Will poor black evacuees ever want to leave Frank Stronach’s Palm Beach paradise?

KATE FILLION September 26 2005


Will poor black evacuees ever want to leave Frank Stronach’s Palm Beach paradise?

KATE FILLION September 26 2005




Will poor black evacuees ever want to leave Frank Stronach’s Palm Beach paradise?


FOR DION HOUSTON, a slight 43-year-old with a gold tooth and the jaunty air of a pirate, hurricane Katrina has been “a blessing,” even a holiday of sorts. Since leaving his flooded New Orleans apartment, he “found $2,000 just floating in the water,” quit smoking crack, and finally proposed to his 25-year-old girlfriend, Miata Gipson, who is six months pregnant. Plus, they’ve been given a new TV, a closet full of clothes, “everything for the baby except the baby,” a free day trip to Lion Country Safari, US$600 from the Red Cross

which helped pay for an engagement ring— and, oh yeah, the promise of jobs and a new, furnished home.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world as a mistake,” is how Houston explains this turn of events. Or, to put it another way: timing is everything. Things are turning out so well for the couple mainly because they ignored the evacuation order and stayed in New Orleans for six days after the levees broke, camping in an abandoned house and eating “barbecued rabbit, barbecued chicken, barbecued alligator caught by some neighbourhood guy” that Houston rates only “Okay, not as good as if I’d boiled it.” But on the seventh day, “The Spirit spoke to me and said it was time to go,” says Houston. “We walk out the door and within 10 minutes the National Guard picked us up, and we were headed to a plane to go to Montgomery, Alabama.”

What happened next, even the Spirit might

find hard to fathom: they won the equivalent of the evacuee lottery. While tens of thousands of survivors were assigned flimsy cots in crowded stadiums, Houston and Gipson, along with 210 others, set off on a long bus ride that ended at a lush 304-acre horse training compound in Palm Beach County—yes, that Palm Beach, the oldmoney Florida resort where gated homes still have service entrances—owned by Magna Entertainment Corp.

Frank Stronach, Magna’s founder and chairman, had sent a trio of high-ranking employees to Montgomery to convince the Red Cross to let him turn Palm Meadows Thoroughbred Training Center into a shelter until the season begins on Nov. 1. Initially skeptical—who was this Stronach guy, anyway?—officials agreed, and randomly selected evacuees for the new facility, built to house jockeys, trainers, and up to 1,424 horses.

Now, Palm Meadows is a peaceful place. At night, frogs hop from the well-lit paths to the 17-acre man-made lake, and crickets are the main source of noise. The vast majority of the evacuees are black and all are poor; some had just taken their first plane trip, and most were a little freaked out to find themselves in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by teary-eyed white volunteers. “People were saying, ‘It’s a camp, like a concentration camp,’ ” recalls Percy Matthews, a 55-year-old amateur preacher with a habit of squinting his left eye shut when he’s thinking hard. “I said, ‘You’ll see, we be free.’ ” The mood improved considerably after the guests—there are no “refugees” at Palm

Meadows—had had a chance to look around in the light of day. It is, almost certainly, the most comfortable shelter in the United States: four pleasant three-storey buildings face a massive courtyard with exotic plants, picnic tables and a volleyball court. Each private room has two twin beds, a microwave, refrigerator and ensuite bathroom, and though the decor is no-frills, everything is meticulously clean. Nearby, there’s a pavilion with a large cafeteria and shaded outdoor seating, along with medical staff and computer rooms where volunteers fill in Federal Emergency Management Agency forms and search the Internet for missing relatives.

“This place is like heaven,” sighs Matthews,

who’s sitting in the shade of a palm tree making notes for a Bible study group. “It’s beautiful, and I don’t hear the words I hear back home, how people talk to one another, cursing, killing, robbing, begging, and hanging on the corner, drinking 24/7 and selling drugs, pants down they knees, sagging.” Watching some of the 30 kids at the shelter tear around on donated bikes, Matthews says, “This is like taking a little puppy and bringing him to another part of a town. And when he gets out there, he runs around and everything because he knows he’s in a different atmosphere—some of’em here wasn’t eating three times a day, some of ’em wasn’t sleeping in a bed.”

Despite the trauma of the flood, and the fact that they’ve lost what little they had, something of a holiday atmosphere prevails at Palm Meadows. Sports stars and politicians drop by. Families are reunited. And on Sept. 9, Stronach himself appeared in the cafeteria and told the cheering crowd he knew what they felt like—he’d arrived in Canada hungry, with only a few dollars in his pocket—and would create a village for them in Louisiana, complete with mobile homes and the opportunity to learn a trade, where he’d support them for five years. “It’s like Wheel of Fortune,” marvels Melissa Ann Wilkerson, a homeless 36-year-old nursing assistant and mother of six. “I must say,

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I’ve had a change of opinion toward white people. I thought they were mean and superior, stuck-up. Here, they’re giving, kind, not judgmental.”

