I was extraordinarily happy when I arose Friday morning on the 16th of July 2010. Little did I expect to be crestfallen by the end of the day and find myself bemoaning the meeting I had attended, at the Las Olas Café in my neighborhood, between the Miami Beach City Manager’s Office, the Miami Beach Police Department, the City Manager's Code Compliance Division, the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association and Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, and myself, the only member of the public, which had supposedly been invited.
“I don’t know if I can write about the meeting,” I told an acquaintance of mine from the Flamingo Park neighborhood. “The Gonzalez Administration’ attitude was so ugly. There was no beauty in it at all. I started out with all good intentions, thinking there really was going to be a discussion about the needs of my neighborhood, but all they wanted to do was slap each other on the back, talk about how long they’d worked with each other in the government, and brag about what a great job they were doing in my neighborhood. Whenever I tried to point out what was really going on, or to make a constructive suggestion, they tried to shut me up.”
“That’s the way it is,” she said, “when we go to the meetings of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. It doesn’t have any bylaws to speak of, and the rules it does have conflict. I know how you feel. When we try to make suggestions or to correct false statements, we are shushed.”
“The mentality of these actors is so bad,” I wailed on the phone, “they aren’t worthy of my critical art. I hate to say this because of our age, but I was thinking after the meeting that death is a good thing. Now I know why seekers after the ugly truth tend to be suicidal. These people have been in charge too long and are not accountable. This city needs to be taken over by young people, but that won’t happen until the old city clique dies. Good grief, the Gonzalez Administration is too ugly for art! Maybe I’ll just drop the subject and do what the city manager recommends for those who don’t like his policies - don’t complain, just leave town.”
“Maybe you should take a vacation,” she recommended. She was right. But how can I go on vacation when living in South Beach is my vacation?
I decided to stick around and write about my experience. After all, ever since I saw that magnificent film in Greenwich Village, featuring flies buzzing around a cow paddy, I was irrevocably converted to art for the sake of art regardless of the subject matter.
Yes, I had forgotten the old adage, learned from literature in middle school: Great expectations lead to great disappointments. Place your faith not in man but in god, said the god. But man has done away with that god, so we are left in the lurch. Expect nothing then, and be not let down. I do not mean to equivocate when I say that Nothing and only Nothing is perfect.
Inspired by false hope, I had been thinking like a fool again. Maybe Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, our Cuban-American el capo from Hialeah, is not so bad after all, I had thought, although he acts like a Coral Gables hidalgo. Finally, after all these years, and soon after scoffing at Miami Beach’s 90,000 residents for thinking he works for them, complaining that they always complain about one bad blade of grass in his great lawn, and suggesting they should move instead of complaining, he has listened to the complaints about my neighborhood, and is going to do something about them. Perhaps he had a twinge of bad conscience, I reasoned with myself. Anyone can change.
I had noticed that something strange was happening in ‘Seventh Heaven,’ the old crack hood between 7th and 5th Streets in “chic” South Beach, a neighborhood renamed ‘The Toilet’ because it is the capitol of poop in comparison to other neighborhoods. For one thing, the poop had disappeared.
The city’s Code Compliance officers had said they cannot do anything about the pervasive dog waste violations unless they receive a complaint about a particular dog and its owner – by the time an officer arrives, if ever, both the dog and its owner are gone, and it’s your word that you saw the dog do that particular dump. That left the basis of enforcement in the hands of a few vigilant residents of a dangerous neighborhood in a city the FBI has listed as one of the top ten most dangerous cities in the country, in the hands of residents who are not likely to call in a violation and follow some violator around until a Code Compliance officer arrives, if ever – people have waited all night for one to arrive after making noise complaints, so in desperation they call 911 for fast action.
An increasing number of scofflaws have been encouraged by lax enforcement of the dog waste ordinance. They no longer bother to curb their dogs, allowing them to defecate in the middle of sidewalks. Therefore, instead of loving dogs, many of us call them crapping machines. But the piles of ordure everywhere are really the fault of selfish and lazy dog owners, who have become demented or crazed by the culture of disrespect. By the way, the excremental culture is far worse in Berlin, which was once extraordinarily orderly under an effective police regimen, despite the reputation of Germans for conformity to rules. Berlin was not under the influence of a Nazi police state in 1908, when the police department acquired and maintained information about everyone who lived in the city, and residents felt secure no matter their economic status.
