On the ground in Southside
Should the county’s most troubled neighborhood be annexed to Oroville? We ask its residents what they think
The intersection of Myers Street and Wyandotte Avenue in South Oroville—the northern gateway-of-sorts to inarguably the poorest, most problem-ridden area in Butte County—was buzzing with activity at 10:30 on a recent Monday morning. A steady stream of people of various ethnicities—in cars and pickup trucks, on bicycles and on foot—were going in and out of the parking lot and the front door of the Southside Mini Mart, a worn-looking shop with peeling, faded, blue-and-white paint, and little on the shelves in the way of healthful food. At the same time, a group of African-American men congregated outside the church—also painted blue—across the street.
A Caucasian man with flared, red, glistening nostrils, wild eyes and brown, unkempt hair careened his green bicycle across Myers, shouting “Honk!” to the oncoming cars as he dangerously crossed from the mini-mart to the gravel lot in front of the church.
Pointing to a clear, cellophane bag and a scattering of unidentifiable bright-pink “stuff” resembling bits of cotton candy or popcorn strewn across the gravel, he yelled to the men, “Anybody gonna eat that?”
After finding no takers, he quickly scooped up the ragged bag that looked like it had been run over by at least one vehicle and shook the remaining pink contents into his mouth, bits of it sticking to his cheeks, before taking off down the center of Myers Street on his bike.
The scene—part of my recent immersion in Oroville’s unincorporated Southside neighborhood—is burned into my brain. When I think of the list of troubles—grinding poverty, high unemployment and crime, substance abuse, health problems (such as a high rate of diabetes), dismally substandard infrastructure (including numerous dilapidated and abandoned buildings), racial tensions, hopelessness—that are associated with Southside, it’s what immediately comes to mind.
But when I think of hope for the future of Southside Oroville, I think of people like Clay Canady, the charismatic 59-year-old African-American man who took me around Southside for three hours that day, in his car and on foot, for an on-the-ground look at the richly multicultural community and a chance to talk to its residents.
I had a particular question in my mind for the people I would meet that day: “Would you like to see Southside incorporated into the city of Oroville?”
It’s a question that has been asked by many people many times, over decades, often by members of Oroville’s city government. To date, Southside remains unincorporated, its problems largely ignored.
Canady, a minister, artist and poet, lives in a small house three blocks north of Wyandotte Avenue, the official dividing line between the city and Southside. He names New Beginnings Fellowship in Chico as his official church, but he’s a regular on the streets of Southside, where he is known as “Brother Clay.”
Before we headed out on our drive around Southside, Canady chatted about his hopes for the community for which he feels deep affection.
Canady has been a crucial piece, as a Southside community representative working with Butte County Department of Behavioral Health Ethnic Services Manager Elizabeth Gowan, in the planning and development of the new African-American Family Cultural Center slated to open its doors at the corner of B and Spencer streets in the Southside neighborhood at the beginning of August. The center will serve as a gathering place for culturally focused African-American community events, as well as provide access to a range of services including mental-health care specific to the unique needs of the black community.
“It’s always been the history of Oroville—‘Should we annex or should we not annex?’” Canady acknowledged. But, he said, people who make Southside their home, people like his elderly mother who is on a fixed income, fear that becoming incorporated would mean “paying more taxes but not getting adequate services.”
The perception, he explained, is that the city would use “the demographics of Southside” to bring in more money for the city of Oroville to do such things as continuing to “improve … historical housing and other things within the [current] city limits,” but “none would be available to the same degree for Southside.”
Canady listed installation of sidewalks, better street lighting, and additional assistance for the community’s ongoing efforts to clean up blight—garbage-strewn streets and alleys, boarded-up buildings—as badly needed improvements.
These are the very services that cities usually provide. In the past, some members of the Oroville City Council have stated bluntly that the city can’t afford to annex Southside because the area lacks a tax base and the city simply can’t afford to provide the services it needs.
Supporters of annexation have long argued, however, that unless and until the city brings Southside in, the area will remain a blemish on the city’s reputation and a source of guilt for the other residents of Oroville.
One of the most important issues for the Southside community concerning any possible annexation, said Canady, is “representation. If Southside is annexed, what form of representation would we be receiving? … Would the representation be fair, and who’s going to speak for the area? … It looks different when you actually walk the streets and hear what the people are saying.”