Too giving, grumble some professional relief workers. Although Palm Meadows is operated in conjunction with the Red Cross, which provides food, nurses and mental health workers, there are also hundreds of local volunteers providing extras. For starters, guests have all been given new TVs with built-in VCRs, and outings to local tourist attractions. “One person wanted to donate three cars, but how would we decide who got them? He said, ‘So how many cars do you need?”’ says Robin McPartland, a Magna employee who has fielded hundreds of calls. “We’ve had at least two dozen calls from people offering vacant houses, lots of people offering jobs, all kinds of bikes, someone wants them to come to their restaurant, a country club wants to hold a banquet. Oh, and someone gave 800 condoms.”

And then there is the daily mountain of clothes, shoes, toiletries, household items, and toys. By the end of the first week, the shelter had sent away five full truckloads of “excess.” A cadre of volunteers has pulled together an enormous, well-ordered storeroom called “Katrina’s Kloset,” where one day last week the free merchandise included a yellow linen suit perfect for a lady who lunches, a neon flowered tie redolent of Woodstock, and a table full of new irons. If people can’t find what they need—a size 11 pair of women’s shoes, say—a volunteer is deputized to go buy it.

Retail therapy has never looked quite like this in Palm Beach County, with scores of wealthy whites anxious to wait on poor blacks. “We just got some new skirts in, Banana Republic,” one wiry matron enthuses to a young woman with elaborate hair extensions, while a heavy-set woman with an armload of dresses considers a gold bracelet adorned with pink flowers. “Take one!” urges a volunteer. “As many as you want.” A dapper-looking man in his 40s lugs out a large plastic bag full of shorts and polo shirts. “Can’t resist,” he says, ruefully. “I gotta go in there every day, there’s always new stuff.”

There’s so much that tote bags and luggage are sought-after items, and the customeris-always-right attitude sometimes goes a little far. “I came in yesterday and asked for a CD player,” one woman politely told

also offer free accommodations. “This place isn’t racist,” says Dion Houston. “A lady in line at Wal-Mart just handed us a $50 gift card and said, ‘For the baby,’ then walked off before we even got her name.”

It would be a different story on ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. “I think people would be nice,” says one volunteer, “if they knew they were hurricane survivors.” And if they were mistaken for locals? “I’m not sure,” she said doubtfully.

In fact, racial tensions flare frequently in Palm Beach County, where de facto segregation persists and only 65 km of lonely highway lined with sugar cane separate Mara-Lago, Donald Trump’s gaudy palace, from Belle Glade, a town of 15,000 with high rates of AIDS infection and violent crime, and a black per capita income that is only about two-thirds that of New Orleans. On a recent Saturday night, as dealers signalled from the corner and loud rap pounded from crumbling low-rise apartments with boarded-up

a volunteer. “Is it here yet?” The volunteer assured her not to worry, it was coming.

The driving force behind Katrina’s Kloset is Bambi Deanto, a stay-at-home mom from wealthy Boca Raton whose previous volunteer experience consisted of fundraising for her kids’ public school. “When they walked off that bus, these people were in the only clothes they owned,” says Deanto, a tanned, petite woman with so much energy she almost seems to vibrate. “But now, once they’ve gotten cleaned up and they feel like human beings again, they’re turning out to be some of the most wonderful, generous, kind-hearted people really that I’ve ever met. There’s no prejudice here, that’s for sure.”

Many guests agree, and have developed such a liking for the area, despite the fact that they have seen little of it, that they’re thinking of staying. The job board in the cafeteria advertises positions specifically open to survivors, ranging from fast-food jobs to construction work; some employers

windows, a 33-year-old man who would identify himself only as Larry Joe said, “They’re giving out clothes and houses over there? You shittin’ me? Man, we need help right here.”

But the poor blacks of Belle Glade and West Palm Beach, where faded signs on the housing projects warn “No trespassing, no prostituting, no sale of drugs or paraphernalia,” simply aren’t on anyone’s radar. “Yes, we know there are low income people surrounding us, but I don’t know—maybe the need is not as visible, or our eyes are not there. We’re kind of used to it,” says Deanto. Looking around the pavilion, where survivors are lounging outside after a dinner of ham, collard greens and potatoes, she says, “They are kind of the chosen people, and maybe with my Jewish background, being one of the chosen people, maybe some of us can relate on that level.”

Not surprisingly, when other survivors hear about Palm Meadows, there is dis-

belief, then resentment. Late one evening, Teddy Bolán, 30, stood in the parking lot of Palm Meadows, where his aunt is a guest, cradling his infant son while his nine-yearold daughter swatted mosquitoes. “My wife and I left New Orleans before the flood in a rental car, because of the kids. We did the right thing, but now we can’t get FEMA on the phone and the Red Cross has said it will only rent us a tiny hotel room for a couple of days. And then we come here, and we see ...” His voice trails off.