But now, as if by some wondrous miracle, the pervasive dog excrement had vanished from underfoot in Seventh Heaven. Furthermore, dump trucks, bull dozers, backhoes, pavers and heavy rollers had suddenly appeared. Orange-vested workmen were scraping and rolling down two of the worst streets. Squad cars were seen all around. Something big was afoot, or so I thought. And then I received a message from a person whom I have never met – we occasionally trade complaints about the Gonzalez Administration via email.
Although the City Manager’s Leadership Academy teaches would-be leaders to be nice and don’t complain, I love to complain, and as nicely as I can under the circumstances, because I believe there would be no civilization without complaints nor would there be mind or morals without ample criticism. Indeed, the devolved psychology of the Gonzalez Administration is unwholesome; the dearth of self-criticism has demented it, reduced its mentality to that of a troop of baboons.
A meeting of city officials was coming up in my hood, my informant said, at 9:30 AM Friday, at Las Olas Café on 6th Street and Euclid Avenue, to discuss conditions in the neighborhood and to conduct an inspection tour. The public is invited, he wrote.
“Oh, my god, there is a god, my prayers have been answered!” I exclaimed.
Of course I had my doubts. Indeed, in an email to Assistant Police Chief Raymond Martinez, I noted the recent signs of god’s existence, but wondered if they were of a Potemkin nature – made to make the area appear as if was getting plenty of attention and was free of dog ordure.
“Dear Chief,” I addressed Mr. Martinez in a July 15 email under the heading “Seventh Heaven – 5th to 7th – Potemkin Village or Real Improvement? I am just informed by accident that police and city officials are invited people in my neighborhood to join them at Las Olas tomorrow to speak of neighborhood issues, in advance of walking around the area. Ironically, Las Olas is where compliance officers hang out – I just threw away the photos last week! You know the issues only too well. Besides crime, which your force does its best to respond to, there is the standard complaint about dog waste, so much of that crap all the time that the neighborhood is being renamed by some to The Toilet. Strange, over the past two days the dog waste disappeared, squad cars everywhere, streets being repaired. Unbelievable! Is this going to be a temporary Potemkin village or is it for real? Anyway, glad to hear indirectly about the attention! General Potemkin was not a bad guy, by the way. He loved Catherine, and his improvements, despite heavy criticism, were admirable! David”
I had often expressed my concerns to the assistant chief. I intuited that he is a good cop, that he should be the chief. Although he never replies to me directly, he has at least on three occasions kindly referred matters to staff members, who have in turn resolved certain pressing issues. As for his police force, they have always responded in a jiffy to my calls, which I understand have resulted in 17 arrests.
Just lately I have expressed my concern to the assistant chief, based on the fear and trembling of gossipers who do not want to be identified as complainers about city management or as informers about its malfeasance lest they be subjected to retaliation, with the possibility that I myself may be subject to retaliation, perhaps from the notorious crew enrobed in black garbage bags instead of white sheets.
Anyway, I imagined myself at the upcoming meeting, and figured the officials would be interested in my opinions about my neighborhood since I had lived in it every day for several years and had been extraordinarily attentive to events there after being often awakened by noisome nocturnal activities in and around my apartment complex – drug-dealing activities, wife beatings, drunken brawls, knife and gun fights, burglaries, car and bicycle thefts, and so on.
Other than the dog crap, the neighborhood is pretty enough in daylight, at least to the tourists who do not know what is going on there at night. The residents of Flamingo Park have a rule - Don’t go below 7th Street. A tourist asked me what it is like to live there: “It’s great until you find out where you are.”
My rule for living and letting others live, which I clearly state to my neighbors, is “I don’t care what you do if you do not wake me up in the middle of the night, because I work for my living, and when I cannot sleep I get very angry at whoever wakes me up.”
Invariably they waken me that very night, or at least have done so until I got a reputation for calling the police and getting people arrested and sent to prison or deported. I do bend over backwards sometimes, and do my best to be tolerant. More often than not, it is someone else that calls the cops. South Beach is a raucous party town, after all. Still, people should have some respect at home for their immediate neighbors.
By golly, I thought, I had better get ready for the meeting. I got out a yellow pad and listed what I love about Seventh Heaven, and made another list of suggestions for improvement. I imagined that I would quickly read these off, or perhaps just hand them to the appropriate person if the meeting were crowded.
Gee, I wondered, why is the meeting going to be a Las Olas, such a tiny café, if the public is invited? Well, as will be seen, the public, or at least this public-of-one, was really not welcome at all.
