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

About a year and a half ago, Avelar attended a swank reception at the Legacy golf community, a splashy new development between Southern Avenue and Baseline. He was standing by the pool, gazing southward past the golf greens and posh homes at the crag of mountains, when a woman sidled up to him and commented, "Now this is the kind of development we've needed down here for a long time."

Avelar agreed, but wondered aloud when south Phoenix will have had enough of high-end development:

"We've got the Raven [golf course]. We've got the Legacy. Thunderbird is going to be turning into another gated community. What's going to happen to those people who've been here for generations, what's going to happen to our senior citizens who are just paying taxes. Are they going to be forced out by assessment? And the cost of housing skyrocketing?

Michael Johnson, a retired Phoenix police officer, wants to fight the blight that has taken over many south Phoenix neighborhoods.
Kevin Scanlon
Michael Johnson, a retired Phoenix police officer, wants to fight the blight that has taken over many south Phoenix neighborhoods.
State Representative Carlos Avelar says Latinos have historically failed to get eligible Hispanic voters to the polls.
State Representative Carlos Avelar says Latinos have historically failed to get eligible Hispanic voters to the polls.

"Without blinking, she says to me, 'What about relocation?'"

The sentiment doesn't resonate well with longtime residents who drive past these glitzy new communities on their way to neighborhoods that have never had even basic niceties.

"One of the things that's happening," says Johnson, "is that the more people see these new places and what they have, they're going to start comparing that with what they don't have. They're going to want the little amenities like the sidewalks, the curbs, the real nice parks."

In a neighborhood near 20th Street and Broadway, he turns down a street of hardscrabble yards strewn with trash and broken beer bottles. He slows in passing the torched hulk of a house and an abandoned duplex, then points out one small well-kept white house with a yard of young trees.

"A lot of times, people living in places like this have just given up," he says. "They don't have no hope. But you've got good people over here who are trying to maintain and improve their property. But there's great odds against that."

A few years ago, Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks attended a meeting at a central city neighborhood, near 7th Avenue and Buckeye, to talk about improving services. The area is one of the most beleaguered in the district, the product of years of public and private neglect.

"We were talking about development of things like street lights, stop signs, sidewalks, streets -- basic stuff that has been historically neglected in many of District 8's older neighborhoods," recalls Feliciano Vera. "And he said that south Phoenix is never going to be Paradise Valley. What struck me was how disconnected the idea of these basic needs was from the idea of Paradise Valley."

"Some of the problems our neighborhoods have," he says, "can be traced to the fact that too many people here just don't vote. They don't vote because they're not taken seriously."

Touring the blocks west of 7th Avenue, Vera pulls his truck to the corner of 11th Avenue and Pima, barely a 20 minute walk from City Hall. He stares through the windshield at an obliterated neighborhood of broken houses amid a trash-strewn expanse of dirt lots, the kind of scene he hopes to do something about if elected.

"This is pretty typical for down here. These neighborhoods languish because the decision over time has been to leave them be. There's not the political will to work at stabilizing them.

"There aren't many votes here. There's no money that comes out of these neighborhoods. Their median income is probably $10,000 a year. But they're sitting on prime real estate. So the owners of these lots are just sitting on them, waiting for the big bucks to come by.

"The investment hasn't been here," he continues. "The investment has gone to the outlying reaches of the city, to the newer developments where people haven't given up."

Voting trends help to explain why.

Though District 8's population has grown by more than 26,000, to nearly 152,000, in the past decade, its number of registered voters has declined by about 4,000, this despite a successful effort in south Phoenix last year by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project that enrolled about 2,900 new voters.

Other inner-city districts suffer from similar disparities between population and voting: District 7 has gained more than 46,000 people while losing 4,700 voters; District 5, 52,000 while losing 7,000 voters.

Not surprisingly, predominantly non-Hispanic white outer districts -- 2 and 3 and parts of 6 -- have gained both population and voters.

In a system where money and votes are twin pillars of influence, this drain of votes has stunted the power of inner-city areas, which are booming with Hispanic-driven growth, to get the city's attention and services.

This growing powerlessness is compounded by the failure of politicians to discuss the impact these shifts are having on neighborhoods in and around District 8.

"There's not a lot of honesty about this," says Vera, "because politicians are looking to save their skins. They won't and can't talk about it because it is political dynamite."

"You've got multiple communities in the same physical space," he says, "but they don't interact with each other. You've got immigrant communities that exist in a shadow world. They support our real estate industry. They support our service sector. They have largely supported the growth, but they're not citizens. They don't have the full rights. We're a city in denial about these kinds of issues."

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