Silent Majority

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.

"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.

There's no debate over the demographic shifts that are transforming the heart of the city.

Says Williams, "What's been happening here is really a Hispanic tsunami."

Tom Rex, who heads Arizona State University's Center for Business Research, says that wave is carrying Hispanics far beyond the traditional Latino concentrations in the city. They are expanding out of south central Phoenix, he says, "across the west side through Maryvale. And there's a surge on the east side out toward 24th Street and McDowell."

This shift is "not just an outward spread of Hispanics who've already been here for a while," he adds. "These appear to be relative newcomers."

In the Green Gables area, which extends from McDowell to Thomas roads between the Squaw Peak Parkway and 32nd Street, Hispanic immigration helped raise the population from about 5,500 to slightly more than 8,000 between 1980 and 1995, the last year for which census data are available. During that time, the Anglo population dwindled from 84 percent to about 40 percent, while the Hispanic population jumped from 12 percent to 51 percent.

The immigrants are poorer, younger and more transient than the established residents of the area. To save money, they've squeezed into tighter quarters, often doubling and tripling up families. And they've brought in more children, filling the nearby Creighton School District beyond capacity.

Williams says the first commercial signal of change came in the early 1990s when the area's Safeway store became a Southwest Supermarket, which stocks products preferred by Hispanics. Since then, the business strips, particularly along McDowell Road, have erupted with joyerias, carnicerias, and check-cashing and money-wiring businesses that cater to the new immigrants. These businesses have enlivened previously dead storefronts, giving the street an urban buzz that was unthinkable as recently as five years ago.

The influx has also brought equally unimaginable culture clashes and poverty-fed problems to an area that was once a cozy suburban incubator for young working-class Anglo families in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. (Deed restrictions and limited rental properties kept out almost everyone but white homeowners.) The area was part of the first ring of suburbs around Phoenix. Yet through the 1980s and '90s, that ring became a trouble spot in an ever-widening urban doughnut.

The Green Gables association, which was formed in 1991, labeled one of its monthly gatherings a "crime and junk" session, says Williams, "because that's basically what we were dealing with."

The list of grievances ranged from nuisances like loud music, backyard businesses and nonstop parties to the larger sins of rental slums, crack and coyote houses and prostitution. Yards and alleys were full of garbage, junked furniture and cars. And the crime rates soared with the rise of gangs and the local drug trade.

Those troubles often put the association and immigrants at odds.

"What happens is the immigrants come here and park their cars on the lawn and hang their clothes all over the outside," says Williams. "Then they drag their couches into the front yard and they're having their parties and music and a good time, but everything is a mess."

Ralph Figueroa, a former neighborhood organizer for nonprofit community development agencies in Sunnyslope and south central Phoenix, says some of that's a cultural thing. "The immigrants I dealt with usually felt that if it's their yard, they can play music and have a siesta with a little food, a little fun, a celebration of life where neighbors can informally drop by."

But to folks in the neighborhood association, he continues, "it's more a matter of community values and what makes a good citizen. If you're a good citizen, do you leave junked vehicles in your front yard? Do you pile up trash in the front? Do you keep the music at a level that you can enjoy without forcing the neighborhood to hear it?"

Williams says the friction between old-timers and newcomers is compounded by the city's refusal to enforce such code violations unless the neighborhood files a complaint. "So we're put in the position of having to complain about the people we want to bring along," she says. "That's not a real good way to make friends or gain trust or accomplish any of those things your neighborhood needs to do."

Recent immigrants say that the Anglo-dominated groups don't really want to include them.

"They don't listen to what we say or feel," says a young man who lives just off Buckeye Road in downtown Phoenix. He wouldn't give his name. "They don't count you. They make reunions of their own people. If we heard that people are trying to clean up the streets in the neighborhood, we would help. But we never hear about these things."

Like many immigrants, he says the language barrier, even when translators are available, remains an enormous problem for many newcomers. "It makes you feel segregated."

Williams says newcomers often had a right to feel that way.

