|A City of Two Tales|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros|
North Miami’s residents are divided by race, ethnicity, income, politics, and geography -- on that they all agree
Self-described Southern WASP Judith Feldman has lived in North Miami since 1964. The widow of a North Miami city councilman, she can tell you stories about the questionable activities of elected officials dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. “It was as bad as a small town could get,” she says.
But today the 73-year-old Feldman is more pessimistic than ever about her city’s prospects. “I’m quite disheartened,” she says, “because it’s apparent that no one is minding the store here. Nobody is operating in the best interests of the citizens of North Miami. They’re operating in their own interests.”
North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, the second Haitian-American to hold that position, chalks up any negative perceptions about his city or his administration to rough politics. “The city will continue to be a strong city and, under my leadership, it has had its best years,” says the mayor, an immigration attorney with an engineering degree. “Yes, there has been a decline in property value, but services are better than ever.”
The “City of Progress” was once among the fastest-growing municipalities in the nation. As of the 2010 census, 58,786 people reside within its ten square miles, making it the fifth-largest population in Miami-Dade County. It is home to the acclaimed Museum of Contemporary Art; Florida’s sole Johnson & Wales University of Culinary Arts; Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus; and Greenwich Studios, the biggest film and sound production facility in South Florida.
Countering the promise of progress, however, is the current reality of dismal property values, high unemployment, vicious political infighting, a complex real estate deal, a looming $6 million budget shortfall, and rising tensions among residents of a city whose ethnic makeup has undergone dramatic change.
On top of all of that, the city is also facing an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
This past March, FDLE arrested Ricardo Brutus, nephew of Andre Pierre. Brutus, who also served as the mayor’s campaign manager, was charged with “unlawful compensation” after he was videotaped accepting $4000 in cash from North Miami businessman Shlomo Chelminsky, whom FDLE describes as a “cooperating witness.”
The alleged bribe was made with the expectation that Brutus would be able to manipulate a specific item on the agenda of an upcoming city council meeting.
Although he didn’t implicate his uncle, Brutus, who served on several city boards, claimed on tape that council members were “money hungry” and the cash would be used to “take care of the people I called.”
Since the arrest, more scandalous incidents have surfaced. For example, the city paid $8000 to install hidden cameras in Pierre’s office, and $5000 to Brutus’s fiancée to produce a radio program that allegedly never aired. According to the Miami Herald, Brutus told investigators after his arrest that North Miami Councilwoman Marie Steril rigged a community center construction bid to benefit a contractor who had hired her friend. Both Steril and the contracting company deny the charge. Also Pierre reportedly voted to give at least $145,000 in redevelopment funds to clients of his law firm so they could expand their restaurant.
Pierre dismisses the media stories and insists neither he nor Steril has done anything improper. “There is no corruption on the city council,” he says flatly. “Listen, listen -- it is politics, that is what this is. The party that is in power gets attacked.”
Even before the FDLE investigation came to light, Pierre, first elected in 2009 and re-elected this year, was a polarizing figure in North Miami politics. Among his publicized missteps was ordering 43 police-style badges that read “Mayor’s Aide” at a cost of $4000; driving around in a very expensive, borrowed Porsche without disclosing it as a gift; and not delivering $116,000 in donations collected for Red Cross earthquake efforts in Haiti. During a visit to Haiti, Pierre also promised that North Miami could take in 55,000 U.S.-visa-holding refugees displaced by the January 2010 earthquake, which would have doubled North Miami’s population. Later he admitted to the media that his city could only absorb 10,000.
“It’s crazy that the mayor is still in power,” says Richard Annese, a North Miami resident since 1975. “It’s crazy that he even got elected.”
Kreyol-language radio personality Lucie Tondreau, a Haitian-American activist who also lives in North Miami, points out that neither Pierre nor anyone else at city hall has been charged with wrongdoing. “Pierre is a young professional who really cares for the community,” she says. “He understands the struggle of the community, he tries to work for the people, and he respects the people.”
Pierre’s convincing re-election this past May, just one month after Brutus’s arrest, can be attributed to the support of North Miami’s powerful Haitian-American voting bloc. The mayor’s backers also note that his vocal critics happen to be white residents living along the Biscayne Corridor’s affluent neighborhoods of East Arch Creek, Keystone Point, and Sans Souci Estates.
“Andre Pierre is presiding over a city that is in transition, and when you have transition, you have change,” says Jonas Georges, Haitian-American pastor of All Nations Presbyterian Church in North Miami Beach. “You have the old Anglo Caucasian inhabitants who are scared.”
