Primary Colors

A Phoenix City Council race is pitting Hispanic hopes against black history

A split in the Latino vote between Vera and Fimbres could send the election into a November 6 runoff with Johnson and perhaps Trace Vencenza, an Anglo who is president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association and has strong support in the in the upscale historic areas on the edge of the district.

This upheaval would seem to favor Johnson because the black community usually votes as an overwhelming bloc. In the last council election in the district, in 1997, some heavily African-American precincts powered Cody Williams' win with 80 percent to 98 percent of the vote.

"What you've got in District 8 this year," says attorney Daniel Ortega, who's part of the coalition backing Vera, "is basically a free-for-all. Right from the beginning we felt that having two Hispanics run was going to cost the other. Now we've got a situation where they're clearly going after the same voters."

Some Hispanic and African-American leaders say Trace Vencenza could draw a significant number of votes in the historic neighborhoods.
Kevin Scanlon
Some Hispanic and African-American leaders say Trace Vencenza could draw a significant number of votes in the historic neighborhoods.
State Representative Leah Landrum-Taylor says blacks sometimes feel invisible as the Latino population skyrockets.
Paolo Vescia
State Representative Leah Landrum-Taylor says blacks sometimes feel invisible as the Latino population skyrockets.

"You could potentially wind up with a situation where you don't have an Hispanic in the runoff at all."

From a trail halfway up the north face of South Mountain, most of District 8 lies within a single sweeping view. Down the dusty, scrub-covered hills and washes below the mountain, it extends north in patterns of red and tawny walls and rooftops toward the dry, sand-trap river that splits the district. It tilts uphill across the Salt and passes beyond the first rung of glittering high rises downtown. Off to the right, it reaches the easternmost end of the runways at Sky Harbor Airport.

On a map, the area seems a unified, if ragged rectangle stretching from the mountain to Thomas Road, and west from the Tempe border at 48th Street to 19th Avenue. But in the neighborhoods of south and central Phoenix that unity gives way to a jolting array of urban contrasts -- perhaps the most diverse in the city.

In some areas, expensive homes and pricey urban amenities are just across the street from landscapes of abject poverty, crime and neglect. In downtown itself, the gleaming commercial and governmental towers, theaters, museums, stadium and arena are just a short walk from the crack-fed blight of neighborhoods engulfed by homeless people -- many on drugs, many mentally ill -- drifting from one social service or splash of shade to another.

This alternating current of rich and poor, old and new, hasn't always fueled the district's image.

For many years vast portions of District 8 were dumping grounds for the unlucky or undesirable. In the era of more formalized segregation, discriminatory property deeds and banking practices, it was the only place where African Americans and Hispanics could own homes. For much of the past generation, its neighborhoods have been burdened by poor schools, poor commerce, lousy shopping, crumbling and non-existent infrastructure, a decaying stock of affordable housing and high rates of poverty and crime.

The banks of the Salt River, at the heart of the district, have been taken over by grimy car-crushing and recycling businesses, sand- and gravel-mining operations and toxic waste dumps.

These malignancies have kept property values preposterously low. Yet in what seems an inevitable turn of events in a city pressurized in the past decade by booming growth and a sound national economy, the low values have made the district one of the city's hottest destinations for an incongruous mix of impoverished immigrants, real estate speculators and developers.

Across the formerly rural southern breadth of the city, acres of cotton fields, commercial flower gardens and citrus orchards have given way to suburban-style boulevards lined with industrial parks and high-end housing developments, outfitted in a few instances with golf courses.

Cody Williams gets much of the credit for attracting this influx of private wealth and business, and for cheerleading the area's proximity and significance to a downtown that badly needs the abundance of low-wage service workers that District 8 has traditionally housed.

Still, some fault Williams for what they say are his cozy relationships with developers. They contend that this has prompted him to support wiping out poor and neglected areas, rather than providing them with the basic services and improvements that would help to reverse their decay.

Some even say he has forgotten his own deep roots in the area.

His father, Travis, was a contractor who built homes -- many for African Americans -- in south Phoenix, laying some of the groundwork for communities that, despite periods of trouble, have remained some of the tightest in the city.

"These are people who have been here for a long, long time," says Mike Johnson. "They raised their families here. They stayed through the bad times. And they always stuck together."

The same is true of many older, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

"There's always been a sense of community here," says state Representative Carlos Avelar, whose south Phoenix home is surrounded by generations of his family. "We don't all live on the same block. But a block directly west of me is the street where my sister lives. A block south of me another sister lives. My kids, my daughter and her husband are there. I like going to Fry's or Food City. Getting a gallon of milk isn't a 15-minute thing. Because you're bound to run into somebody you know."

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