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December 9, 1997


Thou Shalt Not Batter Thy Neighbor's Neighborhood

The Mobile Register in its December-4 editorial rightly chastised Baldwin-County commissioners for approving re-zoning of the Fort Morgan Peninsula which will probably lead to the condominification, a la Orange Beach, of the fragile peninsula. Mobile's daily castigates these leaders for having "little backbone when it comes to managing growth." Well and good, and we hope Mobile's daily will muster its editorial voice in defense of neighborhoods endangered by ill-advised development within the city of Mobile. Just how much "backbone" has Mobile's Planning Commission exhibited over the years?

One such neighborhood currently endangered is the area surrounding Mobile St., with Hyland Avenue and Randolph St. expected to feel the most immediate negative effects of the developmental beachhead proposed by the Dumas Wesley Community Center, which occupies a large facility on Mobile St. Half the homes on Hyland Avenue share a common boundary with the Community Center. Dumas Wesley has made application to the Mobile City Planning Commission for approval of expansion of its facilities and re-zoning of Mobile St. from residential to B-1 zoning. Dumas Wesley, in its current location since 1981, plans to construct a medical clinic on one side of Mobile St., and build a two-story apartment complex on the opposite side of Mobile Street. Each of these locations will include large parking areas. If the Planning Commission approves the expansion and the zoning change, it's very likely that the entire area, largely residential, extending from Sage St. to Broad St., will be gradually sacrificed to the developer's bulldozers. What replaces residential areas won't be condos of retirees and it won't have a picturesque seascape view either.

Dumas Wesley is promoting this project by drawing on its favorable philanthropic image in the community; it is an organization that has done much good, but in this instance, for reasons that are not yet clear, Dumas Wesley appears to be using its good reputation as a way of foisting an invasive project on the surrounding neighborhood. It euphemistically labels its two-story apartment complex a "Family Village." By what stretch of the imagination can an apartment complex housing battered women and abused children be called a "Family Village" when its inhabitants have no real stake in the surrounding community? They may be a "family" unto themselves, though that's doubtful given their transient status. Their "family" will largely be other "transitional" persons, seeking to get their damaged lives together. Some will form close bonds with fellow sufferers and with some of their caregivers, but many will probably bring, trailing with them, their abusive husbands and partners. Self- absorbed socially dysfunctional people are not likely to contribute to the life of the surrounding community, not unless ways can be found to bring them into a positive relationship with that surrounding community. Evidence thus far suggests that Dumas Wesley has not been willing to take the steps necessary to create community solidarity. On the contrary, reports from members of the neighborhood indicate that vandalism and crime are being perpetrated by persons using Dumas Wesley's property as a means of access to the backyards of residents on Hyland Avenue. When confronted about vandalism, rock throwing, teenage sexual episodes, and noise from the Community Center, Mr. Caruthers, the Executive Director, said that "the children can't always be controlled." With the attitude displayed in that statement is it any wonder the residents of the neighborhood are angry and upset? That attitude doesn't bode well for a cooperative solution.

Furthermore, one wonders about the motives of the HMO, the Franklin Memorial Primary Heathcare Services, which will run the medical clinic. While Dumas Wesley has demonstrated philanthropic motives, neighbors can't expect similar motives from a for-profit organization. If anything, HMO's have demonstrated that they focus myopically on the bottom line. Assuming that funding for the project is coming, not just from the Smith Foundation but from the U.S government, what will happen when government funding dwindles or disappears? Perhaps, the B-1 zoning change will take care of that eventuality by making it possible to bring in any use permitted in the zoning district. The medical clinic, which will be built as a stand- alone-building separated from the main facility by a parking lot could, conceivably, be turned into a video store or perhaps a topless bar. Worse things have happened.

No matter how worthwhile a philanthropic project appears to be, it is not worthwhile if it has the potential for and the likelihood that it will batter the neighborhoods that surround it. The burden of proof should rest squarely on Dumas Wesley. It must show convincingly that it can be a good citizen to the citizens that it dwells in the midst of. The health of the entire City of Mobile depends vitally on the health of its many neighborhoods. If we have learned anything from our many woes in this postmodern world, we should know by now that destroying neighborhood communities is a species of communal genocide. All threats to the communities that embody our sacred values and traditions must be vigorously and uncompromisingly repelled. And more often than not nowadays those threats come from large organizations based outside of the immediate community. Dumas Wesley is a satellite of a larger organization, and it plans to use the services of another satellite, the Franklin Memorial Heathcare Services. One wonders what Gilbert B. Laden, the President of Dumas Wesley, meant when he said in a letter that went to only a few local residents, "Dumas Wesley has received substantial community support for these additional programs." Everyone concerned needs to take a very careful look at this so- called "community support," which looks very much like an encroachment on the community's body and spirit.

-- Tom Brennan

Life Forms by Dan Silver

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL