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Storm warning

On April 25, 1994, the weather-radar screen on Bill Gaither's television was ominous. The Lancaster city manager apprehensively watched the red blips as they moved toward his city. The pulsating pinpoints of light predicted a swift and destructive approaching storm. Pretty soon, barring a miracle, major turbulence would reach the city of Lancaster, which rests on the southern crest of the Dallas metropolitan area.

The city's emergency warning sirens sounded minutes later. Gaither, 50, ordered his wife and three children into the closet under the stairs.

Then he peered out the window. The sky glowed green, and the air felt thick. Air pressure dropped so low his ears began to pop. Sirens could no longer be heard because the tornado that had dropped down on Lancaster was louder. "It sounded like a train passing," Gaither remembers.

He joined his terrified family. They crouched in the closet and prayed together for their lives. The only audible sound was the tempest.

After 10 minutes--a seeming eternity--the roar melted away. Gaither heard glass crashing somewhere in the house. The Gaithers emerged from their hiding place and saw that windows had been blown out, furniture overturned, dishes broken. Over the upstairs master bedroom where a portion of roof used to be, Gaither saw the Texas sky. Rain poured through the hole.

The next morning, Gaither and other city officials, including Mayor Margie Waldrop, toured the devastation the whirlwind had left behind.

The storm had been extremely selective. The tornado had destroyed older, wood-frame homes in a handful of middle-class neighborhoods; it had totally obliterated one home, yet left untouched the house next door. Before blowing out of Lancaster, the twister dropped down on the city's emotional heart, its favored town square. Here sat a small brick square of shops and restaurants surrounding a courtyard whose centerpiece was a stone well. The western-style square had always been a place where residents and tourists alike browsed and congregated. Now, about half of its shops, banks, and restaurants lay in ruins.

At least one neighborhood was totally wiped out. Lancaster teacher Fred Harvey remembers, "You didn't know where to turn, because you had always got to Frances street by turning on that corner with the green house on the left. But now, it was not there, or it was no longer green."

In all, the tornado destroyed more than 500 structures, injured 40 people, and was blamed for the deaths of three elderly residents. Certain Lancaster neighborhoods had become worthless plots of ravaged land.

In communities other than Lancaster, the severe damage would perhaps have resulted in the community being bent on a single goal: rebuilding its town. Instead, in the two years since Lancaster's tornado, the small city of about 23,000 has been divided by emotionalism and distrust. The school board has been falling apart, racial tensions have been erupting in full view of the Dallas media, and confidence in local politics and officials has reached an all-time low. Virtually no rebuilding of the town has taken place.

The strife has been so extreme that a group of architects and urban planners, who in '94 were donating their time to help Lancaster reorganize, temporarily abandoned their project in despair after realizing the community members could not work together.

Today, empty lots proliferate. Hundred-year-old trees appear contorted, their jutting branches leafless. A few homeowners have attempted rehabilitation of their homes, but many have simply done unfortunate patch jobs--wood porches propped up by two-by-fours and cheap shingles nailed to damaged walls. "For sale" signs are numerous. Many central Lancaster streets appear deserted.

Two years after the disaster, Lancaster is still a disaster area.
The ragged appearance of Lancaster today is not consistent with its past. Historically, it has been the pride of its founding families--all of them white and well-off--who trace their Lancaster roots to the pre-Civil War era.

Blocks from the town square, turn-of-the-century Victorian and Prairie houses still grace some streets, hundred-year-old structures on well-tended lawns. With their Doric columns and intricate moldings, the homes contributed to the town's distinctive character before the tornado.

The tornado of 1994, however, was not Lancaster's first tragedy. It has always endured its share of natural disasters, including a fire that destroyed the south side of the town square back in 1877. In 1910, a resident was burning leaves when a gust of wind blew the entire city into flames. In 1935, a powerful storm struck the community, toppling--among other things--the city's 50,000-gallon water tank. Still, the community always seemed to recover.

