Miami’s fragile new lease on life

Michael Posner May 30 1983

Miami’s fragile new lease on life

Michael Posner May 30 1983

Miami’s fragile new lease on life


Michael Posner

When Miami holds a celebration next month to commemorate the third anniversary of the arrival in South Florida of the 125,000 "Marielitos”—the Cubans that Premier Fidel Castro allowed to leave his country from the port of Mariel in the spring of 1980—the festivities will serve as proof of the city’s remarkable resiliency. Few other communities could have overcome the tremendous problems that plagued the metropolis of 1.7 million people. Three years ago, Miami’s fabric was strained almost to the breaking point by the Cuban aliens, a large number of whom included mental patients, drug addicts and hardened criminals—25,000 by some estimates.

Turned loose on unsuspecting Floridians, the violent mob unleashed a tidal wave of crime that, in 1980, made Dade County the crime capital of the United States. To make matters worse, thousands of other Latin Americans, intent on following the Cuban example, overwhelmed the region’s border patrol. The booming traffic in drugs compounded Miami’s problems. It was, recalled

Miami public relations executive Hank Meyer, a “time of total despair. And it kept snowballing.” A Miami Herald poll found that a staggering 40 per cent of Dade County residents were considering leaving.

As a result, the decision to celebrate the Marielitos’ arrival—synonymous in the public mind with a season of anarchy-might seem

like a macabre joke.

But in fact, Miamians have earned the right to celebrate. Few other communities could

have so quickly assimilated 150,000 aliens.

And few others could have mounted the broad-based campaign needed to restore civic confidence and self-respect. Still, that campaign is far from finished. Although the crime rate is down, with most of the Mariel psychopaths in prison and the war on drugs succeeding, there is no

complacency in Miami. “We think the tide has turned,” said Van Edsall, executive director of Miami Citizens Against Crime (MCAC). “But there is a long way to go.”

Miami’s civic leaders—white and Hispanic—concede that the alienation of black Miamians from the economic and political mainstream is a powder keg of unknown proportions. “We’re losing 5,000 young blacks every year to the judicial system,” complained Les Brown, a radio announcer and black activist in Liberty City, the black ghetto. “The recidivism rate is 80 per cent. You take the average 19year-old black. He’s got ^ no job, no skills, doesn’t 2 know what he is or Ö where he belongs. Man, « he’s a walking time 2 bomb.”

I Although a great s deal of rebuilding re1 mains to be done, prog-

ress has already been made. MCAC won support from the city’s chief executives and gradually spread its roots into virtually every civic, social and religious organization in the area. The group’s leader flew to Washington and petitioned presidential counsellor Edwin Meese to commit federal funds and manpower toward crime abatement. The result was the creation of the South Florida Task Force, a small army including 250 Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and customs personnel, along with more judges and prosecutors, whose aim is to curb cocaine and marijuana traffic. Moreover, for the first time, Washington authorized the nation’s military forces to aid law enforcement efforts by providing data from reconnaissance satellites and aircraft. The Coast Guard, positioned at critical choke points, has been empowered to stop and search suspicious U.S. or stateless vessels.

The main result of the task force’s operation has been to divert narcotics traffic to other parts of the United States. While the DEA now claims to seize nearly a third of all marijuana shipments destined for Florida, on the streets of Miami cocaine remains readily available. At the same time, other coastal states, from North Carolina to California, have become alternative ports of entry. The new pattern has not escaped the notice of Ronald Reagan’s administration. Hoping to repeat its success in Florida, the White House recently announced plans to expand the task force approach to 12 U.S. cities, with another 400 DEA agents. Short of persuading the South American countries of origin to close down their profitable drug laboratories, manpower remains the best approach to suppressing the nation’s $50-billion drug industry.

Authorities credit the same solution for lowering Miami’s crime rate. Financed with an additional one-per-cent sales tax, the staff on the city’s police force this year rose to 1,000 from 783 in 1980. Homicides fell by 12 per cent in 1982. Statewide, major crimes fell by five per cent—the first decline in five years. But it is not manpower alone that explains the improvement. Sgt. Jack Sullivan of the Miami police department believes that public support— from the political clout of the MCAC to the grassroots crime watchers in the palm-shaded suburbs—had a significant impact.

Inevitably, the downward trend in crime statistics produced a public opinion turnaround. A new poll of Miamians revealed that only 10 per cent were still planning to leave. Florida’s tourism receipts are also up—to a record $21.4 billion in 1982. “Crime was the top priority,” said William Cullom, president of the Greater Miami Cham-

ber of Commerce. “We realized that until we did something about that problem, then our other concerns—Liberty City, tourism, economic development— could not be seriously addressed.” Indeed, even with federal and private funds pouring into the black ghettos, the impact is marginal. Unemployment among young blacks remains at a staggering 50 per cent. The recent recession hurt Miami’s Cuban and Haitian districts as well. But compared to Liberty City and Overtown, the other neighborhoods are positively affluent. “Our goal,” said Cullom, “is to spend $10 mil-

lion on black businesses every year for 10 years and give them support—from job-training to contracts. It’s tough. Only one per cent of the businesses are black-owned; statistically, it should be 17 per cent.”

Still, some blacks argue that the money is not reaching the people who need it most. Explained black activist Brown: “We need a holistic approach— not just short-term solutions. We need a master plan.” Brown sees a terrible vacuum of education and information in the ghetto. “Knowledge is power. It can’t be all bump and boogie,” he ex-

plained. “So private enterprise is giving $7 million to Liberty City to hire a few blacks to paint bridges. What in the hell can we do with that? It does not even begin to deal with our problems.”

But Brown, like Cullom, remains optimistic. The city’s growth has been phenomenal. Increasingly, Miami is becoming the focal point of Latin American commerce. As well, dozens of private developments are either under construction or on architects’ drafting tables, among them, a 10-year plan to add thousands of homes and apartments to the city’s downtown core. New zoning regulations went into effect last month that give developers generous allowances on density and green space. But rapid growth is also straining Miami’s capacity to deliver essential services. By 1990, say environmentalists, the state will need 15 trillion L of fresh water a year and disposal techniques for 600,000 tonnes a year of hazardous waste. Some experts predict that early in the next century Floridians will wage civil war over access to water. Florida has already grown by 47.5 per cent in the past 10 years. In 1949, it was the nation’s 27th-largest state; now, with its 10.3 million inhabitants, it ranks fourth in population.

To help pay for the expanding infrastructure, some Miamians are campaigning for a statewide lottery, arguing that what enriches the state’s coffers will ultimately affect Miami’s ability to cope with growth. More critically though, Miamians must make another crucial decision. In November, 1984, there will be a statewide referendum on whether taxes should be rolled back across the board. The one-per-cent sales tax increase that funded larger police forces and new prisons would be repealed, and property tax hikes would be limited to five per cent or less. If the measure succeeds, it will imperil funds for expanded schools, hospitals, roads and mass-transit projects. And, warns Sgt. Jack Sullivan, it might make the city’s war against crime a losing proposition. Explained Sullivan: “Those resolutions in California and Boston have failed. If it passes here, we will have a major disaster in the making.” Whatever the decision, there seems to be little to stand in the way of Miami’s continued growth. Miami remains a powerful magnet for refugees and retirees, industrious entrepreneurs and fast-buck speculators. It has weathered a nasty squall—a crisis of confidence. Serious problems remain—race relations, scarce resources, all the headaches that inevitably confront a frontier town transformed into a sprawling, high-tech megalopolis. As Miami’s Hispanic mayor, Maurice Ferre, frequently says: “You cannot have the bad without the good.”