Stacey Odom was skeptical of Pete Buttigieg, when, in 2012, he became the young mayor here in South Bend.
Then 29-year-old Buttigieg won office on a plan of urban revitalization and data-driven governance. Newsweek had recently tagged South Bend as one of America’s dying cities.
So he laid out a plan: Get rid of urban blight, revitalize downtown and attract the kind of economy that had eluded South Bend ever since the car manufacturer Studebaker left town decades before, leaving a gaping hole – both physically and mentally – in the city of just over 100,000 Hoosiers.
But for Odom, who is black and more than a decade older than Buttigieg, the mayor’s primary idea for getting rid of urban decay – expediting code enforcement in order to demolish 1,000 deteriorating houses in 1,000 days – smacked of gentrification and reignited racial tensions in the city.
“I thought it was a mistake,” Odom said outside a home she is trying to redevelop in the Monroe neighborhood. “I don’t think that he looked at every aspect of all the consequences of tearing down 1,000 homes in 1,000 days.”
With Buttigieg planning to officially launch his presidential bid in South Bend on Sunday, his record as mayor has come under scrutiny, with questions being raised about whether the city’s revitalization has delivered for all of Sound Bend’s denizens.
And now that Buttigieg is leaving office to focus on his campaign, the race to replace him has turned into a tacit acknowledgment that the renewal, while popular, has not been felt by all residents. Candidates for mayor have all pledged to focus on revitalizing the city’s neighborhoods like downtown; Jason Critchlow, a onetime political operative, is running ads saying that “it’s time to take the success we have had here … to all over this city.”
Buttigieg is set to make his eight years as mayor central to his presidential bid, especially the renewal that he has delivered to the small city. But as much as some residents of South Bend have touted the newly revitalized downtown, others – primarily those from historically African American areas west of downtown – have expressed reservations over how the renewal was not felt in their neighborhoods.
Buttigieg, in an interview with CNN, said that “overall” he believes the program was “certainly a success” and “primarily benefited low-income and minority homeowners who found that their safety and their property value was damaged by blight.” But the mayor admitted that the plan was not perfect and needed to be tweaked throughout based on feedback from neighborhoods where blight is the most apparent.
“The challenge with any policy, especially a controversial one, is you need to know when to stick to your guns when you really believe in something and get it done. But you also need to acknowledge, from the get-go, that you might be wrong,” Buttigieg said, adding that the lessons he learned from these sorts of controversial projects have informed the kind of candidacy he is mounting for president.
Winning people over
The 1,000-home project – coupled with all the time, energy and money Buttigieg committed to revitalizing downtown – created distrust with some of South Bend’s African American residents, who make up nearly 30% of the city’s population.
Much of that has yet to be fully resolved. The current unemployment rate among African Americans in South Bend is more than 11%, and a 2017 study by the city found that more than 40% of African Americans in the city live below the poverty line, a number that is nearly double the national rate for black households.
But eight years removed from Buttigieg taking office, what has surprised many in South Bend – including those who met Buttigieg’s early plans with antipathy – is that the mayor has won over many of his critics, including Odom and Republicans who had once questioned whether he could effectively lead their city.
Odom’s opinion of Buttigieg changed after a chance – and blunt – meeting downtown. Her home was on the demolition list and she wanted it off but was hitting roadblocks with the city.
“I saw Mayor Pete walking down the street, and I’m one of those people that if I see you somewhere, I don’t care who you are, and I need something, I’ll just run right up to you and ask you for what I want,” Odom said with a laugh, recalling how she confronted the mayor.
Odom was surprised that Buttigieg listened for 10 minutes, even though he was on his way to a meeting. His staff was anxious to get Buttigieg to move on, but the mayor handed her his card and the two struck up an ongoing conversation. Buttigieg later held a series of meeting with Odom and others to talk about the plan. She credits the mayor with getting her home off the demolition list – and because of pressure from the community, 40% of other residents’ homes were taken off too.
“When I saw that he was willing to help, that’s what turned me,” said Odom. “That’s what said to me, this is a man that has the potential to be president.”
Buttigieg said it was experiences like the one he had with Odom that informed a facet of his approach to 2020.
“On one hand, I believe in conviction politics. I think you need to forcefully defend your values and explain why you believe in the things you believe in,” he said. “But one reason that you’ll hear me not being too doctrinaire about some of these policy groups is an awareness that the reality in government is you’re going to be adjusting the finer points of the policy, anyway.”
‘Everybody wants a beautiful community, but …’
Regina Williams-Preston had a markedly different experience.
She and her husband had bought three dilapidated houses in her neighborhood with plans to refurbish them and either sell them for a profit or create a business, like a day care for local kids. But when Williams-Preston’s husband fell ill and was unable to renovate the houses, the properties landed on the city’s demolition list and the family lost the properties that they had hoped would be investments.
“What was different was that (South Bend) condensed the project and the process of eliminating homes into a very short period of time,” Williams-Preston said. “Oftentimes when you try to do something really fast, you miss things. … There was just this real concerted effort to make sure we hit that goal. Like anything that came in the way we had to change policy, we got it done so we can hit that target. But in the wake of that, people lost homes.”
