Last August, about 30 residents of Central City South, a few city officials and some interested outsiders gathered in the steamy summer heat at the Valley Christian Center at 13th Avenue and Hadley Street to hear what the city planned to do about this neighborhood in need of help.
Stuck between the railroad tracks downtown and I-17, from Central to 19th Avenue, Central City South comprises dozens of city blocks that for years have been mired in poverty, degradation and environmental blight. The area is an unsettling mix of housing and industry. It's close enough to Sky Harbor International Airport, just to the east, that residents are inundated with jet noise. It takes in nearly half of all of Phoenix's city-owned public housing. But city leaders have largely ignored the area.
So residents were angry -- though perhaps not too surprised -- when Deputy City Manager Jacques Avent began telling the crowd last summer that their neighborhood has always been run-down and the city had no plans or money to improve the situation.
Avent didn't get far in his public dismissal of Central City South before Ethel Lane, a longtime businesswoman who heads a local neighborhood association, cut him off -- and down a notch or two, by most accounts.
"After Jacques said the neighborhood had always been inferior," Lane says now, "I asked him how long he had been in the city of Phoenix to make that statement. I think he told me seven or 10 years. I just didn't think that was long enough."
"He was supposed to come down and give the people hope," she says. "Instead, my perception was that he more or less looked down on the entire area."
Lane told him to take a seat. And that's putting it kindly.
People who witnessed the tongue-lashing say it might still have been on Avent's mind last month when he insisted on quashing a federal National Endowment for the Arts grant proposal that could have started the neighborhood on a path toward renewal.
Whatever the reason, this top city official whom some community organizers privately call "Darth Avent" has consistently blocked meaningful assistance to this troubled community. His actions have gone against the wishes of a city council subcommittee and councilman Cody Williams, who represents the area. He's alienated nonprofit groups like the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and ASU's Joint Urban Design Program, which have worked with Williams and area residents to reverse years of decline.
A respected city planner who worked on the recently scuttled federal grant proposal has quit, in part, some say, because of Avent's obstruction of comprehensive planning in Central City South and other beleaguered neighborhoods.
Now, Avent's boss, City Manager Frank Fairbanks, is scrambling to soothe tempers around City Hall and Central City South. Fairbanks met with the PRC board last month -- the first time he'd visited the eight-year-old nonprofit organization -- to reassure members that the city intends to help.
Late last month, to mollify Williams and community organizers concerned over the killing of the NEA grant application, Fairbanks told Avent to rush together an application for another grant, a highly competitive $35 million HUD award that could help revive the area around Central City South's public housing.
Avent had been opposed to using that HUD money in Central City South. He and the city's housing director, Manny Gonzalez, think the dollars would be better spent at the Foothills housing project at 7th Avenue near Southern, although, according to local HUD officials, that project probably won't meet the grant's stringent criteria.
Fairbanks defends his lieutenant, saying Avent's actions haven't been out of line or against city policy. He says Avent's position reflects a genuine concern about the wisdom of building homes in the flight path -- an issue the city still needs to resolve.
But Williams and community organizers say Avent and city management have used the airport as an excuse to avoid facing other difficult issues that would accompany efforts to revitalize Central City South.
Many of those problems were raised last April by neighborhood residents, urban planners, architects and landscape architects at a neighborhood urban design workshop co-sponsored by ASU and the PRC. The workshop recommended developing a specific plan for the area to improve street lighting, traffic, housing, shopping, environmental quality and other urban basics. The workshop recommendations were endorsed last November by a city council subcommittee headed by councilman Williams. That endorsement led to the NEA proposal.
The saga of the grants demonstrates not only the conflicting agendas of elected city council members and the un-elected officials at the city of Phoenix. It shows the powerful influence that top-level bureaucrats like Avent have on public policy.
"But he works for someone, doesn't he? And he shouldn't be free to say yes or no to anything without the okay from his supervisor. Frank Fairbanks should be his boss. And as far as he goes, we elected our councilman to hold him in tow."
