or a circus, Cleare can't recall exactly. More vividly, though, she remembers the disgust in her mother's voice when she reached the end of the story.

"When they came back, every one of them houses was burned to the ground," Cleare recalls her mother telling her. "That was their way of getting all the black folk out of Palm Beach."

No official record exists to confirm the story that Styx residents told their children, though there's general acknowledgement that a fire destroyed much of the makeshift community. But after nearly a century, the story still stands as a rallying cry for the descendants of the doomed settlement. After the fire, the Styx residents moved to a neighborhood north of downtown West Palm Beach, where the servants of Palm Beach millionaires established a quiet community they called Pleasant City. They were cooks and maids and drivers, and when they came home at night, they held their neighborhood to the same tidy standards as the loftier properties where they worked. They lived in clapboard houses with wide front porches and modest rectangular homes of cinderblock, where neighbors shared pleasantries across the lawns of their well-kept front yards.

Many of the descendants of Styx still live in the Pleasant City neighborhood north of downtown, where, once again, somebody's come to take their land. This time, it's the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, with plans to revitalize 14 acres of the city's first minority neighborhood. The agency will construct 240 homes, apartments, and condos on roads that, up to now, have had storybook names like Cheerful Street and Comfort Place. In recognition of those names, the Housing Authority calls its project Merry Place. It's an ambitious plan that supporters say could help turn around a now-dilapidated neighborhood -- a neighborhood of slightly more than 1,000 residents that, largely because of official neglect, is now dominated by drug dealers and prostitutes.

But with the memory of Styx in mind, long-time residents say the plan is another attempt to take what's theirs and give it to whites. Fueling that belief is the Housing Authority's strong-arm tactics to take the land. With little warning, the agency in 2002 took 55 landowners to court, where a judge forced them to sell. In return, homeowners were compensated with what to them were piddling amounts. In all, the landowners split about $4.5 million, a fraction of what land sells for in nearby downtown.

The Housing Authority's plans for Merry Place have been beset from the beginning. Last year, the agency picked Lennar Corp. to build most of the project without first hammering out any of the specifics, including how much it will cost and whether the Housing Authority will make any money from it. Plans include no requirement that buyers actually live in the new housing, opening up the prospect that investors could buy the properties and flip them for a profit.

Moreover, the Housing Authority plans give no preference to minority community members. There's no insider price for relocated residents, no special status for community members who are interested in buying the new houses -- fatal errors, as far as federal housing officials were concerned. Publicly supported housing projects in traditionally minority neighborhoods should put a preference on allowing current residents to return, according to Donna White, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which denied the project federal funding.

Without HUD money, the Housing Authority is now beginning the $30 million project without a clear way to pay for it. Already, the agency has taken out a $3 million loan to buy the land, and city officials say the Housing Authority may be getting too far in debt to work its way out.

By now, the beleaguered Housing Authority's critics -- including numerous West Palm city officials -- openly express doubts that the agency can ever complete the plans. For years, the Housing Authority has been plagued by mismanagement, including a fistfight at a public meeting and multiple examples of corruption by several of its board members and staff. Sums up City Commissioner Ray Liberti: "They couldn't run a one-car funeral."

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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