WHY I LOVE MY HOOD
1. Convenient location. Close to public transportation that gets us downtown in ten minutes, a small library, and the beach. We have a bodega, a tienda, a supermercado, a small library, two lavandarias, two barberias, one CVS and two Walgreens, Las Olas Café, and the old Hispanic Community Center, in a neighborhood set off slightly from the hustle and bustle of the tourist centers.
2. Mixed neighborhood. Colorful, hard-working Latinos, some old-timers from Cuba with stories about the Revolution, a few yuppies coming in, a world-class yoga center, a health food store, developers trying to upgrade living space with buildings such as the Moulin Rouge.
3. Fast police response. Professional police force. Close to police station.
1. Crime. Rooted largely in a culture of selfishness, violence, and resulting fear, a general culture of disrespect. Proximate causes: nearby wall-to-wall nightclubs catering to violent culture. South American, Jamaican and African-American drug gangs, and the criminal or alcoholic or drug addicted fringe of a dense paperless population. There is a fast police response to definite reports, but a dearth of night watchman patrols – patrol cars act as a barrier, whiz by on responses, do not observe problems along the way, officers are hard to flag down, and a few do not like to communicate with citizens at all although it pleases citizens when police officers communicate and care about them.
1. Surveillance cameras. Install cameras on streets and alleys where nuisances most often occur.
2. Night watchman patrols. Have police officers in patrol cars cruise slowly and observe what is going on, communicate in a friendly manner with residents, and, from 5 to 7 AM, ask courteous “roll down the window” questions of suspicious persons.
3. Require landlords to obtain valid identification either domestic or foreign from all new tenants, and to turn over that information to Miami Beach Police Department within 10 days for background and outstanding warrant checks.
4. Have police officers and compliance officers ask for identification of all those present in a location to which they are called on a complaint – such as an apartment where a noisy party has generated complaints. Be sure to arrest those present where drugs are in plain sight instead of asking them, for example, in the case of marijuana, to put the drug away. The neighbors of frequently troublesome people want to be rid of them, and respect for the police department diminishes when culprits are not arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.
5. Do everything humanly possible to reduce liquor license density on Washington Avenue.
6. Enforce dog waste laws. Pass legislation, if there is no such legislation on the books, to conduct regular inspections at certain times of the day, and fine landlords for dog waste and rubbish left on or in front of their buildings, regardless of its source, the fine to be a lien on the property if not timely paid. In the alternative, require all dog owners to license their dogs, use part of the licensing fee to store the animal’s DNA, then fine owners when matching excrement is found
There you have the ideas. You’ll never have your ideals realized under the burdensome, top-down Gonzalez Administration, yet my expectations grew as the time of meeting approached, and they were great expectations by Friday morning when I walked the quarter-block from my apartment to Las Olas Café after one of those 5-minute downpours so common this time of year. Las olas, by the way, means “the waves.” Coincidentally, according to my Latin American Spanish/English dictionary, las olas also means “saucepans” in some undisclosed part of Latin America.
As I crossed the street, I was thinking that the manager of the establishment, which itself was robbed a few weeks ago, would be pleased to complain to the city and police officials about the waves of crime and would-be gangsters that hit the hood from time to time. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Urban Ghetto Week, with its gangstas on the fringes, receded after Memorial Day – the crimes counted were less this year due to lax enforcement. That was followed by a mellow wave of Europeans, a flow rudely interrupted by a smaller but turbulent gangsta surf running in front of Miami’s triple-threat basketball-rapper phenomenon spearheaded by Lebron James, who decided to throw his hard-earned civility away when he, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh crossed their arms and defiantly turned their backs on the crowd. “I am taking my talents to South Beach,” James said. The hype is valued at $2.7 billion for the Miami market. Miami pioneer rapper Luther Campbell interpreted the performance, mentioning how rebels love to be hated. But more to the point:
“We’re going to beat the dog shit out of everyone who is complaining,” said Campbell.
That sits well with the Gonzalez Administration, especially the financial prospects. No doubt Jorge Gonzalez would like to have his lieutenants beat the crap out of howling complainers. There would be plenty of dog waste all around. But the manager of Las Olas is none too pleased by the waves troubling South Beach. Notwithstanding the special events, she has been regularly terrified in the evenings by the gangs of pants-down gangsta blacks who are attracted to the clubs and sometimes roam the area, cursing, banging on fences, and threatening people.
My neighbors called the police on one such group of rowdies the other night, but the patrol cars cruised by without noticing them.
