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Gotta Serve Somebody

After an opening prayer, Dr. Henry Taylor, Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at UB, began Monday night’s meeting in the gym at the Reverend Dr. Bennett Smith, Sr. Family Life Center by clarifying his role for the evening. “I’m not representing or speaking for UB,” he said, “We’re helping to facilitate the meeting.”

Taylor and a handful of UB students were there to document a meeting that had been called to “[h]elp shape the Fruit Belt’s future.” A flyer for the event had been received by some of the residents at McCarley Gardens, the moderate-income HUD housing units located on a 16-acre island in the middle of what planners see as an ever-expanding medical campus. McCarley Gardens was built in the late 1970s, when the land was unwanted and vacant. Today it is home to 150 families, some of whom have lived there from the start. The total turnout at Monday’s meeting was about 40 people, and only one member of the press.

Two years ago, the same gymnasium was packed with a couple hundred people and representatives from every media outlet in town to witness what was being billed as the “Fruit Belt & Eastside Redevelopment Project Forum.” Local luminaries at the event included Bishop Robert Sanders, City Court Judge James A. W. McCleod, Reverend Michael Chapman of St. John Baptist Church, Reverend Richard Stenhouse, politicians, architects, and top-level representatives from UB and Kaleida Health. Speeches were delivered and the cameras rolled. There was much applause. At the time, the plan was for one of UB’s foundations to buy the land from the Oak Michigan Housing Development Fund Company, Inc.—an entity headed by Chapman—for $15 million.

The mood was much different Monday night. Chapman told the gathering that he’d met with HUD six months ago, but that he hasn’t yet submitted anything to HUD to begin the complex process of gaining approval to relocate 150 families into replacement housing scattered over 20 city blocks. Plans have been drawn, but there’s no funding for the massive move.

Meanwhile, Chapman explained, they are moving ahead with another $15 million dollar plan—unrelated to the McCarley project—to build 49 two-, three-, and four-family town homes throughout the neighborhood. That’s more than $306,000 apiece on average. The purpose is “to create 7,000 jobs, 60 percent of which will be for African-American workers.” He told those in attendance that in the new homes, rent will be $200 less than what McCarley residents pay now. An attorney was paid $125,000 to work on the deal, he said.

There was a contentious question-and-answer period, where the relatively small group of McCarley residents peppered Chapman with questions. Some argued that there was nothing wrong with the 33-year-old complex. Chapman said it had been expensive to replace the roofs a few years back, and besides, $10 million is still owed on the place.

Disgruntled residents began walking out.The crowd had dwindled to about 20 by the time Taylor announced that it was time to collect feedback. A student stood by a three-foot note pad on an easel, marker in hand. “Our job is to make the public record reflect what you think,” he said. “If your voice is not part of the public record, it will not be heard.” Another student stood by with a camera, taking pictures of those in attendance—to the displeasure of at least one attendee.

Concerns arose about the record Taylor was compiling, and how residents could access it. He admitted Chapman was paying him, and residents disputed his claim that he has an independent role. The meeting agenda called for breakout and focus group sessions but soon the group had dispersed too much to conduct those with any degree of legitimacy.

A HUD spokesperson tells us that absent support for relocation from the residents, the grand vision will go nowhere. Residents are planning ways to express their wishes to local legislators and HUD directly, in an attempt to balance the report being collected and assembled by Taylor under contract to Chapman.

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