“Brother Irvin!” shouted Canady from his open car window to an African-American man walking along the sidewalk of Wyandotte Avenue—one of very few sidewalks in the Southside neighborhood—near Wyandotte Avenue Elementary School.
Sixty-four-year-old Irvin Barry, wearing a black Barack Obama T-shirt and a big smile, hopped into the car after we stopped in the parking lot of a small building bearing the hand-painted words: “Furnish Apts.”
“Brother Clay!” he said warmly.
After Canady assured a somewhat puzzled-looking Barry that I—the unknown white woman carrying a camera and a notepad—was “cool” to talk to, I asked Barry whether he thought Southside Oroville should be incorporated. He was quick to answer, as if he’d had the ideas bottled up inside and was waiting for someone to tell them to.
“It would probably be a good thing, if we could get some of the same things as the rest of the city,” he said, before bringing up the subject of the U.S. Census. The census, he said, determines the demographics of the area (the diverse Southside neighborhood is 38.6 percent African-American, for instance), which determines where federal funding goes, “but money won’t ever get down here.
“And we ain’t even in no shape to ever check on them,” he added, speaking of city officials.
“Southside Oroville have not been really represented in no way, shape or fashion,” Barry continued, before getting on the subject of the Southside Oroville Community Center, just up the road to the east, another topic that clearly agitated him.
“PIC [Private Industry Council] has a 20-year holding contract with the Southside Community Center,” he offered, “and we can’t even use it. It’s become a rent-a-center. In order to use it, you have to rent it.”
It is not affordable, he pointed out, for members of the Southside community to rent the center, and so they go without.
“There’s no representation, period,” he went on. “We pay taxes, and 180 bucks a pop for our kids to play football at Harrison Stadium over on Mitchell Avenue, but there are no African-American workers there—no jobs. We’re paying the taxes, but not getting the jobs.”
As for the city, he said, “They’re doing stuff in our name, but we don’t know nothin’ about it. They don’t never ask us what we want.
“I’ve lived here three-quarters of my life, and it’s only gotten worse,” he continued. “All of it should be Oroville—it ain’t that big.
“They keep fixing up downtown,” he added. “We’ve tried for 15, 20 years to get things going [in Southside], but it always falls community to rent the center, and so they go without.
My encounter with Barry would not be the only one that day characterized by initial mistrust of what I was doing there, followed by expressions of a deep mistrust, mixed with possible misconceptions, of what the powers-that-be were up to when it comes to Southside.
There were times—faced with wary questions and comments such as, “Are you the police?” or “What’s goin’ down?”—when I simply had to leave my camera and notepad in Canady’s car.
After leaving Brother Irvin, we drove up and down streets hoping to find another man Canady referred to as “Brother Simpson.” After stopping at a house on Elgin Street and not finding him there, we ended up at the unpaved west end of Elgin (the ostensible western boundary of Southside), parked near a “pothole” the size of a duck pond filled with water, a hubcap and other detritus. Anyone needing to continue driving along Elgin would have to wade through the deep, murky mess, as there was no way around it. And it was not a rainy day.
We were stopped near a house where a heavily tattooed Caucasian man and a woman were unloading boxes and other items from the back of a van. The man—who said he had been out of prison only two days after being in for 32 years—wanted to know what we were doing there. I mentioned the question about Southside being incorporated.
“Fuck, this ain’t Southside,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“This is no-man’s land,” he answered.
Rather than wasting my time “taking pictures of a puddle,” he added, I’d be better off going a few blocks east, past Lincoln Boulevard or to the Southside Mini Mart area, where I’d “see Southside,” notable for its abundance of African-American “drug addicts and pregnant teenage girls everywhere you look. That’s Southside.”
Assuming that the Mercedes-Benz we were traveling in was mine, he added that he remembered when his grandfather used to have a black man driving him around, too. It was at this point that Canady walked across the dirt street, going around the massive pothole, to talk to a Caucasian woman who had been watching us from the yard of a ramshackle mobile home.
The woman, who had a number of decayed teeth, declined to give her name but offered that she had moved to Southside recently from Chico, and was trying to clean up the place she was now living in. In the visible distance, to the southwest of the woman’s back fence, two large backhoes were noisily at work in an open expanse of dirt.