“It looked to me like the cops were afraid to stop the patrol car and confront them,” Tim, an ex-Navy SEAL who hails from Klan country, said. “They were heavy, muscular thugs. I got the impression the cops were afraid of them. They didn’t even roll down a window. So the pushy niggers kept making trouble, and went down the street waking people up at four in the morning. Why, where I come from, the cops would have taught them a lesson. I was tempted to get my piece for backup and teach them a thing or two. Hey, you want to see my Glock?”
“Nah, I’ve seen lots of guns around here. I hope you have a permit, because there is a reward program, and people around here are dirt poor after paying rent if they’re not on Section 8.”
“No problem. I have a permit. And anybody who turns me in for anything had better watch out.”
Despite his political incorrectness for this neighborhood, Tim is more bark than bite, and was actually one of the good guys around, always courteous and quiet, but I don’t doubt he would take someone down if hassled.
“Tim, you better watch your language if a black cop calls on you. The Hondurans downstairs from me called the responding police officers niggers. They went to jail and were deported to Honduras. By the way, since when does the Klan admit gays?” I joked. “What about your lover, Danny? He’s a Jew. How can he get into the Klan?”
“I’ll tell you what, I’m not a faggot. I can’t stand gays who try to act like girls - they’re faggots. I can get Danny in.”
Tim and Danny moved up north to Klan country the next morning, Danny called and left a message.
“Dave, get out of The Toilet. Listen, we’ve got a beautiful two bedroom home on one acre under tall trees for $650 a month,” Danny drawled. “The walk to town is 20 minutes. We’ve only seen five black people. Dave, I’m telling you, Get out of The Toilet before it’s too late!”
But I love Seventh Heaven! I hate it too.
Three detectives were standing in front of Las Olas when I arrived.
“Excuse me. Are you here for the meeting?”
“Meeting? What meeting?” one said.
“Police and city officials are supposed to meet here this morning at 9:30 to discuss the neighborhood, and I am told the public is invited?”
“Here? Are you sure the meeting is supposed to be here?” the detective asked, incredulously.
“That’s right. Las Olas, Euclid and 6th Street, 9:30. I thought you were here for the meeting since you are a detective.”
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“The edge of your badge was sticking out from under the bottom of your shirt before you concealed it.”
“He’s observant,” said a second officer, as I scrutinized all three men, and noticed another, small badge on one of them. I was not observant enough, or I would be able to give a detailed description of them, something cops and some journalists learn to do – I can however remember conversations. Maybe I can sit in on the observation course at the police academy.
The first officer had called someone, I think the policewoman responsible for public communications, and informed me that, yes, there was to be a meeting at Las Olas, and that the coordinator was on her way over.
“Where’s your badge?” I asked the third man.
He pulled up his short shirt sleeve and displayed a large badge tattooed on his dark, bulging bicep.
“Here comes somebody - she looks important,” said one officer, who had just identified himself as being in the fraud division.
A drab looking, grey-haired Caucasian woman, seemingly in her sixties, with a grim expression on her face, was approaching with a firm, machine-like gate indicative of some power. A classic bureaucrat, I thought, but her appearance would be more typical of Washington than sunny South Florida, famed for its flowers. Or even Kansas for that matter; look what happened to Governor Sibelius’ appearance after she went to Washington – all washed out.
Enter Lynn W. Bernstein, Office of the City Manager’s Community Resource Manager of the Community Outreach Team. I must say right up front that she turned out to be a stereotypically arrogant, rude and humorless city official, displaying obvious contempt for me from the outset. But her demeanor might have been influenced by my extra-dry sense of humor, acquired from listening to Jack Benny on the radio when I was a kid, and from quitting drinking for 15 years. Let the reader be the judge.
“I’m here for the meeting,” I announced. “I guess I’m the only neighbor that showed up. Someone emailed me about it, but no one around here seems to know about it.”
“I’m the coordinator,” she responded. “I emailed some of the people on my Miami Beach Community Development Corporation list.”
The MBCDC is a very well endowed non-profit housing development corporation with an interlocking relationship with the City Miami Beach. Its headquarters is north of Seventh Heaven, at 945 Pennsylvania Avenue. I did not understand how notifying a few people on that mailing list would constitute public notice for the people of my neighborhood, the overwhelming majority of whom did not have the faintest idea of the existence of the MBCDC. And mind you that many people who are familiar with MBCDC resent it for its allegedly discriminatory favoritism in respect to tenants, the tax-exempt status that precludes it from paying real estate taxes, and the musical-chairs system that the ruling city clique uses to exchange lucrative seats.
“I guess I’m the only one in the neighborhood that showed up,” I replied in a polite tone. “I know several neighbors who would have come if they had known about it and if it were not to take place an hour after they have to be to work.”