Avent, one of the six deputy city managers under Fairbanks, has held that position since 1992. He's been with the city since 1989. He is considered a savvy administrator whose oversight of the city's Housing, Public Works and Neighborhood Services Departments gives him power over the city's increasing number of blighted neighborhoods. His influence over policy in minority neighborhoods is bolstered by his urban roots -- he headed the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C., for nine years and oversaw the formation of Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department in the early 1990s -- and the fact that he's one of just a few African Americans at the high end of city management.
Avent says he doesn't oppose improving Central City South, although he won't say specifically how he would go about it. He says he just doesn't want to put any new housing there because airport noise and other environmental issues make it a miserable place to live.
But some members of the city council think otherwise. Cody Williams says the council has never opposed new or upgraded housing for Central City South, a short walk from downtown. Williams says the council subcommittee essentially directed city officials to pursue new funding, like the NEA grant, and partnerships that could lead to new housing and commerce in the area.
"Staff has intentionally drug its feet on this," he says. "And that's going against some of the policy direction that they have been given."
Williams says he met with Avent and Fairbanks after he first heard about Avent's interference. "And I said, 'This has got to stop, Jacques, unless you've got a better plan on how to stabilize the conditions of people in this neighborhood. And unless you introduce it to me somewhere soon, you've got to come and get on board.'"
Community meetings don't usually arouse soulful outbursts of "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord." But when Dolores Moore, a silver-haired black woman, began preaching about city officials' neglect of Central City South at last April's urban design workshop, people in the audience couldn't restrain themselves. At 83, Moore is versed in just about all of the city's delays and broken promises.
"What I'm trying to say to you all is quit putting us off," she stormed. "Every time we get something and bring it up there and try to stop some of this stuff, somebody comes in and says, 'After a while.'"
She stretched the phrase out long enough to cover her more than 60 years in the neighborhood. Then, staring across the room at councilman Williams, she asked sharply, "I want to know when is 'after a while'? What do you call 'after a while'? When are you going to start?"
City officials say the area's daunting problems make it difficult to know where to begin.
Sandwiched between Phoenix's emerging downtown core and the $80 million Rio Salado Project, Central City South has been the historical dumping ground for just about everything and everyone that no other Phoenix neighborhood would have.
Its airport-related noise, dust and pollution almost make Jacques Avent's reluctance to build housing here seem sensible.
But people have continued to live here. It is the oldest part of modern-day Phoenix, the spot where Englishman Darrel Duppa built his house and started the town in the 1800s. And some government officials and community organizers, like resident Ethel Lane and PRC executive director Terry Davis, point out that unless the city plans to abandon or move its public housing, it will have to begin dealing realistically with the area's problems.
Some of those problems can be traced to its long history of racial segregation and poverty. This was for years one of the few areas in the Valley where blacks could own homes. It's been redlined by banks and insurance companies, not to mention pizza shops, which, until last year, wouldn't deliver to the neighborhood after 4 p.m. Even now, 60 percent of the residents are below the federal poverty line.
The recent influx of Mexican immigrants has made the neighborhood's ethnic mix of African Americans and Hispanics more brown than black.
But the blight has not changed. Crumbling buildings and the lack of sidewalks and sufficient street lighting give many blocks a look of abandonment; 60 percent of the lots in Central City South are unoccupied or have houses too run-down to salvage, according to a recent PRC study.
Grime from small industries, fuel residue from airplanes and heavy truck traffic also afflict the community, which has one of the highest rates of children's respiratory disease in the Valley.
As explosive growth has moved political clout and city resources toward the suburbs, Phoenix has been forced to practice inner-city triage. Neighborhoods on the slide are tossed a few bones, such as small anti-crime and anti-blight grants and federal funds for rehabilitating some housing. Most of Central City South has been left to disintegrate, awaiting the day when the land values drop so low that speculators can scoop up blocks at a time, then clear the area and build upscale developments.
"They want our property, but they don't want us," says Mildred Perkins, who moved into the New Homes development in the southwest corner of Central City South when the houses, built for black families in the 1950s, were actually new.