During most of its 85-year existence, North Miami was predominately white. Then, between 1990 and 2000, the city’s black population (which includes African-Americans and Haitian blacks) jumped from 32 percent to 53 percent, according to the U.S. Census. By 2010 blacks made up 59 percent of the city’s population, while only 12.4 percent were Anglos (non-Hispanic whites).
Official figures on North Miami’s Haitian community do not exist, but a U.S. Census survey conducted between 2005 and 2009 estimated that 44 percent of North Miami’s population is of West Indian descent. Also significant: Three Haitian-Americans -- the mayor, Steril, and Jean Marcellus -- occupy seats on the city council. Anglos Scott Galvin and Michael Blynn hold the remaining seats.
“The Haitians, they are the majority here in North Miami, and just like everything else, whenever a group is a majority, they are going to rule,” says J.L. McCoy, president of the Sunkist Grove Neighborhood Association in western North Miami and an African American. “That’s the way things work. That’s life.”
Seth Gordon, an Anglo political consultant who has lived in Miami-Dade County since 1970, says “racial ethnic politics” is a fact of life in South Florida. “Any community that recently arrives here shares the same fate, and has to stick together because they are vulnerable,” he observes. “When the Cubans arrived here, they were treated like dirt. Miami was a tremendously hostile environment in the late 1960s, and it took a long time to overcome it.”
Gordon says what really helped Hispanic immigrants politically was the departure of Anglos. “To really overcome it, a lot of hostile Anglos had to leave,” he maintains. “Several hundred thousand Anglos were so unhappy that at various times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they just left.”
During the past decade, North Miami’s Anglo population has shrunk by a striking 33 percent. During the same period, the city’s overall population declined by 1094 residents. There also are 21 percent fewer families with children living in North Miami today than in 2000. City spokeswoman Pam Solomon blames the population decrease on home foreclosures.
Kenneth Each, a former North Miami police chief, believes white flight and population decline are the result of past city policies and actions, not to mention a declining tax base. “Our brand is one of despair,” says Each, a property owner who has lived in North Miami off and on since 1970. “Our brand is political infighting and giving the developers a hard time.”
Indeed, North Miami’s 85-year history is a complex mix of controversy, missed opportunities, segregation, ethnic migration, and, of course, politics.
North Miami’s creation can be traced to a rock formation in the middle of a military trail. During the Third Seminole War, in 1855, Gen. Abner Doubleday ordered that a military trail be cut between Fort Dallas (the future City of Miami) and Fort Lauderdale.
About half-way along that trail was a natural limestone bridge that provided a crossing over a stream that would be known as Arch Creek, now a public park at Biscayne Boulevard and 135th Street. (The original limestone bridge collapsed in 1974. A replica of the landmark was completed in 1988.)
By 1891, a former U.S. Marine, C.G. Ihle, was farming some 40 acres of land a couple of miles south of the bridge, growing crops such as coontie, squash, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, guavas, apples, and tomatoes. Five years later, Henry Flagler’s railroad reached Arch Creek, bringing with it northern settlers eager to follow Ihle’s example and cultivate the land. “There was a lot of grapefruit growing,” says Glenn O’Hearn, a member of the Greater North Miami Historical Society. “Part-timers came down from New York in the wintertime and farmed the area around Arch Creek.”
By 1920 the Arch Creek settlement had a school, a post office, a blacksmith shop, a general store, at least one church, and a population of 300 seasonal and full-time residents.
A canal was dug in 1923 to drain the area, which was prone to flooding. That had the unexpected consequence of diminishing Arch Creek’s fertile soil, and resulted in Arch Creek’s former farms being divided into lots and sold for residential development.
In February 1926, developers Earl Irons and Arthur Griffing persuaded 38 of Arch Creek’s 47 registered voters to incorporate as a municipality with boundaries stretching across Biscayne Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, according to Boulevard of Dreams, written by local historian Seth Bramson. The original name of this sprawling community of 500: The Town of Miami Shores.
But in their rush to create a city that could sell $275,000 in bonds needed for a town hall, streets, and other capital improvements, the founders made an error that would later haunt them. Recalls history buff O’Hearn: “They did not think to go to the state legislature and seal the name.”
Seven months later the infamous 1926 hurricane devastated South Florida, transforming a frenzied land boom into a regional depression. By 1931 the beachfront areas north of Miami Beach essentially seceded from Miami Shores. That same year, owners of the New Shoreland Company persuaded the state legislature to grant the name “Village of Miami Shores” to a community just south of the Town of Miami Shores. “Shoreland wanted a name that tourists could recognize, even though it didn’t connect to the Atlantic Ocean,” O’Hearn explains. Shoreland executives also had the state outlaw the name “Town of Miami Shores.” Forced to come up with a new identity, residents settled on North Miami.