“Who are you?” she said, arching her eyebrows and looking down her nose.
“What do you do?” she asked, still supercilious.
I sensed then and there that I was not welcome, but I would try winning her over with my extra-dry humor.
“Right now I am overthrowing the Gonzalez Administration.”
“I see,” she responded haughtily as we stood in front of the café. She looked up at the clouds. “Oh, well, it looks like the walk-around is rained out.”
“Oh, it’s just the usual shower or two,” I said encouragingly, “and they blow over in minutes. Would you like a café con leche?”
“I’m glad you called a meeting at Las Olas – compliance officers hang out here all the time,” I offered.”
“We all come here,” she pronounced hollowly with a dismissive wave of her hand, as if I were a repulsive insect – I thought of Kafka’s Metamorpheses, and, jesting with myself, checked out my legs to make sure I was still human.
“Well, I have lived in this neighborhood for several years, and I’m glad we are finally having a meeting in the neighborhood because there are things that can be done to improve it.”
“We come here all the time,” she almost sneered. “We do a lot of things but you don’t see them.”
By then I already felt disappointed, and was tempted to say, “Yeah, you’re right, we haven’t seen your improvements, and that’s too bad.” But I held my tongue in hopes her frigid temperament would thaw.
“Okay, let’s sit down now,” she commanded as several other invitees arrived. We only needed a small table in the small café. The following persons were present besides Ms. Bernstein and yours truly:
Denis Arthur Russ, founder and MBCDC Director of Community Development, present president of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. Mr. Russ, who has let his license to practice law lapse, is known as one of the “Good Old Boys” who run city department and neighborhood fiefdoms like their own country clubs. He is a mature, knowledgeable, and affable gentleman, and could be described as avuncular. He is quiet and reserved. I liked the man, for he at least made an effort to be friendly, immediately inviting me to one of his own neighborhood’s meetings. And I was impressed by his I-tablet, which he toyed with during the meeting. But I understand from his detractors that anyone interested in any changes besides the ones he wants has to be wary of him. He is said to be a viper in Mr. Gonzalez’s great lawn. He has acquired a reputation for quietly running things from behind the scenes, then suddenly biting anyone who steps on his plans. He seemed to be in charge of some of Ms. Bernstein’s actions during the meeting, as if he were her counselor. In fact, the first matter discussed at the meeting was their long relationship in various city departments. I held my peace on that agenda item; I felt like saying, “That is the problem with this city, the same people have been running it for too long and have grown arrogant and unaccountable.”
Deborah Doty, police department spokeswoman. She is well liked in the community, and people who have been around her describe her as “a cool person.” She is a relatively small, black woman with a winning smile. I found her to be honest and bright. Although, as the police department’s communications officer she parrots the “official line” of rhetoric, she has not bought it whole hog. She knows bull when she hears it, and gets a twinkle in her eye when someone contests it. I felt some empathy from her as Ms. Bernstein and another attendee tried to shut me up. She has a sense of humor: during the small table talk, someone asked me how many times I had been married, and I said I would like to marry a police officer because I understand from the New Times expose that they make $250,000 a year and an enormous annual retirement income. That almost drew a smile from Ms. Bernstein, who would try to shush me every time I spoke, but she caught herself and managed to hold fast to the ruling city clique’s perspective, that anyone who has a complaint or questions the administration has to be wrong and shushed.
George Castell is Code Compliance Administrator for the Code Compliance Division of the Miami Beach Police Department. He was recognized nearly 10 years ago by the City Commission for his 10 years of service, and, in 2000 the Commission honored him for providing aid to a resident during an auto collision. I perceived him to be authoritarian, somewhat intimidating figure, and seemingly dense because he did not listen well. He is not a bad guy, but is predisposed by the usual god-like attitude of powerful bureaucrats: to take every pointed question and constructive suggestion as a blasphemous challenge to his authority, hence does not listen carefully. Whenever I made a suggestion or tried to respond to the claims about what a fine job the city was doing in my neighborhood, he tried to assist Mr. Bernstein in shushing me, identifying himself as a United States Marine who likes a certain order. I could see that any variance from the opinion that the received order was not the right order for public health angered him. He, like Ms. Bernstein, expected me to listen to the list of the issues and the things the city has done, maybe be allowed to ask a single question, and then say thank you, madam, thank you sir, and be dismissed. I got the impression that he may be willing to help people, but that his help does not go very far. I opine that he has a conscience and is capable of changing his ways, despite being habituated to them. I sensed that his rank in the command structure, although supervisory, might be dangerous to his health.
