Murphy's Law

Year after year, Murphy school district officials watched their students die in a hail of violence. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

Many observers say Donofrio's willingness to broaden his schools' mission and share school facilities has been a key to the district's success with lowering juvenile crime rates and keeping kids in school.

For the past six years, the Garcia Business Partnership, headed by Holsum Bakery President Ed Eisele, has involved Fleming Foods, the Maricopa Juvenile Probation office and numerous others in projects at the Garcia school.

The district has been working closely with Safe Haven to create new housing in the neighborhood -- the first significant residential development to reach the area in a generation.

The Murphy school district takes in some of the city's most blighted areas.
New Times
The Murphy school district takes in some of the city's most blighted areas.
Paolo Vescia
Rogelio Aragůn, a member of the "Wake-Up" schools club in Murphy district, skating at the Coliseum.

And many neighborhood leaders credit Donofrio and his colleagues with helping to spark the community coalitions and block watches that became active in the late 1980s.

"Bob's area is a good example of what can happen when you get more people involved," says McCort. "You have business teaming up with education and government pulling its role.

"And Bob also has the community. That's the hardest thing to do. If you can't get the community involved and find a way to maintain that, you're doomed to failure."

The Murphy district is a gritty 12-square-mile area that extends north from the Salt River to Van Buren Street, and west from 19th Avenue to 39th Avenue. It's split by Buckeye Road, one of the most notorious strips of drugs and prostitution in the city. The residential neighborhoods toward the Van Buren edge are checkered with dilapidation and occasional efforts to keep things tidy. South toward Buckeye and Durango Street, the district is an urban backstage filled with the ugly industrial props and services that cities need but neighborhoods don't want.

Few trees grow here, and few neighborhoods, either. The pockets of private residences, apartments and trailer parks are engulfed by trucking firms, used-tire outfits -- businesses that sprout overnight, then disappear weeks or months later -- and scrap yards where broken cars are stacked like so many crab shells above the rooflines of nearby buildings.

For many years, the area had no realistic city plan and no planning committee to represent the community's interests in zoning or development issues. While other neighborhoods had village planning committees and friendly names like North Mountain Village or Camelback East Village, Murphy and its surroundings were known at City Hall simply as Peripheral Area A.

Last year, after a decade of lobbying by Donofrio and neighborhood leaders, the city renamed the area Estrella Village and established a planning committee. More recently, the Phoenix City Council approved a village plan to guide future development.

Call it what you will, but Murphy remains a peripheral area. It has no safe parks, no library, no community centers. Its only food stores are Circle Ks.

The most prominent public facilities are the line of county juvenile and adult jails along Durango Street, the city's wastewater treatment plant and a solid waste transfer station near the river bottom.

The area is loaded with poverty, drugs, prostitution and homeless drifters trekking back and forth from the indigent services on Madison Street near the state Capitol to the Phoenix Rescue Mission at 35th Avenue south of Buckeye Road. Like other poor areas of the city, people walk long distances here because they have no cars. Mothers make their way along Buckeye or north through the neighborhood to buy food and other essentials on Van Buren, two or three young children straggling behind them.

The area, says one urban planner who works regularly with the city, is "Phoenix's model for slum development."

The real estate boom of the 1970s brought junky duplex and triplex apartments that later declined into some of the city's nastiest slums. In the 1980s, they festered into busy fencing and drug operations.

During that same period, the city regularly rezoned Murphy's residential neighborhoods into industrial property, turning the area into the Valley's auto scrap yard and junk heap.

"The assumption at the city," says Conrad Spohnholz, who heads Safe Haven, which has been building new homes for low-income workers in the community, "was that the area was going to go industrial. That industrial thrust would force out the occupants, so there would be no need for residential property."

But it hasn't worked out that way. A steady flow of impoverished immigrants into the district has given it as many students today, about 2,500, as it had 20 years ago.

Such issues might seem far removed from academic achievement. But Donofrio links them to the education and welfare of the district's families, and the long-term fight against gangs and juvenile crime.

"A lot of people don't understand," he says, "that you cannot deal with gangs unless you're dealing with economic renewal. Gangs fester on the poverty and hopelessness out there. And they move in wherever you have the kind of family instability that leads kids to gravitate toward adoptive families, which is what gangs really are."

When Donofrio arrived in the district as a special education teacher in the early 1970s -- a longhaired, blue-collar kid from central New Jersey -- Murphy had the friendly feel of an old-fashioned neighborhood.

"It was poor then," he says. "But there wasn't any fear."

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