“Removing asbestos pipes,” she responded to my question about what the tractors were doing there.
Her thoughts about annexing Southside to the city of Oroville?
“Wouldn’t it increase traffic?” she asked me. After a moment, she added: “Maybe they’d fix the streets.”
“You ain’t takin’ my picture. Put that camera away,” said one of the African-American men standing in the parking lot of the Trinity Bible Church, the blue church across from the Southside Mini Mart.
He had stated his first name after Canady gave him the thumbs-up about talking to me, but said that I couldn’t print it.
He said that he was against Southside being incorporated because he didn’t want Oroville Police Department to become the official policing entity for Southside. As it is, Southside is patrolled by the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.
“The sheriff has relationships with the people of Southside,” the man explained, adding that he was afraid of unfair racial profiling by OPD, something he said he had experienced since members of Oroville’s police department, he alleged, sometimes patrol parts of Southside even though it is county-sheriff territory.
“OPD is a gang,” he asserted, more than once.
Canady drove to the Southside Community Center, a large, “sterile” (as Canady put it) building resembling a convalescent hospital, perched atop a hill on Lower Wyandotte Avenue. The building stands out as incongruous with the rest of Southside.
“Almost like a trophy that you drive by,” Canady said of the center as we entered its parking lot. “And the city has control of it—PIC.”
I asked him if it was true that only county employees’ children attended the center’s day-care facility.
“I don’t know about that,” Canady said, before adding, “There’s a cloud of suspicion that colors everything the city does toward the Southside community.”
We encountered an African-American man named Leon Frazier, who had just pulled into the parking lot of the locked community center. Frazier has worked as an employment counselor at the Butte County Employment & Social Services Department in Oroville since 1996. Frazier and Canady had an obvious, easy rapport from years of knowing one another and working together with the people of Southside, where many of Frazier’s clients (often “straight out of prison, and paranoid-schizophrenic”—and, contrary to stereotypes, “95 percent white female”) live.
After initially being hesitant to speak to anyone from the press until Canady convinced him I was OK, Frazier answered my question about annexation: “For me to say that Southside should be incorporated, I’d have to know what the city would bring to the table.”
As we drove out of the center’s parking lot, we passed a car that honked at us. Canady and the driver exchanged a friendly wave.
“Now that’s the kind of rapport City Council people should have with the people of Southside,” Canady said. “They should get out and walk down the streets. How can we vote for these people we don’t even know?”
Before heading over to Roseben Avenue, where we spoke with an 83-year-old cannery worker named Louise Snyder, Canady and I stopped into the Southside Mini Mart to buy two bottles of fruit juice. When I asked the Middle-Eastern-looking man running the cash register what he thought of incorporation, he answered, “I don’t know. I don’t care.” Did he think things were fine the way there were? “Yes, fine the way it is,” he responded, ringing up the purchases of people in a line that was about five deep the whole time we were there.
Bill Finley is the executive director of Butte County’s nonprofit Private Industry Council—or PIC. Finley is used to being “praised and vilified in the same sentence,” as he put it during a recent phone interview, over the issue of the Southside Community Center.
“I think the community got promised more than got delivered,” he said of the 10-year-old center, “or they misunderstood the promises that were made. It’s hard to say.”
Built as a “joint county-city project,” after the “very difficult process” of raising money for its construction (“and zero dollars for operation”), the county-owned center was left to PIC to run, Finley said.
“We’ve managed it from day one,” he said. “It’s the only way that that building exists. … The original agreement was that no county general funds can be used to operate the building. Basically, it’s got to operate on its own, which is a pretty good trick.”
Finley said that PIC can afford to keep the building in operation only by leasing out portions of it to other agencies, such as Head Start, the local Boys & Girls Club, Butte County Behavioral Health and the Sheriff’s Department, which has an office there.
“That really leaves only two other rooms,” he pointed out, “the big multipurpose room and the Mert Thomas Room,” named after a prominent Southside resident, now deceased, who “was integral in starting the idea to have a community center.”
The multipurpose room is rented out on weekends for events such as wedding receptions and family gatherings, he said, and during the week to community groups. The Mert Thomas Room is rented out to Southside pastor Kevin Thompson and his wife, Debra, as a faith-based, community-resource center.
