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Published: Monday, June 19, 2000
By Leon Fooksman Staff Writer
Until last year, their relationship was little more than icy greetings and curt exchanges over the telephone.
Charles Ridley, a black activist in the city's rough-and-tumble southwest section, and Chris Brown, the white director of the city's redevelopment agency, thought they had little in common. And when it came to the one issue that often required them to talk -- the controversial multimillion-dollar plans to redevelop West Atlantic Avenue -- they had even less to discuss.
Ridley accused Brown of ignoring the area's predominantly black residents who feared the project would alter streets and uproot local businesses. Brown fired back that Ridley woefully misunderstood the basics of reviving the long-neglected business district.
They were just two men, leaders in their respective communities, but the gulf between them seemed all too similar to the racial divide that has run through Delray Beach for decades. So it became highly unusual when they started talking, frankly and frequently, about what stands between them and improving the city.
Over the past year, Ridley, Brown and other local leaders on both sides of the color line have been meeting in closed-door sessions intended to bring political allies and rivals into the same room, sit them across the table and force them to tackle racism.
These gatherings, broken into two groups, have widely been viewed as a catalyst for bridging the racial barriers -- real and perceived -- in this city.
One group, which included Ridley and Brown, was organized by local clergy and met monthly at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The other group, also attended by Ridley, was organized by and met at the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Blacks and whites in both groups said they were put at ease by meeting on neutral terms and talking in cordial tones. The sessions, they said, also provided a place where grievances were aired without consequences.
"This is a challenging topic. It confronts the demons in us, and that's always hard and painful," said the Rev. William Stokes, who moderates the discussions at St. Paul's church.
At the church, Ridley and Brown would sit alongside former Delray Beach Mayor Jay Alperin, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty and about 15 other business owners and civic leaders in honest discussions of their doubts, prejudices and attitudes. Many made agonizing admissions about themselves.
"This has helped tremendously," Ridley said. "Chris and I talked, and we bonded. He became a human being. I saw that he has a lot of humanity."
At the chamber, the 10 participants, including City Commissioner Jeff Perlman and Police Chief Richard Overman, delved into allegations that city commissioners have neglected to put many minorities on city boards.
The members also heard contentions that in black neighborhoods, the city has been slow to repair crumbling streets, install lights and build sidewalks. The group worked behind the scenes to keep on track an effort to seek a private grant that, among other things, would pay for workshops on improving race relations.
What made these meetings unprecedented was that city officials willingly participated. Candid discussion on racial bias is a political minefield in Delray Beach. Until now, the race question has been too painful to broach.
But it has always been there.
Black residents have long expressed frustration that city managers failed to pay as much attention to their neighborhoods as they did to the mostly white downtown and beachfront areas. Homeowner groups contended that the city kept them out of the loop when making decisions that affect them. The Haitian community, estimated at about a quarter of the city's population, has decried its lack of representation in city government.
The most scathing charges have come from black activist Josh Smith Jr., who for years has tried to prove to state and federal officials that Delray Beach discriminates against black residents.
He alleged, for one, that the city ignored the deteriorating conditions in black neighborhoods when it spent a major chunk of the $21.5 million bond issues in the early 1990s on upgrading downtown streets. City managers have denied his accusations, saying they spent that money to bolster property values for all residents.
The appearance of unfair treatment has concerned people in Delray Beach for decades. And few people dispute that racial tensions are real. Despite that, many participants in the church and chamber groups said the apprehensions aren't as acute as in the past. The suspicions have lessened. The mood has shifted.
"These are different times," said Commissioner Perlman. "There's a mutual desire for people to talk instead of just talk past each other."
Smith, who has participated in the chamber group, himself admits that the time is ripe for residents to discuss their differences. Even though he remains optimistic that the dialogues, at best, can lead to moderate changes in attitudes, Smith thinks the path to true reconciliation comes from altering the way you look, talk and behave toward others.
"Deep down you can't change the way people feel, but you can change the way they act," Smith said.
But the two groups, particularly the church participants, have tried to take a stand.
The members at St. Paul's church on South Swinton Avenue, which sits on a street considered the racial fault line between the city's white and black neighborhoods, met in the church's meeting room numerous times between February 1999 and May.There, sitting on folding chairs in an air-conditioned room with hardwood floors, they described who they were and where they came from. They talked about stereotyping and perceptions. They brought in dinner and relaxed over lighthearted chats on movies and travel plans.
Over time, they all became friends, even old-time adversaries such as Ridley and Brown.
Before the church sessions, the two occasionally saw each other at meetings on plans to beautify and line West Atlantic Avenue with new building. They hardly talked, and they figured they had nothing in common.
After all, Ridley, the executive director of MAD DADS of Delray Beach, is a former crack addict who spent most of his life in Delray Beach and helped rally the community against drugs. Brown, the executive director of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, is an Ivy League graduate who worked for years as a developer, building suburban homes in Texas and earning a six-figure salary.
What eventually brought them together was the discovery at one of the church meetings that they shared a mentor: a gangster-turned-developer in Philadelphia who rebuilt crumbling neighborhoods. The two rivals realized they had a similar passion. The color lines suddenly faded.
"We never really understood what either of us were doing," Brown said. "We talked and found we had a lot in common."
Many of the participants grew up in communities unexposed to other ethnic groups. Many white members, who said they never felt the sting of racism, heard black members tell stories about being pulled over by police for traffic stops and followed in stores by managers simply because they were black.
Alperin, the former mayor who is white and Jewish, learned that he wasn't as open-minded toward black residents as he thought.
At times, when blacks brought their concerns to the dais, he dismissed their issues because he disagreed with them and thought he knew what was best for their community. He now realizes that he was probably wrong, that he was viewing their problems from the perspective of a white man.
"I was oblivious to what was going on around me," Alperin said. "I thought I knew what was going on but I didn't."
For Rosalind Murray, a black woman who is expected to be the city's next West Atlantic Avenue coordinator, the dialogue has made her less skeptical of what she calls the white political establishment. Her change of heart came after hearing Alperin, McCarty and other white leaders describe their own struggles to understand other racial groups.
"I saw and heard these people talk about their pain and rejection and their struggles to balance the public self and what's in their heart," Murray said.
Stokes said he wasn't sure what to expect when he organized the group, but he's pleased that participants such as Murray have started to see past their differences.
The sessions developed from the Episcopal Church's nationwide effort to spur dialogue on race relations. Stokes plans to attract a new group of participants for another round of talks to begin this fall.
"My hope is that consciousness was raised, that sensitivity was increased, and that there was a higher awareness of individual personhood, instead of labeling people of all types," Stokes said.
Leon Fooksman can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6647.
Copyright 2000, SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.