Silent Majority

Although immigration has filled the central city with minorities, Hispanics remain neighborhood inactivists

In his 1999 State of the Neighborhoods address, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza touted the growing number of neighborhood organizations, the groups gaining strength with the city's explosive growth. In the previous decade, associations led by grassroots activists had jumped from a meager 28 to a robust 676.

"That's remarkable," he declared. "And that's how we're solving our problems. That's how we're building our community."

That number is now more than 800. Yet in the central city, where Hispanic immigration is fast transforming neighborhood life, a gulf has opened up between established neighborhood-association leaders and the communities they claim to represent. These organizations do everything from sponsor neighborhood cleanups and yard sales to lobby City Hall and marshal local forces to carry out city programs like Neighborhood Fight Back.

A bilingual sign of the changing times at St. Paul's 
Episcopal Church in the Green Gables neighborhood.
Paolo Vescia
A bilingual sign of the changing times at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the Green Gables neighborhood.

"What we've got are communities existing side by side," says Alma Williams, founder and head of the Green Gables Neighborhood Association of east central Phoenix. "But we're not talking to each other. We're just not working together."

Williams should know. For the past year, she's been at the center of the city's political storm over mobile food vending, which pitted relatively young families of Hispanic food vendors against older Anglo and a few Hispanic neighborhood activists, and ruptured relations among an alliance of anti-vendor neighborhood activists ("Taco Hell," Edward Lebow, September 28). Last year she and another east central Phoenix community leader abandoned vendor opponents to negotiate a compromise with the vendors.

The negotiations led to proposed new regulations for the largely mom-and-pop industry -- approved October 4 by the Phoenix City Council -- and a rancorous summer of public meetings at which west Phoenix community activists accused the vendors and Williams of trying to degrade city neighborhoods.

The activists, who were almost all Anglo, never numbered more than 20, although they often claimed to represent more than 60 other neighborhood organizations.

"What you saw was a handful of white people who opposed the vendors standing up and saying they're the neighborhood leaders when, in some cases, 80 and 90 percent of the neighborhood is Hispanic," says Williams.

Vicki Chriswell, who led one of several anti-vendor neighborhood factions and heads the Westview Manor Neighborhood Association, near 35th Avenue and McDowell Road, says, "It wasn't just white folks who are against this. We've got plenty of Hispanic neighbors who don't like this stuff."

But few of them were willing to attend the meetings and say so.

That reluctance was obvious last June when Chriswell and her anti-vendor forces met weekly to discuss strategy at a west-side mortuary. After surveying the mostly white and elderly crowd one night, a young white man in a back pew observed that the group needed Hispanic support if it was going to force tougher restrictions on the vendors. That support never materialized for Chriswell.

"It's been a real problem for us," Chriswell says. "I don't think we'd be in the mess we're in if we'd been able to get more Hispanics involved. But they're just not willing to get out there."

Unless, that is, the issue involves their children or threatens their livelihoods or homes.

After the city's perceived threat to close their businesses, vendors packed many public hearings with standing-room-only crowds of families and children. Their mobilization embarrassed the city, outflanked neighborhood opponents and won significant protections for their right to exist. Their success offered a glimpse of the muscle that the grassroots unity of newcomers and old-line neighborhood activists could flex at City Hall.

Williams says the specter of Anglos continually claiming to represent Hispanics who won't get involved "is truly detrimental to the neighborhood movement. And if things continue like they're going now, this whole neighborhood movement is going to become nothing more than an oxymoron."

Her own neighborhood is a prime example.

She says efforts to recruit Hispanics to her neighborhood's cause have been a bust.

"We've tried to recruit Hispanics every way possible," she says. "Every time I'd find a Spanish-speaking resident who seemed the least bit interested, I'd latch onto them, and plead with them to come to our meetings."

She found translators for meetings. She sent out fliers in Spanish and English. But more often than not, she says, the effort only provoked criticism.

When she did convince Hispanic residents to attend, Williams says, "They'd come to a few meetings. Then they'd just wander off and I'd never hear from them again."

Prominent west Phoenix neighborhood activist Donna Neill, who heads NAILEM, an organization that lobbies for neighborhood issues, says her group has encountered the same reluctance.

"We've had a bilingual speaker at every meeting for the past three years. But I haven't had anyone show up. Every community reaches out. We're just not getting the hand back."

Neill contends that Hispanics come to neighborhood events only when "there's something free or an offer for them to receive something. But when it comes time to support getting rid of drug houses or cleaning the area or being responsible, there's no involvement."

Neill's remarks may sound racist, but Hispanic community organizers point out that free food and giveaways are a basic hook to get people -- Hispanic, Anglo and other -- to attend community meetings.

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