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Wright Bothers

It's football season already, and those houseguests from cold climes will start showing up on your doorstep before you know it. If you're unsure where to take your out-of-town guests, may I suggest a tour of historic downtown Chandler? Designed around 1912 by veterinarian/developer/irrigation nut/town father A.J. "Doc" Chandler, downtown...
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It's football season already, and those houseguests from cold climes will start showing up on your doorstep before you know it.

If you're unsure where to take your out-of-town guests, may I suggest a tour of historic downtown Chandler?

Designed around 1912 by veterinarian/developer/irrigation nut/town father A.J. "Doc" Chandler, downtown Chandler is a must-see.

You will stand on the very ground that forever put Chandler, once known only for its annual ostrich festivals, on the map as a racist town. You will see the very barrios where, for four days in July 1997, Chandler police and Border Patrol agents rounded up all the Spanish speakers with brown skin they could find -- including American citizens -- in a poorly disguised ethnic cleansing that, so far, has triggered two civil-rights lawsuits against the city and one against the federal government.

Latinos began living in barrios close to the town square almost as soon as Chandler was laid out. They were forced to attend a segregated school and a segregated Catholic church and were allowed to have their festivals only in a segregated park. Despite being snubbed, they stayed and flourished. Today, approximately 19 percent of Chandler's 172,000 residents are Latino. And many still live in the ancestral barrios that were raided in 1997.

The motivation for the nationally infamous "Chandler Roundup" was to rid the downtown of its established Latino population so that Chandler could move forward with a white-bread urban redevelopment plan spearheaded by Michael Kerski, director of the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership. Kerski is infamous, too. The Connecticut attorney general has charged him with "unjustly enriching" himself at the expense of his previous employer -- the Greater Hartford Architectural Conservancy, a now bankrupt nonprofit redevelopment agency. The case is ongoing.

According to prosecutors, Kerski squandered the conservancy's money on personal junkets to Phoenix, Miami Beach and Disney World and on expensive dinners and jewelry for his girlfriend. He used his credit card, the AG said, then paid it off with conservancy funds. Kerski denies wrongdoing.

Weeks before the Connecticut scandal went public, Kerski had hightailed it to Chandler, having persuaded city leaders to hire him as executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Chandler Community Partnership and entrust him with millions of downtown redevelopment dollars.

During your tour of historic downtown Chandler, stop by Kerski's office in the Vision Gallery on the town square and ask him to spring for lunch for you and your out-of-town guests. If the high-class San Marcos Hotel is open, go there. Order filet mignon and a good Cabernet.

Then, get to the point of this column:

Congratulate Kerski on further alienating Latinos in the wake of the racist roundup by promoting a plan to redevelop their downtown into a shrine for the Anglo architect Frank Lloyd Wright -- complete with a giant bronze statue of Wright in front of city hall -- even though nary a single Wrightian building ever existed in Chandler.

Over crème brûlée, laud Kerski for convincing the partnership to support this insensitive conversion of Chandler's Latino downtown into a Wrightian fantasy land based on a tenuous historical connection: Wright knew Doc Chandler, spent two winters in the area, did a bunch of drawings for the old codger, then failed to persuade Doc to pay him to build anything in the vicinity -- except for a temporary camp over in Chandler Heights.

Despite this questionable link between Chandler and Wright, Kerski has managed to convince Chandler's city council that the Wrightian urban redesign will draw thousands of Wright scholars and other tourists to Chandler.

Oak Park. Spring Green. Taliesin West. Chandler.

Get it?

After Kerski pays for lunch with a credit card, cross Arizona Avenue and walk over to the city hall.

Stand on the exact two spots where large, costly bronze statues of Frank Lloyd Wright and A.J. Chandler will soon tower.

Think of the irony: white guys in bronze in a Latino downtown.

You might run into M.R. Diaz, the only Latino member of the Chandler Arts Commission, who for months complained to his fellow members that Wright had a flimsy connection to the city, that dollars for the Wright statue could be better spent elsewhere, like in a planned downtown facility where all artists could work and sell their wares.

Diaz will talk your head off. He'll tell you he has no problem with the statue of Doc Chandler being erected, but for months, he warned anyone who'd listen that some Latinos, still smarting over the roundup -- and waiting for the city to make good on promises to be "inclusive" -- might not warm to a prominent statue of an egomaniacal gringo architect who had nada to do with their barrio.

But the arts commission didn't listen to Diaz.

These days, Diaz doesn't attend many arts commission meetings -- great for a commission that in June asked the Chandler City Council to give the final okay to statues that will cost more than $280,000. Mayor Jay Tibshraeny and Vice Mayor Bob Robson were the only council members to vote against the statues, which were approved.

If you happen to run into Tibshraeny at city hall, he'll scratch his noggin and tell you that while he thinks it's a fine idea to honor ol' Doc, he still can't figure out what in the heck Wright ever did for the city of Chandler.

As long as you are over at city hall, stop by Councilman Phil Westbrooks' office. He'll tell you why he voted for the statue of Frank Lloyd Wright. He'll start out by noting that he, Westbrooks, is half Latino and half black, therefore, he, of all people, is aware of racial "sensitivities" in Chandler. So please don't use any race cards, okay?

Then, he will say he "understands" why Latinos like Diaz might be put off by the statues of two white guys. He'll say statues of minorities will be erected in the future, an idea that he put forth on the record (emphasis his) in a council meeting.

If you really want to make your out-of-town guests guffaw, ask Westbrooks why, exactly, he voted for an architect who built no buildings in Chandler.

He will say because Wright influenced Doc Chandler's "vision" of Chandler, whatever that means. If you ask him to get specific, he can't. Doc Chandler had already designed and laid out his town 16 years before he met Wright.

Next, Westbrooks will tell you that he, Westbrooks, strongly believes that Chandler influenced Wright and his architecture.

(Note to self: Ring up architecture buff Paul Goldberger. Ask if Wright designed Falling Water after Chandler lectured Wright on cotton-field irrigation techniques.)

After crossing Arizona Avenue to get back to your car, you might run into Jean Makin, the chairman of the Chandler Arts Commission. If you ask her whether the Wright statue might be perceived as inappropriate in a downtown largely populated by Latinos, especially in the wake of the roundup, she will likely tell you it's a "non-issue."

She will say it's important to "celebrate" Wright's tie to Chandler. She will get very angry and excited. Your out-of-town guests will wonder if she's been in the sun too long.

If renegade Latinos like Diaz want their own statue, then why don't they come up with an idea from their community instead of complaining, for Pete's sake, she'll ask.

Remind Makin that Latinos have already come up with a list of Chandler residents who would be more appropriate than Wright for a city hall bronze: Coy Payne, the African-American former mayor; Raul Navarrette, the only Latino ever to serve as mayor; Zora Folly, an African-American boxer who held a world title.

Ask Makin if you can throw in your own suggestion for a statue: a giant bronze ostrich, head buried in the sand, commemorating the attitudes of the people who run Chandler.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437, or online at [email protected]

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