Armando Gandarilla, a county probation department official who grew up in the neighborhood and serves on the PRC board, says many residents "fear that if the city goes whole hog down the tracks to revitalization that the poor people will be swept out of there."
Phoenix officials say they don't have any specific plans for Central City South. In fact, that's one of the reasons councilman Williams invited ASU's urban experts to conduct a workshop there. No city department has looked with any depth at the neighborhood for years, even though the city's general plan, approved by the city council in 1985, calls for housing in much of this area.
And workers in the increasing number of low-income service jobs being generated downtown need affordable housing nearby.
Housing and urban authorities say that Central City South is one of the few logical places to strike that needed balance between jobs and housing.
"There's no question that that area has to be a piece of that puzzle," says Donald Keuth, director of the Phoenix Community Alliance, a coalition of business and corporate leaders that pushes for downtown development, which supported the NEA grant application.
City councilman Phil Gordon, who represents District 4, covering much of the central city north of downtown, says the city's "infill" policy, which reduces city fees on houses built on vacant land in some parts of the city, "should apply uniformly across the board in those areas where we've got vacant lots. That's what the council adopted."
Still, a new downtown housing policy the city is now drafting ignores the Central City South neighborhood.
The omission doesn't surprise Terry Davis, executive director of the PRC. She met Jacques Avent last summer at the funeral for Julia Goddard, the mother of former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard. The funeral was just two days after Avent's encounter with Ethel Lane.
Davis says he told her that people in Central City South had to lower their expectations. She says Avent said he wouldn't put any new housing into that area so long as that meant bringing in more people who would sue the city over airport noise and other related issues.
Avent recalls the conversation, too. He says he meant that he opposed adding housing to parts of the neighborhood, particularly east of 7th Avenue, where jet noise is the loudest. (In those areas, new construction using HUD or FHA funds would require sound mitigation such as insulated windows and doors -- adding to the construction costs, but lowering future heating and cooling expenses.)
But Rebecca Flanagan, a HUD official who introduced Davis to Avent at the funeral and overheard his remark, says, "There was nothing ambiguous about it." She says Avent was making a blanket statement of opposition to housing in the entire area.
Avent insists his position is good public policy, and that if the city encouraged low-income housing in a neighborhood with known environmental issues, it would be accused in the future of practicing environmental racism. He cites HUD regulations against building in areas affected by jet noise.
But Davis, like Keuth and others, points out that quieter jet engines have reduced noise in parts of the neighborhood. The latest draft of a new noise-impact study being done by the city's aviation department shows it's noisier east of 7th Avenue, where much of the area's existing housing is concentrated. HUD officials say the new jet engines make it possible to build without restrictions in most of the western half of Central City South. Dave Kreitor, director of the city's aviation department, says his department is considering using some of its estimated $80 million in federal noise mitigation money to build replacement housing for people now living in areas hit hardest by jet noise who want to relocate. Some of that housing could be built west of 7th Avenue.
Williams says Avent's opposition to housing because of the noise "is truly a stonewall."
If Avent's position is official city policy, Davis contends, "they need to let the people who live here know that. To heck with this 'raising expectations.' I mean what expectations? That they're not going to have a neighborhood? Okay, then let's tell them.
"Do they not have the balls to even tell people that? And they sit here and allow and encourage the devaluation of this land. And they wonder why the people don't trust them?"
The NEA grant would have helped pay for a competition to redesign parts of the Central City South neighborhood.
The proposal, which was submitted to the federal arts agency by former city planner Carol Johnson, called for designers to come up with a new model for reviving the neighborhood by replacing the bad housing without displacing the people who live there. Insiders say it ran afoul of Avent's opposition to additional housing in the area.
Avent insists he knew nothing about the grant and had no hand in killing it. "Why would I give a shit about a little $50,000 NEA grant?" he tells New Times. "I'll come down there and take a lie detector test."
But e-mails show that Avent was kept regularly informed about the grant and other efforts to carry out the council subcommittee's direction to revitalize Central City South.
City officials who were present at a February 10 meeting at which the grant was discussed say that Avent led the discussion and insisted that Johnson drop the project.
