IN his first month with VISTA, Bill Lindsey let it be known he would not be a conventional community-service volunteer. It was 1972, and he had been sent to Fort Lauderdale with the domestic Peace Corps agency to ``observe'' one of the toughest slums in the Southeast. But he soon became angry with superiors, whom he saw spending too much time in ``training'' at the beach. So one night he and a colleague collected a bag of dead rats from a housing project, brought it to an orientation meeting, and dumped them on the floor.
``We weren't supposed to get involved,'' recalls Mr. Lindsey of the experience. ``We were supposed to observe. That's insane. I was here for real. Period.''
Bill Lindsey has put that kind of defiant determination to work over the past decade in rebuilding, tenement by tenement, some of the city's most squalid sections. The result is what many consider one of the most successful ``slum busting'' experiments in urban America today -- one that has been lauded by President Reagan and Florida Gov. Bob Graham, among others, and is quickly becoming a national model.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now wants to spread Lindsey's gospel to other cities, and community officials across the country are trooping to this sun-dappled city to see if Lindsey, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale housing authority, really has discovered a solution for urban decay.
``I have never seen anything equal to what Lindsey and his cohorts have done in Fort Lauderdale,'' says Dr. John DeGrove, secretary of Florida's Department of Community Affairs, who, as a former urban expert at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University, studied public housing in many US cities.
Who is this man some call a ghetto-buster?
He is big, earthy, at times profane, and at others profound -- a sort of Lee Iacocca of public housing. He believes comfortable housing shouldn't be a luxury (``Everyone has a right to a minimum adequate standard of living''), and thinks the government has to play a role in bringing this about (``HUD is a matter of national defense''), but eschews the idea that this need mean massive federal spending (``the government should focus on production instead of process'').
He is, in other words, a curious mix of 1960s Great Society idealism and 1980s hardheaded economic realism. More than anything else, perhaps, he is a street-smart bureaucrat -- a man who knows his way around a tenement as well as a tax-free bond. This shouldn't be surprising. He spent four years living in Fort Lauderdale's meanest slum -- yes, this city of white-sand beaches and palm-fringed canals, this ``Venice of America,'' has a nasty ghetto -- a time that saw his apartment repeatedly ransacked and himself once attacked by a knife-wielding thug. Lindsey repelled him with a fist and a revolver.
To encourage residents to help themselves, he has also worked periodically alongside tenants and maintenance crews in the street, carting garbage one day and riding in police cruisers the next. He no longer lives in a slum tenement but in a Spartanly furnished old house, where he sleeps on a foam pad on the floor and has no hot water -- ``because everybody else doesn't.'' Gone are the ponytail and beard of his VISTA days. But there is no tie, either: On this day, he is in T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes.
Behind Bill Lindsey's strategy is what even outsiders consider an unusually broad approach to neighborhood revival for a housing authority, one aimed at both physical and social improvement. Unlike the more conventional urban-renewal model, where millions are spent on new housing that is then abandoned to tenants, the idea is to build on existing ``strengths'' within an area and limit anything that threatens residents. Buildings are rehabilitated rather than razed. Police, social service, and other agencies are brought in to keep an area safe and aid those who want it. Private investment is sought.
``Good'' tenants -- those who accept responsibility for maintaining the quality of life -- are encouraged to stay. ``Bad'' ones are evicted, often inhospitably, by the 200-pound-plus Lindsey himself. The theory is that with this modicum of government support the rejuvenated area -- ``oasis'' -- will influence blighted neighborhoods around it. Each project is selected where it might have the greatest impact on the surroundings. The hope is that private investment will return, and residents themselves will take up the task of improving their lot.
``The whole oasis concept is to be able to create a patchwork of stability at the neighborhood level so that good people can stay and other people can move in,'' Mr. Lindsey says.
Simple and quixotic though the approach may sound, the results have been practical and in some cases profound. Citrus Park was an apartment building as dangerous and decrepit as anything on the northwest side when Lindsey arrived in 1972. It was also, incidentally, where he decided to live. He quickly helped organize a rent strike (something VISTA people were forbidden to do) to cajole an absentee landlord into making repairs. To improve trash collection, tenants loaded a flatbed truck with garbage and parked it in front of city hall.
Eventually, after taking over the housing agency, Lindsey persuaded a private developer to buy the complex when federal funds to renovate it were not forthcoming. Today Citrus Park looks like a splash of middle class in an area of despair, its peach-colored stucco walls and grounds neat and trim. Across the street, private developers are putting up two new homes, and another complex is being renovated.
Nearby, Lindsey's agency has refurbished another project, Alan Apartments, which has revived a nearby small-business district.
A key tenet of this approach is that there is a need to unite residents in trying to solve common problems. One example of this is the ``Greenspace'' project -- a half-acre urban nursery that was created out of a former junkyard. It is tended by area residents, including neighborhood youths who learn job skills. Tenants get free plants to trim their yards. Lindsey also started a tutoring program for black youths that has reached several hundred of them. To thwart crime, he has encouraged city police to set up small tactical units from time to time to patrol neighborhoods with the help of residents.
``They don't just concentrate on housing as a housing authority,'' says Dr. James Baugh, a public-housing official with HUD. They have focused more on the ``improvement of the overall neighborhood.''
Bill Lindsey's start as a slum-buster was an improbable one. The son of an Army officer, he grew up on military bases around the world and studied chemistry in college. He switched to social science in graduate school after getting caught up in the civil rights movement. His decision was precipitated by a calculus professor who had worked on the moon shot and was smitten with science. At that point, Lindsey says, he realized ``we were more sophisticated technologically than we were socially.''
He spent two years working in the slums here before a friend persuaded him to apply for the housing authority job in 1974. Today his agency oversees some 2,500 housing units and has created a dozen oasis areas around the city. Not all projects transformed neighborhoods the way the housing authority had wanted.
``But nowhere has there been a change that has not lasted over time,'' says Dr. Bruce Quint, the agency's director of planning and development. ``In no case have we had a failure.''
Nor has Lindsey's brash style and growing notoriety endeared him to all of the city's bureaucrats. One official in the community-affairs department says flatly that his approach is no different from ``what everybody else is doing'' and that the common portrayal that he has turned around an entire area of the city is ``just ridiculous.''
But few doubt that he has made measurable improvements on the city's tough northwest side, and most politicians and business leaders go further than that. ``With the resources he has had at hand, Bill Lindsey has done an excellent job, and his oasis technique has improved the area in general,'' says Mayor Robert Dressler.
Lindsey says his intention wasn't to eradicate all blight but to come up with a ``formula'' that Fort Lauderdale or any other city could use. That, he says, he has done.
The question now is how well it might work elsewhere. Two Florida cities, Gainesville and Deerfield Beach, are already testing the oasis system under Lindsey's tutelage. HUD is putting up $100,000 to apply it in another city. Lindsey and Dr. Quint have set up an ``Oasis Institute'' to train others in the process.
But some urban experts caution that, while sound in theory, the practical effectiveness of Lindsey's methods hinges on many factors: support from local politicians and the business community, aid from social-service and community groups, and the person behind the program.
``The difficulty in transferring this is that it takes ingenuity, flexibility, enthusiasm, and talent, which is rare in public housing and bureaucracies in general,'' says Dr. DeGrove. ``You are tempted to say this works because it is Bill Lindsey and Bruce Quint.''