Thanks to the Second World War, North Miami’s population swelled from less than 2000 people in 1940 to more than 23,000 in 1960, O’Hearn says. Most of the new arrivals were war veterans who had received their basic training in South Florida. “They came back with their sweethearts, free education, and VA housing mortgages,” O’Hearn adds. “Home builders were constructing 50 houses at a time.”
Most of North Miami’s new arrivals came from the northeast United States, although war veterans from Iowa and Pennsylvania founded Sunkist Grove in 1947, a neighborhood west of I-95 between NW 7th and 17th avenues and 119th and 135th streets.
“There were large Polish, Italian, and Greek populations from New York,” remembers 40-year North Miami resident Michael McDearmaid, president of the Central City Homeowners Association. Italians tended to dominate the Westside neighborhood, located just west of I-95. Blacks, though, were not allowed to live in most parts of North Miami.
Historian Paul George says once an area became a municipality, “by law the races were segregated.” O’Hearn, a retired school teacher who lived in North Miami from 1940 to 2005, notes that blacks in northeast Miami-Dade were limited to living in North Miami Beach’s Washington Park neighborhood, or a small area in North Miami south of 120th Street, near the border with the Village of Biscayne Park.
Even as Dade County’s segregation laws were dismantled in the mid-1960s, North Miami’s white neighborhoods were slow to integrate. For a time, a loose-knit group of real estate agents would buy homes from anyone attempting to sell to a black family, O’Hearn recounts. “Eventually they ran out of money,” he says. It wasn’t until 1968 that the first black family, headed by a drugstore owner, moved to O’Hearn’s old Sunkist Grove neighborhood.
Untouched during North Miami’s boom years was 1700 acres of bayfront land near Biscayne Boulevard and 151st Street. Since 1918 the land had been owned by Harvey Graves, a clothing manufacturer from Rochester, New York. In 1945 the City of Miami bought the Graves tract from his estate for $495,000, with the idea of building an airport there. Then in 1958, Miami officials deeded the Graves property to a state-run corporation that planned to create the so-called Inter-American Cultural and Trade Center, or Interama, a long-anticipated permanent fair that would celebrate the cultures and accomplishments of the Western Hemisphere.
For more than ten years, architects and consultants tinkered with concepts that included a 1000-foot-tall Freedom Tower designed by famed architect Minoru Yamasaki, bridges, canals, plazas, exhibition halls, and an underwater tunnel. Says historian Paul George: “It was a boondoggle.”
About 680 acres of land was dredged and a single structure was built, but Interama never materialized. In 1969, just a year after North Miami Mayor Elton Gissendanner became chair of the Inter-American Center Authority, the group was $12 million in debt. The Graves tract was divided up, with 300 acres given to FIU and 200 acres to form Oleta River State Park. Before departing for a job as director of Florida’s Department of Natural Resources, Gissendanner persuaded North Miami’s voters to take over the remaining 290 acres for recreational purposes by passing a bond issue that, when it was finally paid off in 2000, cost taxpayers $30 million.
Although Interama was a bust, elsewhere in the city apartments, office buildings, hotels, and condos continued to be built, sometimes without any apparent planning. Overseeing the city during the 1960s and early 1970s was Edward Connell, the city manager. Kenneth Each, who joined North Miami’s police force in 1970, remembers that Connell had the city buy him a Chrysler Imperial. “That was like, today, getting a Lincoln Town Car,” he says.
Allegations of corruption within the building department soon surfaced. Desperate to be rid of Connell, Mayor Robert Hough defied Florida’s Sunshine Law and held a secret council meeting at his home in 1971 to discuss firing the city manager. A year later -- thanks to testimony from Mayor Hough and councilmembers Anthony DeLucca and Anthony Valentine -- Connell was arrested for soliciting a $20,000 bribe from a contractor eager for the $85,000 job of paving tennis courts at Claude Pepper Park.
By 1973 Connell had pled guilty to a conspiracy charge, made a deal with the State Attorney’s Office, and testified that Hough, Valentine, and DeLucca also solicited bribes from contractors building the San Souci Tennis Center, Claude Pepper Park’s tennis courts, and (in the case of Hough and DeLucca) water and sewer work for Interama. As a result, the three elected officials were indicted and removed from office.
Former police chief Each contends that Hough, DeLucca, and Valentine were “honest men” implicated by a crooked official. “It was all bullshit and the charges were eventually thrown out,” he says.
“Connell was really the puppet master,” agrees longtime resident Judith Feldman, while acknowledging that city government improved after the politicians were indicted. “We got rid of those guys,” she says, “and they were replaced by straight arrows who put the city back on track.”