“We can’t afford not to,” Finley stressed. “We’re trying to balance keeping the building open, providing services there and keeping the building a meeting place. … If the HVAC goes out, we can’t tap the county general fund. We need reserves generated by lease and rental costs. … I don’t know that people in the community think about who’s going to fund it. They see that as their building.”
“What’s goin’ down?” called out one of a handful of people who came out onto the porch of Louise Snyder’s house as we stopped the car so I could photograph a small, deserted house across the street. The ruined white shack sat next to an equally small blue one, renovated, Canady told me, but still boarded up so that the windows stay intact until it is rented.
“Are you a property buyer?” asked Snyder, who is Caucasian and has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. Canady, who knew Snyder, told her what I was up to.
“I really think it should be part of Oroville,” offered the soft-spoken, friendly woman, about annexing Southside. “We’d get more tax money for Southside, right? … If there’s any land to build some nice new homes [in Southside], that’d be good. And fix the streets and the alleyways—like downtown—that’d be good.”
While the three of us chatted, a sheriff’s car patrolled back and forth about a half-dozen times near where we were. At one point, Canady braced himself for what looked like an inevitable encounter, which never happened.
When asked if she likes living in Southside, Snyder said, “Yes, I do. There are a lot of nice people here. The police patrol here. It’s close to my work. I work 10 at night till 6 and I can walk to work.”
Was she concerned about crime?
“I’m not a bit afraid to walk in Southside,” she said. “You know why? The Lord always walks with me.”
As we drove away from Snyder’s home, Canady said, “She knows everybody. Nothing would happen to her.”
Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, who represents “the majority of Southside,” grew up there. He would love to see the neighborhood—whose four to five thousand people live in an area just under a square mile in size—annexed to the city.
“I don’t see a downside to annexing it,” he said. For one thing, “the county government does not provide the resources [to Southside] to the level that the city can. … I believe that it would be overwhelmingly voted in if you asked the people to do it. … But as long as the City Council is against it as a majority, it’s not going to happen.
“By avoiding [annexing] Southside, the city of Oroville has avoided bringing the community together,” Connelly offered. “That area of Oroville has always been the working people, the heart and soul of Oroville. There’s no reason to avoid it.
“Recently,” he added, “there was a move to annex bare-land, middle-class subdivisions [such as the dirt area beyond Elgin Street, where the tractors were working], but no move to annex Southside.
They take what makes them money and leave the poor part, and that’s not right.”
Like Connelly, Oroville City Councilman David Pittman believes that Southside should be incorporated into the city of Oroville.
“The county has handled Southside for more than 50 years, and it really hasn’t gotten anywhere,” said Pittman. “I’d love to see an election in November 2012 to annex Southside to the city. I’d be in full support of that.”
It would require a vote from residents of the city and of Southside, he pointed out, since the area under consideration is so large.
“The city of Oroville is in a perfect position to improve things in Southside Oroville by annexing it,” said Pittman. “If we annexed it, we can get state funds. … Nothing’s going to improve until it is annexed.”
“You can talk city politics all you want,” said Canady, “but let’s talk about what makes a community heal.”
The abundance of churches in the Southside neighborhood, Canady pointed out, is a crucial factor in holding the community together, reaffirming people’s faith in the goodness of God and humanity, and offering hope for the future.
Or, as Canady put it: “What are you gonna do with an unchurched community?”
Making a reference to a passage in the Bible, Canady offered his reasoning for why he is so passionate—as are the other members of the neighborhood’s faith-based community—about working in Southside to try to effect positive change.
“Why should you curse the darkness when you can light a candle? More people should light a candle,” he said.
Projects like the new cultural center, he went on, “focus on the functional, versus the dysfunctional. … The spiritual and cultural angle is so important. Focus on cultural growth would be huge.
“The city has ‘culturized’ the citizens of Southside in a very negative way,” Canady offered. “If Southside were incorporated, I’d like to see Southside change the identity of the city rather than the reverse. The ‘country-western’ identity of Oroville should not override the rich, multicultural identity of Southside.
“We want to know,” he continued, “if we were to be incorporated, ‘How are we going to be handled?’ And that’s a real ugly thing to think about—being handled.
“The city needs to begin a deep, introspective process,” said Canady, “coming from spirit and a deep, conscious awareness of the humanity of the people of Southside. … We need a healing. We want a healing.”