Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Dan’s War on Poverty: A Grassroots Crusade for Social Justice, by Ann Patton, published in January 2012 at Tulsa by Dan Allen Center for Social Justice and APLcorps Books LLC, January 2012. ©Ann Patton 2011. Used by permission.
This true story is set in 1971 in north Tulsa. Father Dan Allen and his volunteers at Neighbor for Neighbor (NFN) are concerned about people who need water, roads, and other city services in the Mohawk Heights neighborhood.
Mrs. Liller Waller has a heart-shaped face, narrow at the jaw and chin because she has lived much of her life without her jawbones, which were removed for cancer. Widowed; mother of 13 in a day before the pill; now rearing grandchildren, too. Her face is the face of poverty.
Her dark hair is tucked into an unruly bun. She always wears a bib apron and an accommodating half smile, with lips closed to try to hide the fact that she has no teeth. She has the wrinkled brow of an old lady, with dark circles under her eyes. Those sad eyes are as gentle as her voice, and she is too shy to look directly at you when she speaks.
“I don’t want to start any trouble,” she says from the front porch of her home, a shabby yellow frame with white trim and a couple of broken windows. “I just got a bad deal. I didn’t have a lawyer. The man kept coming to my house, and I signed papers that didn’t have nothing on it.”
Just beyond the yard hydrant, her “bad deal” sits next door, slowly decaying into the dust. For eight years Liller has been paying $55 a month for a house she bought from a door-to-door salesman, but she can’t afford to move in. The salesman told her that her house was about to be condemned and she had to pay $4,000 to get the “new” house moved in from another lot.
She knew she would have to add wiring and sheetrock and a foundation. She didn’t know that she mortgaged her home and lot, that the new house had no kitchen or bathroom, and that she would end up owing an out-of-state mortgage company nearly $8,000. Or that over the years, month by month, she could never stretch her dead husband’s social security enough to move in.
She and the children finished the foundation and are trying to sheetrock it, she says. It’s hard; she has no car, lives in an area without bus service, and has to depend on friends for transportation. She tends a big garden and keeps neighbor children, but the money never quite stretches. Every year she pays $217 on a $900 bill for new neighborhood sewer services, but she can’t afford to hook into the line. “If water or paving comes in, we’ll have to pay our part of that, too,” she says, without resentment. “Those things just happen.
“My trouble is, when I feed these children and pay all my bills and the medical bills—there’s nothing left.”
By the spring of 1971, Father Dan Allen had become focused, some might say obsessed, with the problems of Liller Waller’s neighborhood, where some 40 poor families lived. They were taxpayers dwelling inside the city; living for a generation, they said, on the “outskirts and scrapings of Tulsa,” but missing some basic city services.
Dan was determined to create a University of Poverty, to help people understand. The dilemmas these families faced were instructive on the interlocking problems facing the poor. Those who understood sometimes turned fiercely radical, and Dan was well on his way there. When he talked about the plight of these families, he didn’t spare the profanity. He ground out cigarettes, one after another, with a vengeance, and his eyes burned with an almost frightening fire.
The neighborhood was named Mohawk Heights, cut in half by Harvard Avenue. On one side, 27 families got their water from a single yard hydrant by one of the houses. The area around the hydrant was blackened from fires set all winter to try to keep it thawed. It was about the same in a next-door neighborhood across Harvard.
Neither neighborhood had working sewers, of course, and most people didn’t have indoor plumbing. So even as late as the 1970s, in a prosperous city of 350,000, the area was dotted by ubiquitous little wooden sheds with swinging doors and one or two holes. Stray cats chased rats around the outdoor privies. On hot summer days, a bit of an odor lingered over the scruffy terrain, and strange stains cropped up in standing puddles after a rain.
Dirt ruts served as roads, sometimes spread with a little chat. There were a few broken trees, a scattering of zinnias and rosebushes, some vegetable gardens with straight rows of okra and corn, and plots of high weeds. Mowing was not much of a problem. Over many years, hundreds of little feet— of children and hounds and sometimes chickens—had taken care of the grass. Dust and scattered trash piles offered the children playground materials for their beloved games such as kick the can.
* * *
Here was the city’s rule: If you didn’t have indoor plumbing, the only water service you could have was from a yard hydrant, which was about the height of a small child and had to be at least fifteen feet from the house. Mrs. Olivia Reed managed the “master meter” contract for 27 families. Their billing was peculiarly high—didn’t make sense—and they were billed at a master-meter rate double what other Tulsans paid. But the water pressure was often frustratingly low. Turns out they were all being served by a two-inch main, little bigger than a garden hose. Sometimes people had to wait until the middle of the night to get water.
“There isn’t enough water out here for a decent baptism,” Dan Allen said in disgust.
Every month, regular as rain, the city sent the families utility bills for sewer and refuse service, although nobody had either.
Not everybody got their water from group yard hydrants. Some had well water—“from God, not the city,” one said. Others carried water, as did Mrs. Olivia Scott Gatewood, a 73-year-old widow who cleaned houses five miles south. A friend drove her to work; Mrs. Gatewood had no other transportation. You could see her every week, rain or shine, dressed fit for Sunday church, heading out and heading back, toting as many plastic jugs as she could carry home for her 10-gallon weekly water supply. She still hoped the city would provide water Someday, but hope was dimming. “It seems like the city just wadded us up and threw us away,” Mrs. Gatewood said.