Ramon D. Vasallo, Code Compliance Officer I for the Neighborhood Services Department, Mr. Castell’s subordinate was naturally deferential to his superior. He seemed to be a sincere and caring individual, one who might make a good Code Compliance Administrator, but I will not say that I liked him lest he suffer some underserved retaliation for being like. I hope he moves up the ladder or gets out soon, as his chance of a heart attack in his severely deferential position is perhaps twice that of the chief of police even if he does not smoke or drink. I told him I would not like to be a compliance officer or a traffic cop, and that I admire people who can stand that kind of job and do it fairly.
There you have it: only 6 people attended the meeting ostensibly held to discuss neighborhood issues and to thus change the Seventh Heaven neighborhood if not the world! And I later discovered that the public was not really welcome, as my informant had said. A Google-session turned up a notice of the meeting on a private blog spot entitled “Flaming Park Neighborhood News,” its purpose being to “submit constructive comments on posted topics.” Conformity with “constructive comments” is conformity to the city administration’s motto – Be Nice – Don’t Complain. If you simply want to destroy some evil, you are an enemy, and you will be shushed. The blog spot operators state, “We look forward to building a better neighborhood with your input,” so we can be sure who is controlling the construction, and it’s not the neighbors. The website notice informs us that:
“The City of Miami Beach Community Resource Outreach Team is coordinating a Walkabout in the Sixth Street area to identify issues that impact the quality of life of area residents and businesses…. Members of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association are invited to participate.” That is, anyone who does not belong to the association pretending to represent the good neighborhood to the north of Seventh Heaven is not invited. That is nearly everyone in my neighborhood including all the business persons around. Who do these people think they are, anyway?
“Let’s see now,” said Ms. Bernstein, looking at a little note, “dog waste is an issue.”
“Yes, it is a big issue. May I make a suggestion about that?”
“Let’s go on….”
“Excuse me. I would like to suggest new legislation that might help eliminate the problem.”
“We don’t do that,” she shook her head irately.
“You cannot make a recommendation to the Commission?”
“We have a strong city manager system here, we don’t do that.”
Strong city manager, indeed, I thought. Boss Gonzalez from Hialeah is like a miniature Boss Pendergast or Boss Tweed, but without a power base in a black or immigrant electorate. He acts like a hidalgo out of insecurity, hence may be redeemed.
“I just want to suggest that landlords be held responsible for waste on their property and out to the curb regardless of its origin. Other cities have done that.”
“He’s talking about the quality-of-life ordinances in New York,” Mr. Russ said. “Take care of the little crimes and that will reduce the major ones. Giuliani was mayor then.”
“Yes,” I affirmed. “I was there. It was Bratton’s big idea to crack down on misdemeanors.” - I did not say that I despised Mayor Giuliani at the time, although my experiences in South Beach have warmed me up to his purchase of the Broken Windows Theory.
“Why don’t you do some research?” Ms. Bernstein asked.
“What doesn’t the city do some research?” I responded. “Will you please write my suggestion down and ask the City Manager to recommend it to the Commission?”
Ms. Bernstein would not budge.
“Write it down,” Mr. Russ said, and she made a note.
“You can’t do that. You have to witness the offense and call the number at Compliance for enforcement,” interjected Mr. Castell.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “My whole apartment complex was surrounded by dog crap. Landlords around here advertise that big dogs are allowed and that there will be no background checks – they prefer currency rent for obvious reasons. So I called Compliance and was told I would have to personally see an offense as it was occurring, grab the offender, call Compliance and wait for an officer to arrive.”
“What? Grab the offender?”
“Yes, grab. I don’t believe a citizen’s arrest is allowed for such a thing. I kept insisting that there must be some law that would hold a property owner responsible, and I was transferred to the boss.”
“That was me.”
“Thank you. You were my hero for a week. An inspector came out and posted notices on all three buildings of our complex, and I heard that our landlord was fined $1,500. There was no particular dog or owner sighted - unidentified tenants and neighbors allowed their dogs to run free and do their thing all around - but still the problem was resolved. After the fine, there has been no problem. So there is a case of holding the landlord responsible.”
“I’m telling you,” Mr. Castell huffed, “that an offense has to be observed and a complaint made….”
“Whatever, but I am recommending that legislation be passed that landlords be fined for waste left on properties and out to the curbs regardless of the origin of the waste, so neither the owner nor the dog nor the offense itself would have to be seen.”