The experience lit a fire under Williams-Preston, who went on to create a group of local organizers that has become a force pushing against the Buttigieg administration. She then successfully ran for South Bend Common Council, the city council, in 2015 and is now running for mayor, looking to replace the man who motivated her to get into politics.
Around South Bend, the effects of the demolition program are impossible to miss. Semi-urban blocks that were once packed with homes, particularly on the city’s west side, now look more sparsely populated, with multiple lots in between remaining homes. The need for less housing was a byproduct of economic contraction in the city – something that many similar municipalities have experienced – but it has left a visible hole in certain neighborhoods.
People close to Buttigieg say the urban blight project was a learning experience for him. In his pre-campaign memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” Buttigieg touted the project as a win for “data-driven management.” But even he has recently admitted that it wasn’t flawless.
And government executives who worked closely with Buttigieg admit that the program did impact communities of color more directly, even though that wasn’t the intention.
“It has had some disproportionate impact” on minority communities, Gary Gilot, the president of Buttigieg’s Board of Public Works, said in an interview. “But the decision was color-blind. … It was the right thing to do to deal with the blight. You have to remove it. If you have a cancer, you have to deal with it.”
The complaints about the program from neighborhoods outside South Bend’s city center were compounded by Buttigieg pouring resources and time into stimulating downtown, which created a sense that the mayor was focused on downtown at the expense of nearby communities.
“More resources could flow out into neighborhoods now that the downtown is becoming more vital,” said Steve Fredman, a retired English professor who was close with the Buttigieg family long before the mayor was even born. “And that is a campaign issue for people who are running (for mayor) right now.”
In total, Buttigieg touts $850 million in investments since he took office in 2012. But people, like Williams-Preston, who remain uneasy about the mayor say much of that money flowed everywhere but the most impoverished communities.
“Everybody wants a beautiful community,” she said, standing in LaSalle Park, the neighborhood that was changed by the program. “But how can we do that in a way that doesn’t push out poor people and people of color?”
Buttigieg said he sees complaints like the one leveled by Williams-Preston as “expression of concern about inequality.”
“This is a city which is still a low-income city and one with a lot of inequality. So if you’re on the west side, and I’m proud of everything we’ve done for the west side, but you’re still in a low-income neighborhood,” Buttigieg said. “So anything that you see happening downtown could be perceived as something that you wish were coming to you.”
He added: “My job is to balance it out, knowing that we’re going to have economic growth for the whole city if we have a strong urban core in the downtown, but at the same time not falling into some trickle-down fantasy that if we get that right, everybody’s going to automatically be better off.”
The heart of Buttigieg’s plan for downtown was restructuring what has been a dilapidated city center: Upgrade the sidewalks, improve medians and give government grants to refurbish old buildings. But the most unique change was getting rid of one-way streets and five-lane boulevards that encouraged people to speed through downtown without a thought about the businesses in the area.
Not everyone was in favor of the plan, which promised to also create more traffic in downtown South Bend.
“You tell your husband to stop (messing up) the streets downtown,” a constituent told Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, in the grocery store one day, using an expletive, the mayor writes in his memoir. People close to the mayor told CNN that residents regularly used listening sessions that came to be known as “Mayor’s Night Out” to vent.
He would “go face the piper at these Mayor Night Out things and people get a few minutes to vent their spleen,” said Gilot, who added that sometimes the comments could get profane and gruff.
Since then, however, the plan, according to nearly every South Bend resident CNN spoke to, has worked to revitalize downtown but has also made traffic worse. South Bend’s downtown, while small, is bustling and now home to a number of locally owned businesses and restaurants.
No one has seen this change more than Mark McDonnell, the owner of LaSalle Grill, a local downtown spot that opened 28 years ago.
“We had the problem of people blasting through south and north on five-lane roads, one-way, with no intention of stopping in South Bend, and it was just always a constant problem,” said McDonnell, who – despite being a Republican – met with Buttigieg during his first run for mayor and told him that downtown looks like a “drab … Soviet-era city in the 1950s.”
In response, Buttigieg launched “Smart Streets” in 2013 and got the $25 million bond needed for it in 2015.
“This is the heart of the city,” McDonnell said. “The neighborhoods may be the soul of the city, but this is the heart, got to have a pumping heart to have anything else.”
What makes McDonnell’s story unique is that the eccentric business owner was skeptical of Buttigieg at first and, despite his affinity for the mayor, he voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
As he approaches 2020 and the prospect of Buttigieg being the Democratic nominee, McDonnell’s onetime skepticism of the mayor has given way to possible support.
“He would be at this point the only Democrat that I would consider voting for, I’ll put it that way,” McDonnell said. “I don’t totally agree with him on all the issues he has. … (But) if we are to have a Democrat president, and chances are good, I would rather have somebody that was from South Bend.”
“I know I’ll get a bunch of emails from friends after they see this, ‘What are you thinking!’ Well, I have to think what’s best for South Bend, Indiana, the country, and Pete may be the best choice.”