"I would find these people and invite them to join us," says Williams. "And when they did, some buttoned-up white woman would say something like, 'Well, the trouble with these Mexicans is they're just uncivilized.'"

Guille Sastré, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1983 and now runs the Creciendo Unidos (growing together) program which works with families frayed by immigration, says the most jolting part of her move here was becoming an overnight minority.

"That's something I had never felt before," she says. "It was very confusing, because things I was proud of I started to feel shame for. I felt inadequacy, frustration and lonely."

Those feelings, say Sastré and other immigrants, aren't likely to be eased or resolved by attending neighborhood Block Watch meetings. Especially when those meetings include uniformed police talking about McGruff the crime dog.

"Just the presence of uniforms or city officials who come to the meetings is enough to scare off people who may not have their papers," says Figueroa.

City officials insist that the police attending Block Watch meetings aren't there to take a head count for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But Figueroa and others say the Chandler roundup of Hispanics several years back ruined what little trust newcomers have in the police. Immigrants have also told New Times they fear the INS.

To dispel the intimidating aura of officialdom, Figueroa says he used to hold public meetings at private homes.

"That really helped sometimes, because when we'd go into their homes, it was their family turf. They were comfortable. They'd really open up to me and then the next time they'd bring their neighbors over."

"Once that occurs," he says, "you hear the same concerns as anyone else in the community has. They're tired of seeing the prostitutes, the gangs, the kids up to no good, the drug houses."

The problem, says one recent immigrant, is "we see things that need to be fixed, but we don't know who to call, or whether the police are safe to call."

Williams says such informal meetings require a good deal more trust than circumstances allow.

"Sometimes people were too suspicious of other neighbors to open their homes for a meeting. So we've had Block Watch meetings here where everybody sat in the front yard next to the curb."

Figueroa says neighborhood suspicions don't end with differences in languages and nationalities.

"In many neighborhood associations," he says, "renters are less than equal residents of the area. They're considered transitory, with no stake in the community. So you have communities within communities and people that never really fit in."

When Guille Sastré ruminates about families, she invariably talks about communities. "I don't think we can distinguish between the two," she says in a thick Spanish accent. "They are never separate things."

That truth was plain enough to a buoyant crowd in the cafeteria of Hamilton School of southwest Phoenix one recent Friday evening. They were there -- almost 200 strong -- to witness the graduation of 15 families from Sastré's six-month Creciendo Unidos program.

The graduates, mortarboards perched on their heads, had come to the large beige room decorated with white and lavender paper flowers to get their diplomas. After picking up their certificates, some members of the graduating class walked back onstage to describe, often in choked voices, how this unheralded seven-year-old program had helped to change their lives, unify their families, and bring a measure of peace to households once split by deep and jarring conflicts.

"It is a start," said one man.

Scenes like this one have convinced Sastré that too many community development and outreach programs are backward. "They start with the community and try to reach families," she says, "instead of working directly with families to create communities."

Since 1994, when Sastré started the program with a handful of immigrant families, Creciendo Unidos has involved more than 200 people. Each class comes from the neighborhoods near the schools through which Sastré recruits the families. Many people finish the program, then stay on to help other families. She has more people wanting to enroll than she can handle.

Her success at drawing immigrants out of their homes and into the community contrasts sharply with the difficulties many neighborhood associations have had in attracting immigrants.

"People coming here want to feel they belong somewhere and feel secure, wanted and valued," she says. But they often tend to fear "everything social. They go to work and go home and they don't open their doors. They make a life with the little bit of people they have around them."

Eusebio Quezada says that feeling of isolation isn't limited to newcomers. He grew up in the Golden Gate barrio of south central Phoenix, where Hispanic families and friends went back in tangles of relationships that seemed to make distant cousins of everyone who lived there. That inclusiveness, however, stopped at the barrio's edge.

"At school or outside the neighborhood, I always felt we were never really accepted. I felt schizophrenic."

For the past year, Quezada has been working with Sastré to develop and fund a community center for families in the area of 29th Avenue and Buckeye Road.