“Look, let me ask you a question. If I was the judge, and you came before me, and I asked you, did you see the owner and the dog, how would you answer?”
“That’s not the point, for I’m suggesting new legislation….”
“Answer me,” he ordered – he was not listening or just did not get it.
“My answer would be no, but….”
“Case dismissed. “
“Do you have undercover dog waste inspectors?”
“No. Look, I am a Marine, and I like order. This meeting must be in order,” Mr. Castell spouted.
“Homelessness is an issue,” Ms. Bernstein declared. “During our last walkabout I saw two homeless people in need of medical attention and reached out to them. Everybody is entitled to that.”
“Actually, we do not have a big homeless problem around here,” I said. “We have people living in the alleys and sleeping where they can, but mostly they are not bothersome. We have some Cuban homeless over in that alley. They fix bikes and cars and repair things to make some money. The big bother is where the money is, where the tourists are, where handouts are demanded and vagrants lay around. We have just completed a photo essay of vagrants, around the Walgreens on Collins, and on Washington Avenue.”
“Well, we reach out to help people over the long term,” Ms. Bernstein said, for once expressing genuine sympathy for the human race. “I reached out to two people and got them medical attention. Everybody deserves that.”
I was not at the meeting to make trouble. I refrained from saying that some kinds of help provided seemed to help vagrants stay on the streets for many years, and that residents, tourists and merchants need to be reached out to since they find the situation appalling and conducive to criminal activities, but the city is deaf to their demands for civility.
One location most frequented by derelicts, vagrants drunks, addicts and petty criminals – they are not all homeless – is the corner 9th Street and Washington, about 50 steps from the headquarters of the MBCDC and across the street from Oceanside Extended Care, from whence a number alcoholics emerge, often in wheelchairs, to loiter at the bus stop on the corner. Their presence frequently creates a nuisance. Besides precluding passengers from Transit seating, the panhandling, cursing, public drunkenness and drug abuse is an annoyance to residents, tourists and merchants. Complaints were recently made to the police department and to Commissioner Michael Gongora, about a particular individual who sleeps, urinates and defecates in the little public parking lot at the corner, in plain view of the public. But the most frequent complaint about him is his odor – there are showers on the beach two blocks away. People have expressed a concern that he presents a health risk to the public. He has been around for at least a decade. Commissioner Gongora contacted the city’s Homeless Services Division. Case Worker Katie Klose responded on July 8, 2010:
“The Homeless Outreach Team went to 9th and Washington this afternoon and the individual who is in the picture was not at this location. Our team knows this individual and we have helped him multiple times. I am unable to give details about the help we have provided but we will continue to assist this client….”
The man was across the street from the police station at the time the outreach team was looking for him, and then he returned to the parking lot, where a merchant filmed him urinating in the lot – three well-dressed visitors then proceeded to openly urinate, laughing all the while.
Citizens think the help this man has received has actually kept him on the street, and they want help removing him. On July 10, I informed Katie Klose in care of Commission Gongora that the help should come from the police department, and that misdemeanor laws should be strictly enforced because lax enforcement tends to encourage violation of the laws of all sorts. I recommended that volunteers be recruited to wheel wheelchair-bound patients to the beach where they can enjoy the view and chat – perhaps they can have a drink with the tourists.
“What is the biggest issue in the neighborhood and what can be done about it?” asked Ms. Bernstein, reading from her notes, astounding me, that she would actually ask me a question about my own neighborhood.
“Crime. One cause is the wall-to-wall bars on Washington Avenue, and it would help if many of them were closed down.”
“Oh, you know people come over the bridge and see how beautiful it is here,” she said dreamily, “and they lose themselves.”
“The crime rate is down since 2007,” Officer Deborah Doty chanted the city line.
“Things have gotten a lot better around here, and I appreciate the police department for that. My calls have been responded to quickly. But the situation is rapidly deteriorating again. A lady friend dumped me because she does not want to come into this neighborhood again, and she was ashamed that she was associated with someone who lives here. But I still love it.”
“Crime is down in all areas, the major crimes….”
“I would like to see the statistic for all crimes, not just the major crime index, but the narcotics crimes, and also the quality of life crimes, and the useful information about crimes. The city manager reneged on his promise to get someone to provide that information. Anyhow, I would like to recommend that surveillance cameras be placed in nuisance spots around here.”
“The crime rates are down,” she reiterated.