This disaster has been different. Hopes for the future have been buried beneath acrimonious debate in a community that has not acknowledged or accommodated its racial changes. According to members of Lancaster's minority communities, minorities have never been included in major decision-making. This is despite the fact that, during the 1980s, the black population alone grew from 12 percent to 30 percent of city residents.

 

Some whites have complained that blacks weren't the only ones to be excluded--that if you weren't at least a third-generation Lancaster resident, you didn't belong either, and therefore had no say. During the past few years, however, as blacks and newer residents sought more influence and input amid great resistance from established Lancaster families, tensions in the city have heightened.

"Lancaster had been experiencing a lot of stress for years," explains Gaither, who is no longer city manager. "The tornado added stresses, which made things pretty unbearable."

Certainly the situation was unbearable for experts who poured into Lancaster to help it save itself.

After the tornado, Dallas architects met with Lancaster city officials to discuss rebuilding. One of them, Bob James, suggested the town apply for a RUDAT, an American Institute of Architects program whereby architects help citizens plan rebuilding after a natural disaster. The program accesses a data bank of 600 AIA architects who are prepared to donate their time and expertise to needy municipalities. The city need only pay expenses.

The AIA approved the city's application and pulled together a team of bankers, planners, and architects from across the country. In cooperation with residents, the group of experts intended to map out, during four intense days, a plan for the town's future. It meant to address open spaces, developing, rebuilding, zoning, planning, historic preservation, and other concerns vital to Lancaster's future. RUDAT experts had already performed services for 129 cities all over the nation.

But in Lancaster, the group was stymied. In fact, the RUDAT visit deteriorated into a massive group-therapy session, as the architects and planners strove to bring dysfunctional townspeople together to discuss the future.

"The local political situation was in complete disarray," recalls Chuck Redmon, an architect from Lanham, Massachusetts, and one of the RUDAT organizers. "The city council was at war with one another, and there was a lot of distrust from the citizenry of its political leaders."

And maybe with good reason: The steering committee that greeted the RUDAT experts included the mayor and other council members. "We recommended against that," says Redmon. "The local government shouldn't be leading the pack." He says he made it clear that the RUDAT officials wanted to hear from all sides of the social and political spectrum so they would remain free from political or business influence.

But it was easier said than done. During their first day in Lancaster, the other officials met with groups and individuals, and each meeting left them more troubled, according to Redmon.

Carolyn Morris, the first black person to serve on Lancaster's school board, remembers in particular a RUDAT meeting that seemed right in keeping with her tenure on the board, which had been rife with bickering and hostilities. By the time the architects arrived to meet with the school board, Morris had earned the resentment of her white peers. She says superintendent Bill Ward and other trustees were angry with her for asking the Department of Education to investigate disparities in treatment between black and white students.

Morris does not think her request was out of line: She says she decided to run for the board when she learned that, while 76 percent of white Lancaster high-school students were passing the state TAAS test, only 41 percent of the black students were passing, which she and other black parents found unacceptable.

And on the day in question, she says, racism that before had been barely concealed became public. Superintendent Ward "has never been responsive to the concerns of our black community," says Morris. "And one trustee called our children 'hyenas.'"

Ward declined comment.
If Lancaster's racial conflicts have been manifested in its school system, it is typical of America.

In the '40s and '50s, all Lancaster High School students were white. Student-council elections were a big thing. Students competed fiercely for office.

But Lancaster underwent rapid development during the 1980s, and high-density apartment complexes emerged to dot the northern side of town. Quite quickly, the student body became almost 60 percent minority.

"There would be two Anglos and a minority, and the Anglo vote would be split," explains a Lancaster High School teacher, who asked not to be identified, about the new form student elections took.

In 1990, the first black student was voted student-body president of the high school. As part of his duties, he made daily announcements over the school intercom. It wasn't long after his first broadcasts, however, that school officials decided the student-council president would no longer perform this function.

 

"They said they couldn't understand him," the teacher recalls. After an aborted attempt to eliminate the student council altogether, the teacher says, school officials simply stopped providing the intercom to the student-body president.