Someday the city would bring water and sewer to the area. City fathers promised it. The city had voted money to build a half-million-dollar sewer “outfall line” and a $3.3 million “interceptor” sewer. The city also planned to spend $200,000 to send water mains toward the families. But when the lines snaked to their area, in that great time ahead named Someday, there would be another truckload of problems.
If city mains were laid, the families would become eligible to tap in. The key word was eligible. If the sewer was available, the families had to—by law—hook up, which meant they would have to pay $500 each, get licensed plumbers to build the lines into their houses, and build indoor plumbing. Same with water: $90 each to tap in, plus a plumber to bring lines into the house and some sort of indoor plumbing to use water.
For people like Liller Waller and Olivia Reed, water might as well have been on the moon. In the worst of cases, they might even lose their homes.
Maybe they could accomplish more in a group, so they started meeting and talking. Father Dan Allen and NFN volunteer lawyer Jeff Nix met with them, in the home of Mrs. Priscilla Jones over on 30th Street North.
With Dan’s help, they began to pool their money, hoping against hope that they could raise enough when the opportunity came. Well, maybe more could be done.
Dan Allen dragged in NFN volunteer Don McCarthy who brought NFN volunteer Don Falletti out to visit the neighborhoods.
“I didn’t believe that there could be an area like that in Tulsa, with people in that kind of condition,” Falletti remembered.
McCarthy and Falletti were both problem solvers, engineers who could not stop picking at a problem knot to save their lives. The two Dons were well on their way to being radicalized by Dan’s University of Poverty.
“It looked pretty clear to me,” Falletti said. “They should have water. Why not? No water lines. How come? Didn’t have the money. No voice was a big thing. I don’t think we ever had a strategy. It wasn’t that big of a project. Dig some trenches, lay some plastic pipe. It didn’t seem like that much of a challenge. Once we got water to their houses, they could drill a hole in an outside wall, run a pipe inside with a faucet— no more than $10, maybe $20—and they would have water and inside plumbing. It didn’t seem like a big challenge, just something that needed to be done.”
First stop was the city, at the desk of Tony Keating, the City of Tulsa Commissioner of Waterworks and Sewerage. Keating prided himself on keeping a tidy desk; on a sunny day, you could see his face reflected in the polished mahogany. When he was angry, which was fairly often, his neck turned bright turkey red.
The commissioner listened politely as Falletti outlined the problem. Too bad, but nothing could be done. There were rules; the city had to follow them; he had no authority to go beyond them; it was all about health, safety, welfare; the bond funds were being spent in accordance with law and proper procedure; in time, there would be city service for that area. Then people would have pay for the lines on their own property and have to hook up or there would be liens. Those were the rules.
“We really didn’t get any help from the commissioner,” Falletti remembered later.
* * *
“We had a couple of meetings at one of these homes, and it took us 30 minutes to get enough water for eight cups of coffee,” remembered NFN volunteer Don McCarthy. “It turned out that these master yard hydrants were not exactly legal, either, but the city didn’t want to push it because then there would be all these families with no water at all. They had nothing really, just a shack or old house with no facilities, no water.
“Dan Allen knew I had a background in construction and said would I handle the construction? I said sure,” McCarthy said. “I had no idea what we were constructing. Jeff Nix took care of the city part, and Don and I took care of the field part, the construction. We just headed out like we knew what we were doing.”
“You have to learn what people are vulnerable to,” Falletti remembered. “That was the first time I understood that bad press was the issue for City Hall. The mayor was really nice to me, but he said he couldn’t do anything because there were rules. So I said to the city, ‘Well, we got this project going and we’ll have photographers there and the city won’t look very good. But can you have your water guy come out and tell us where he wants the city lines? Then we will meet them there.’ ”
Falletti quit asking permission. He drew up plans, based on a lot of guesswork. The houses were scattered without much pattern, with occasional hints of dirt chat roads. The two Dons asked all the homeowners where they wanted their kitchens, if they could ever have kitchens. Then Falletti drew imaginary roads, based on sheer logic, pretending they were actual paved roads. He laid out where the water lines would stretch along the pretend roads, from imaginary kitchens to imaginary city connections. He went to his company, Rockwell International, and got their Good Neighbor Fund (Falletti was fund chair) to put up $1,000, enough to pay for materials. Falletti also got NFN board members to serve as volunteer laborers.
“I have a crew,” Dan Allen told Falletti. “I have a friend who owns a ditching company, and they are going to come here from Perry, Oklahoma, with their people and equipment. They will pay all their own expenses and food. They will come two weekends.”
“I remember what somebody famous once said,” Falletti said. “Rules? There are no rules. We’re trying to get something done.”
“These people had been promised and promised and promised, all their lives,” McCarthy said. “Right at that time, Tulsa won the All America City award, but here were these families. And—how can I tell you?—they were just so grateful.”
“The people couldn’t believe it,” Falletti said. “There was one guy who didn’t want to cooperate with us. His was the last home, and he watched us work through his neighborhood but wouldn’t talk with us. When we were almost done, I knocked on his door and said, ‘You are the last house in the area that needs water service. Where would you like to have your line?’
“He said, ‘I can afford to do it myself.’ Well, just look around, you could see what he had, more than the rest. We could tell he didn’t think he deserved help. I said, ‘We would like to do it.’ He looked at me for a long time and then he said, ‘Right over here.’
“When we were putting in his line, here he came in his little camper pickup, and here was all this sandwich food and pop.
“We had quite a feast,” Falletti said. “The fellow had tears of gratitude in his eyes. And so did we.
“We knew we had done something real.”