The meeting was held, officials say, because Fairbanks was scheduled to talk to the PRC board the following week. He needed to know what commitments the city was willing to make to the neighborhood.
Planning director David Richert, who attended the February 10 meeting, says he agreed the NEA proposal should be dropped because city leaders didn't want to raise expectations in the community. Richert previously had supported the grant.
Johnson, who resigned from the city two weeks ago, won't talk about the grant or other related work in Central City South, or why she decided to leave her city post.
City records show that in early February, Johnson informed Avent, Fairbanks and other top city officials that the grant application had passed the first round of NEA review and that the city needed to submit a formal application by mid-April. She sent Avent a copy of the proposal letter, which details the purpose of the grant, how the city would have used it, and the names of the private corporations that had agreed to contribute $50,000 in matching funds the NEA required. Johnson also outlined her efforts to other city officials, who passed the information on to Avent.
City officials say Avent was adamantly opposed to encouraging anything that raised expectations for housing, and that any new housing in the area would quickly become another slum. He, Fairbanks and others were particularly wary of repeating another ASU-like workshop where city management could not control the outcome.
Several days after the meeting with Avent, Johnson asked Frank Fairbanks whether she should go forward with the application.
"I don't have time to support an NEA application fight," he replied via e-mail. "Besides, I don't really understand the connection between the arts and the solution of this problem ..."
Fairbanks now tells New Times that he was worried the NEA grant would result in "a grand plan that turns South Central into the town of Paradise Valley. Then everybody's going to presume that somebody in the world has the money to do that. That would be okay if we had it, but we ain't got it."
Johnson formally withdrew the NEA application in mid-February. The city has "no consensus on the future direction for the area," she wrote in an e-mail to the agency's administrator. Without that "and a commitment to make future investments in this area, our grant application would not have been viable."
Cody Williams heard about the decision to kill the NEA grant four days after the February 10 meeting. And then it was from ASU urban design staff, not someone from City Hall.
"We told him at a community meeting," says John McIntosh of ASU. "It was the first Cody had heard of it. So he said he was going to call Frank Fairbanks that night to find out what was going on."
Fairbanks told Williams the city was going after the $35 million HUD grant instead. What Fairbanks didn't tell Williams was the grant was so last-minute that it probably wouldn't fly. And that Fairbanks had to overcome Avent's opposition to applying for the grant for Central City South, and that the NEA grant would have led to a design that was required to qualify for the HUD grant.
Moreover, the HUD grant is an odd choice for someone wary of raising expectations. The Hope VI grant program, as it's called, was designed to overhaul public housing and reverse its negative impact on surrounding neighborhoods. Cities have used it to replace blighted concentrations of low-income rental housing with new combinations of mixed-income owned and rented housing.
Still, Fairbanks' scurrying to get the Hope VI grant is perhaps not too surprising. City e-mails reveal profound ignorance and confusion at top levels of city management about both the grant process and the steps the city needs to take to assemble a plan to salvage this troubled city neighborhood.
Johnson and HUD officials had been advising Fairbanks and other city managers that the concentration of older public housing in Central City South and the community's efforts to rethink the neighborhood made it a good candidate for the large HUD grant.
The problem was that Avent and Gonzalez were opposed to spending the grant money there. Instead, they preferred to ask for money for the city-owned Foothills housing project, despite having been told by local HUD officials that Foothills probably would not meet the community-development criteria used to judge the grant applications.
E-mails show that Fairbanks was trying to convince Avent and Gonzalez to get an application on track. But time was short. The application is due in less than 45 days. HUD officials say most successful applicants spend many months, if not years, laying the groundwork for grants of this magnitude.
It requires extensive community involvement. And thus far, say Gonzalez and others, no one from the city or the PRC has mentioned the idea to the residents living in any of the affected housing projects.
Gonzalez says he hasn't been directed by anyone in city management to write the grant. "Frank did tell me to look at it. So at this point, I'm still assessing it."
Another problem, he adds, is "you need to actually have a design of what you want to do. I wasn't aware of that."
Carol Johnson was, but she's gone.
"So we are just going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat," Fairbanks says now.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org