Again, I was not at the meeting to make trouble. I could have noted that a crime rate can go down when laws are not enforced or laxly enforced. Instead, I cited some facts:
“What about the knife fight in the alley right there last week or so, or the gun fight there a couple of months ago? That part of the alley stinks so badly from human waste sometimes that people have to cross the street. What about the woman that was dragged down the alley behind the grocery store there, a block away, raped and stabbed? What about the woman that was stabbed in the neck around 7th Street and Meridian at about six o’clock the other morning? What of the woman on the same block who was stabbed 17 times a while back by a man who was wanted for murder in Guatemala? What about the 23-year old with a long criminal record who was shot to death a week ago in that nightclub over there?” – I forgot to mention that the restaurant where she was sitting had been robbed recently, and that the manager of the place said she had been terrorized just the night before.
“I’m glad you’re asked about those things,” Officer Doty said with a smile.
“That’s enough,” Ms. Bernstein said, ordering me to be quiet, insisting that we move on.
“But look behind you, right over there.”
“You shush. You and your city manager should shut up and listen. Look right behind you, on the corner, there is a violation in process, someone who must be reached out to.”
I was pointing at a man who had been living in his car near the corner for two years, urinating in bottles and defecating in bags, which he threw along with other trash onto the curb. He was just getting out of his car, half dressed. He had gotten himself a residential parking ticket so his car would not be towed. He had obtained temporary parking permits during Urban Ghetto Week, probably from someone in Compliance, and sold them to visitors. Some residents brought him food, but many residents had complained about the waste and parking situation to compliance officers, who said they could do nothing about him.
Officer Doty waved her magic wand. Suddenly three detectives were on him, flashing badges. Both he and his car were gone within 5 minutes, and we have not seen his car since.
“You should have told us about this. We need the people’s help.” Officer Doty said.
“That’s right,” Mr. Castell chimed in. “We depend on people to keep us informed so we can enforce the law.”
“You could go to our Citizen Academy,” Ms. Bernstein said.
“I’m already a citizen, and I do what I can to help. And that has put me at risk. A police offer mistakenly came to my door the other night after making two arrests. After he left, the drug dealers in the apartment in front of me came out and pointed me to the Honduran dope dealers next door, who were relatives of one of the busted men. A citizen I am, but I would not want to be a leader given what I have seen thus far - I was getting a little angry at the suggestion to be their good little citizen - so please don’t send me to your Leadership Academy, I would be ruined.
“Look, this guy living in the car,” I continued, “has been living there for about two years, and has been littering the curb. Everybody knows it, the Parking Enforcement guys who hang out here know him, the sanitation workers know he is there, the cops see him all the time, people have complained, sent in emails, nothing was done.”
I could care less if someone lives in their car and keeps the place clean. He did not, but I had only complained about the selling of residential parking permits by the man, because I felt that was a crime and perhaps one abetted by a compliance officer.
As for reporting things to Officer Doty, I had stopped sending email on various subjects. If she had answered one particular email with quotable material, I would have written a brilliant essay in response to the New Times expose denigrating the whole police department, but she only responded once, to say she was out in the field. She is out in the field a lot. She is virtually a television star. Still, I prefer email because people’s memories fail them and they mistakenly claim they said or did not say something. Furthermore, I don’t like phones because they are expensive and people want to talk all day because they can afford the unlimited plans.
Ms. Bernstein had given up on even trying to run the meeting according to the agenda she was referring to. I felt a bit sorry for her. She looked weary. She was just trying to follow the usual procedure, and, alas, a pesky insect from the neighborhood actually showed up and insisted on buzzing around.
“We do not selectively enforce the code,” Mr. Castell said out of the clear blue.
Why in the world did he say that? I wondered to myself, astonished. Melville used to ask, “Coincidence or God?” Or was it that notion Jung came up with, what do you call it?
“As a matter of fact, I have evidence, some of it photographic, of selective enforcement of the code, and the persons fined believe they may have been discriminated against because of their Muslim religion. Of all the outside umbrellas on sidewalk cafes that have the Coca Cola name and symbolic bottle on them, including one across the street, Crazee Olive was the only place fined.”
“What? Where is that?” Mr. Castell proceeded to draw a map.
“Oh, that guy, Mohsen,” indicating he knew one of the partners.
“Good bye,” Ms. Bernstein said, getting up and leaving.
The others followed suit. Mr. Russ actually shook my hand. Apparently there would be no walkabout of my neighborhood that day. But the day was lovely, the Sun having come through, so I decided to do my own Walkabout, on Washington Avenue, and to interview restaurant owners to see what they think about the Code Compliance Division, its officers and administrator. I got an earful, so stay tuned.
July 20, 2010