He thinks the quest for belonging should be the natural link between neighborhoods and families, between established residents and newcomers.

He knows something about that, too.

A year and a half ago, he and his fiancée took in her sister's three children. She was on drugs and on the street.

"She left them at a swimming pool," he says. "Just walked away."

Quezada says he and his fiancée already had five children between them. "But I thought, 'How I wish somebody would have done that for me when I was small.' My mother and father were having marital problems. My father was drinking a lot. We lost our home. We ended up on the street, living here and there in Tucson for a couple of months."

And if Quezada didn't adopt the children, who would? "If we don't practice what we preach, we're hypocrites."

When the three kids arrived, it was like getting new immigrants on the block, he says.

"There was a lot of fighting. The house was a mess. There was disorder. When I asked our kids what was going on, they said, 'Why don't they go back where they came from? They've taken over the house. They think they're the boss. We were here first.'

"I talked to them about why they feel this way," he says. "And slowly but surely, they started getting along and feeling better about themselves."

The sight of Bob Hayes' 1984 Chevrolet Suburban creeping through the alley doesn't arouse much trust or warmth from the immigrants who now dominate his west Phoenix neighborhood.

"They think I'm just a racist," he says. "They've even called me a vigilante. But I've been here 53 years. This is my home. I don't want to go anywhere else. I'm just trying to do my part in keeping things in line."

He's the neighborhood's Block Watch leader. An ID tag on a chain around his neck says as much. Yet his behemoth of a car is the most visible part of his hobby. Decked with lights and a bullhorn, its top is spanned by a black-and-white sign spelling out "Block Watch."

There's plenty to patrol. His neighborhood, just east of 35th Avenue and McDowell, has become a dumping ground of trash, junk and code violations that the city wouldn't let stand for an hour in Arcadia.

Like other neighborhood leaders, he says he can't get his Hispanic neighbors to participate.

"When we do neighborhood cleanups," he says, "they won't come out, so we have to get county probationers to come out here."

Some neighbors say they approve of Hayes' activities but that they're just too busy to take the time to get more involved.

Gilbert Ramirez, who lives across the street, has a landscaping business that consumes his days.

Marissa Morales, a single mom who lives near Vicki Chriswell, farther west along McDowell Road, says the political system "works to the advantage of people who have more time."

"When you're in the middle or lower class and working, you sometimes have inconsistent hours. You can't just take off for meetings. When you have to prioritize time like that, the neighborhood work is the least of it."

Hayes theorizes that some Hispanics stay away because they're "caught between two cultures. I think they're afraid that if they speak up, they'll be called traitors or racists."

A few neighbors phone the details about crimes, drug houses and property violations to him, so he can report them to the city.

One Hispanic woman who uses Hayes as a go-between says she takes the stealth approach out of fear. "If a police car or some kind of city car shows up in front of my house, the people will know who's complaining."

Art Pimentel, one of the few Hispanics who has been active in Vicki Chriswell's area, and has lived there since the early 1960s, says such fears are prevalent and warranted: "I know I had the windows on my car busted out when I turned in some of these kids doing dope around here. And Vicki had her car fire-bombed for being so outspoken about the crime going on over here."

Still other Hispanics let Chriswell, Hayes and other Anglo community leaders do their bidding because they think the Anglos will get more done at City Hall.

"They don't really pay much attention when we call," says a Hispanic man who doesn't want his name used because he fears retribution at work. "They hear our accent or see our name and just ignore us."

Aureliano Dominguez, a leader of the vendor union that won city protections for the trade, says he once shared that view.

But when the neighborhood activists and city threatened to shut down his livelihood, he began to speak.

"It was my family I did this for," he says. "And they did this for me, too."

They attended many meetings, and along with other vendor families overflowed the city council chambers last week to watch as the ordinance was approved.

"I think our movement is going to create new potential for people to get involved," says Dominguez. "If you don't speak up, somebody's going to speak up for you and it may not be the way you wanted things to happen. Now I know what it takes to be heard."


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