So does he want to come to Palm Meadows? “I’m a working man,” he says. “A lot of these people, they’ve never worked. I mean, there are gang members in there. I heard this one dude tell his little girl, a sweet little girl, maybe 8, ‘Yo bitch, get inside.’ I don’t think I’m better than nobody else. I just want better for my kids.”

However, Percy Matthews believes people at Palm Meadows “know how God brought them out, and everybody’s got

closer. All that hollering and slapping kids on the side of the head, jerking their arms, yelling “sit down,” being rough—gone. And when they sit down and eat, they laughing and talking. It’s a big change.” And a permanent one, he says, because “Mr. Frank is making an investment in us, he’s going to teach us how to value a dollar, how to save, how to work.”

New details of Stronach’s plan emerge daily. On Sept. 11, he paid US$1.6 million for 1,500 acres of land 325 km northwest of New Orleans in Marksville, La., population 5,695. He’s also bought 60 fully furnished, three-bedroom mobile homes so far, and sent teams of sewage experts and contractors to ready the property for occupancy in four weeks. Marksville was chosen because it’s on high ground, close to several other towns, and relatively close to New Orleans, all of which will, or so Magna officials presume, make it appealing to survivors. What’s more, the soil is good.

Yes, the soil. Stronach has decided to bankroll a farming community, an idea that may surprise Palm Meadows survivors, who think they are going to trade school. Why farming? “I think many of them lived a little off the land, some of them scrounged things,” Stronach said in a phone interview. Dennis Mills, a Magna Entertainment vicechairman, elaborates, “He is absolutely determined to create a family farm environment where those people can experience the joy of sustaining themselves through growing vegetables and fruit, raising chickens and pigs, and so forth.”

And how will city dwellers learn all that? Talks are under way with a local agricultural school, and Stronach plans to contact “black experienced farmers that live down there, make a special deal with them, say, ‘Look, teach your brothers and sisters how to farm.’

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To farm, you need equipment, you need good land, an infrastructure. But each year, we’ll give them a little less, and by the fifth year they could be self-supporting, they could have fruit trees, make jam, the younger ones would go to school, and would learn computers.”

In Phase One, there will be 300 inhabitants, including survivors from other shelters. Palm Meadows survivors will have first dibs, because “we basically adopted those people,” says Stronach, but those who don’t want to farm won’t be cut off. Not yet, anyway. “We will help them for a while, give them a little money, then they would have to find their way. We can’t hold their hands forever.”

How many of those currently at Palm Meadows will want to relocate to rural Louisiana is unclear, but other companies, both Canadian and American, have pledged to help, and Stronach vows to make the place a model for eradicating poverty. Local officials are enthusiastic, Mills says, and impressed that Stronach doesn’t stand to profit. (The money for all this comes from a part of Magna’s budget dedicated to social spending.)

It’s not difficult to imagine, however, that

local blacks might resent Stronach’s survivors and their new opportunities. Demographically, Marksville has a lot in common with Belle Glade: it’s small and rural, and blacks, who comprise about 40 per cent of the population, are extraordinarily impoverished even by Louisiana standards, with a per capita income of only US$5,554.

And there are tough questions ahead for Stronach’s team. For instance, the Marksville district attorney wondered in an email to Mills whether “convictions of felonies or illegal drug activity on the premises may require eviction.” The truth is, although they are busy making plans for them, there’s a lot Magna officials don’t know about the 195 people still at Palm Meadows. “Cotton was king, now it’s the penal system that’s the big money-maker in New Orleans,” is how one well-spoken 41-year-old in an expensive golf shirt explains his three stints in prison. “I was wrongfully accused all three times.” Others, like Houston, have ongoing struggles with drugs and alcohol.

Many of the most enterprising, the ones who seem to have the ability to become community leaders, have no intention of

going to Marksville. “It ain’t that I don’t want to go, just that I have a better opportunity here,” says Vernon Ramsey, a 48-yearold who’s already landed a temporary job doing yardwork. “I know I’m going to be okay here, I’ve always worked. A lot of these people, they’re used to being on welfare. This is a vacation for a lot of ’em.”

The long-term success rate of utopian communities is not encouraging, nor is the fact that some residents have used their Red Cross debit cards to buy jewellery and portable stereos, figuring that Stronach or FEMA will provide whatever else they need. But it’s also true that no prior commune has been led by a self-made billionaire with the resourcefulness to commandeer buses and rescue some 200 people while their own President did nothing.

And many believe Mr. Frank has already changed more than their circumstances. “Down there at the village,” says Percy Matthews, “we all going to be just like sisters and brothers. If one don’t have, the other help, because everybody can’t have a car, everybody ain’t going to have no bread on the table.” All