Omar Jawar, the former president, says, "I was talking about black history, and they felt I was too direct in my approach, and that my tone was not eloquent enough to fill the needs of the entire Lancaster student body."

Jawar and other black students later staged a walkout at the high school to protest the lack of recognition for black history in Lancaster schools.

Lancaster's racial strife, however, hasn't been limited to school politics. Until two years ago, all of the members of both the school board and the city council were white. Those without longtime community ties--minorities and the poor--were excluded from decision-making.

Only as late as 1994 did the city comply with a federal mandate to go from at-large city elections, which favored the old guard, to single-member districts, which have purportedly leveled the playing field in other communities where this districting system has been tried. The new process brought Lancaster its first black council member, Vic Buchanon, and a handful of council members who didn't fall in line with the town's established power structure.

The delayed emergence of minority influence did not streamline things for the RUDAT consultants. After that long first day of difficult meetings, Councilman Buchanon helped lead an abrupt effort to oust City Manager Gaither, who had up to that point been the RUDAT point man in Lancaster.

Buchanon now says he objected to the way Gaither handled his staff--Buchanon thought the staff members were overpaid--and that he often felt personally ignored by Gaither. "When I asked for information, I would be put off," he says. "And then when I persisted, he said he would get it to me when he got it to me." Buchanon doesn't blame Gaither entirely; Buchanon thinks a precedent that council members shouldn't question city staff members has long been established. "We had to start with a clean slate," he says.

Gaither's firing was the last straw for the architects, however. Only a day after arriving, the AIA representatives pulled out of Lancaster.

The year that followed was tumultuous. Television viewers across the country watched footage of Lancaster police macing an unarmed black woman held in custody, and the city rejected a black city-manager applicant to replace Gaither after a council member acknowledged that Lancaster was "not ready" to have a black person manage its city.

And virtually no rebuilding of tornado-ravaged areas took place.
At least one prominent citizen thinks all this is not necessarily bad. Local NAACP chairwoman Carolyn Morris says the tornado did much more than create community stress: It ripped the facade off Lancaster, revealing a town that, before the storm, had possessed a smiling, hearty image that obscured its racial problems.

She says the tornado offered Lancaster citizens their first opportunity for self-assessment.

"If that can of worms had not been pried open," she says, "we would still be that little town south of Dallas, run exclusively by whites."

Instead, by 1995, the town had acquired a new city manager, and both the school board and the city council were fully integrated.

The RUDAT team came back, and this time completed the four-day assessment. Although developers and bankers were a virtual no-show at the final presentation, about 200 citizens showed up.

The architects and planners were frank: They explained in a 24-page report that many of the old problems still divided Lancaster. "Lines of communication are not what they should be, community-wide," the report read. "There appears to be a pressing need for communication and coordination." The RUDAT team also lamented that the city still seemed to divide needlessly along class and racial lines, and that public influence always seemed to be based on how long one had lived in Lancaster.

The RUDAT team also pronounced Lancaster to be abundantly blessed with natural resources, creeks, trees, vistas, and meadows, all of which could aid its growth as a place where city dwellers seek peace.

The report cautioned the city to be careful about the development it embraces, and to pursue ethnic and cultural art.

It turned out to be an unusually touching community meeting during which nearly everyone who spoke talked about loving their neighbors.

When the presentation ended, the Lancaster town folk--who had begun to learn some painful lessons--gave the RUDAT team a standing ovation.

But the successes in Lancaster are tentative. The school board is still a battlefield, and the citizens are in the middle of electing a new mayor. Waldrop refused to run for reelection, because she says the turmoil of the past term--the bickering, the accusations--was too stressful. She describes the past two years as the worst of her 12-year tenure.

 

Time will tell, says RUDAT team leader James Logan Abell, whether Lancaster will live up to its potential.

"I hope we can go back," he says. "And the citizens can tell us what they have accomplished, and we can give them a standing ovation.


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