A New Spirit of Hope in Washington-Escobedo

For decades, a historic gateway community in Mesa, Arizona has been losing the battle against steady decline. In true Loeb fashion, 6 alums have answered the call to help committed residents design a better future. Teresa Brice and Etty Padmodipoetro (both LF 2006) tell the story with assistance from Ernesto Fonseca from the ASU Stardust Center.

The Washington-Escobedo neighborhood, in Mesa, AZ, has a storied past going back to the early 1900s. Historically, the area had been identified with the African American community in Mesa. At the heart of the neighborhood are the Escobedo Apartments which date from the 1940s and served as housing for servicemen and their families during World War II. Young mothers shared recipes as their children played in the tidy green yards. Schoolchildren could walk to their neighborhood school in laughing groups. Generations of families came together in the streets for countless celebrations. The neighborhood bloomed into a vibrant community. Following the war the Escobedo Apartments became public housing run by the City of Mesa; after federal subsidies expired in the 1980s the project gradually fell into disrepair, mirroring the decline of the neighborhood. The once thriving neighborhood began to wither away.

New Hispanic families, however, began to move in during the 1990s. The small but determined community had roots deep enough to flourish. They were led by Jerry Boyd, a black city councilman who vowed to change the neighborhood. Things started to improve, a new life seemed possible. Once again, the sound of chattering children filled the yards and the smell of family barbecues filled the air. But, as happens sometimes, when the community does not take charge of leadership it cannot be sustained. The change lost momentum when Boyd passed away, and Washington-Escobedo once again fell into disarray and was forgotten like so many urban neighborhoods across America. Time passed; the stillness and decay crept across the once vibrant streets and history echoed against neglected corners.

The historic significance of Washington- Escobedo made it the perfect investment for Loeb Fellows’ time and expertise to help the community plan a brighter future through design. For four days in May 2011, over 100 residents; planning, design and development professionals; city officials; non-profit representatives and business stakeholders huddled in Mesa for a community design and planning charrette. Six Loeb Fellows of different vintages and a wide spectrum of expertise came from across the country to assist the Washington-Escobedo residents to re-envision their neighborhood and the adjacent 30 vacant acres of city land. Neil Morris (LF 2010) arrived from New Orleans, Roger Cummings (LF 2009) from Minneapolis and Etty Padmodipoetro (LF 2006) from Boston to offer their support. Carlos Romero (LF 2005) flew in from East Palo Alto and Mike Pyatok (LF 1984) from Oakland. Teresa Brice (LF 2006), based in Mesa, coordinated.

The charrette was the culmination of a series of intense meetings held with resident groups, advocates and other stakeholders to discuss their needs, desires and dreams. The gatherings were facilitated by the Phoenix office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Arizona State University Stardust Center and the West Mesa Community Development Corporation. The problems addressed by the charrette stemmed from the stigmatization of this area, initially due to its segregated status and by the physical deterioration and blight that has occurred over time. Attempts by the City of Mesa to redevelop the area led to displacement of long-time residents, vacant properties and expanded arterial roads that effectively isolated the neighborhood. After decades of unfulfilled promises, residents regarded the City with distrust and were suspicious of proposed changes. Demographic shifts in the neighborhood compounded the lack of cohesion and made a unified vision for the future difficult to achieve. 

The Loeb Fellows provided the community with the tools to articulate a vision and turn ideas into actual designs and feasibility plans. The residents’ concerns fell into three main categories: a) the lack of recent investment which has jeopardized the viability of the neighborhoods, b) the need for a healthy, safe and walkable environment and c) the lack of meaningful local job, educational and entertainment opportunities. Three major concepts emerged from the Washington-Escobedo community design charrette: health and wellness, tourism and physical activity, and education, incorporating higher educational facilities and training centers. These concepts represented the essence of the preliminary community meetings. 

Only 18 months after the Charrette, two significant projects have been launched which address key sites in this neighborhood. Adaptive reuse of the former community center has yielded a charter school. In addition, vacant public housing is being transformed into a tax credit loft development that will yield quality affordable housing for current and future residents. 

On Dec. 6, 2012, the community gathered once again, only this time to celebrate the ground breaking of the new loft project that will replace the shuttered public housing. Community residents mingled with elected officials, and there were a few tears mixed with smiles and hugs. The crowd, the balloons, and the bulldozer not far behind symbolized what was possible – the excitement was palpable. 

The community design charrette provided ideas for redevelopment of the largest physical assets of the neighborhood, but this is only one component of a long-term process for improving the quality of life in Mesa’s Washington-Escobedo neighborhood. Residents are continuing to develop and refine a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plan. Once complete it will be used collectively by all stakeholders to guide work towards creating a neighborhood that is healthy, safe and economically vibrant. As the neighbors themselves expressed in their Quality of Life plan: "The Loeb Fellows actually gave us a vision of what our community could be.”

The design, planning and development team was assembled and coordinated by current Phoenix LISC Executive Director Teresa Brice. This work was made possible through the support of the Harvard Loeb Fellowship Alumni Association Grant Program and sponsored by LISC Phoenix, the ASU Stardust Center and the West Mesa CDC.

For more information or to support the efforts of the Washington-Escobedo residents, contact:
Teresa Brice, LISC Phoenix, 602-252-6313, tbrice@lisc.org, 111 W. Monroe, Suite 720, Phoenix, AZ 85003

Fellowship Year: 1984, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010
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