The scandal encouraged Feldman and her physician husband, Dr. Hobart Feldman, to circulate a petition demanding a citywide height limit of four stories. The charter amendment was passed by voters in 1973. That same year Dr. Feldman was elected to the city council with a vow to clean up city hall.
Today Judith Feldman insists the height limit prevented massive projects the city’s infrastructure could not handle, but Each claims it was a mistake. “We did not want any development,” he says, “so they kept everything at four stories and chased away the developers.”
But city officials still liked golf. In 1974, a company called Munisport offered to turn the city’s share of the Graves tract into a golf course -- for free. To create rolling hills for the course (and earn profits in the process) Munisport would operate the site as a landfill.
For the next five years, Munisport collected garbage from 400 businesses and cities. Aside from the expected yard clippings and household waste, the 24/7 dump accepted just about anything, from medical waste to drums filled with chemicals. The federal Environmental Protection Agency added the Munisport dump on its notorious Superfund site list in 1983 after finding cyanide, ammonia, and arsenic in the ground water. Whatever lay beneath the surface also enabled an underground fire to burn for several months in 1990.
Then along came developer Michael Swerdlow. In 2002 Swerdlow convinced city officials that “Biscayne Landing,” a proposed community of 6000 condos, 100,000 square feet of commercial space, and a luxury hotel, was the way to go for Munisport. In exchange for a 200-year lease on 190 acres of land, Swerdlow offered to give the city $1.5 million per year and fund $20 million in projects elsewhere in North Miami, such as an Olympic training center, a new library, and affordable housing. An amended deal later included another $5 million for expansion of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Two years after an agreement was made, the county issued $31 million in bonds dedicated to Munisport’s ultimate cleanup.
Enthusiastic for future development, North Miami voters in 2002 allowed an exception to the four-story restriction so Biscayne Landing could proceed. Elected officials even created a redevelopment district covering four-fifths of the city, which would allow North Miami to keep most of the $5 billion in property taxes expected from Biscayne Landing.
By 2006 voters decided to raise the height limit along other commercial corridors within the city, hoping to attract more developers. That same year, Swerdlow sold his share of the Biscayne Landing to his project partners, Boca Developers.
Then the real estate market tanked. Boca Developers had managed to build two 25-story condo towers on the old dump before defaulting on $196 million worth of mortgages in 2009.
Two years of complex legal wrangling and hair-brained development schemes followed. (One of the proposals, presented by two friends of Mayor Andre Pierre, called for a solar-powered, indoor snow-ski resort.) Finally the city regained control of the property and solicited serious new ideas for developing Biscayne Landing.
Only two experienced developers submitted proposals, and one of them backed out just last month. The last man standing: Michael Swerdlow, one of whose company executives explained why the developer was lured back to the property: “If you look around Florida you will never find another 200-acre site in such a beautiful area. Had it not been a dump, it would have been developed 40 years ago.”
In exchange for a 99-year lease granting his development team, Oleta Partners, the right to build a shopping center, 28 residential buildings, a film and video studio, and two hotels, Swerdlow promised to give the city an upfront payment of $17.5 million, plus annual payments of $1.5 million per year and a small portion of rent proceeds.
Swerdlow’s proposal also claims the city will garner $287 million in rent revenues during the century-long lease, plus another $767 million in property-tax collections. More than 10,000 people reportedly will be employed to construct the new Biscayne Landing, while another 2500 are expected to earn paychecks after the project is completed.
There is a catch. Although the city has not yet begun negotiating with Swerdlow, its current budget anticipates receiving millions from Biscayne Landing to fill an anticipated $6 million budget gap. If the deal falls through, the city could be forced to renegotiate union contracts or lay off as many as 100 employees.
Even without the budget dilemma, Judith Feldman says Swerdlow will eat the city’s lunch during negotiations: “No one has the smarts to deal with Swerdlow, who will sell you a bill of goods, shake your hand, and walk away with four of your fingers.”
Although city officials strived to keep out high-rise developers in the 1970s, they couldn’t keep out the slumlords. Many hotels and apartments built during North Miami’s post-war boom period were bought by unscrupulous property owners during the 1980s and 1990s, according to former police chief Kenneth Each. “The landlords, they go and rent a dump with a Frigidaire to low-income people,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to live in such places.”
When affordable housing projects were demolished in Overtown and Liberty City, many of their residents were relocated to these apartments in North Miami. Feldman says by the late 1980s, white families were fleeing North Miami in droves: “Some of them moved to Broward County and some moved farther out of state.”
Only five percent of North Miami’s residents were black in 1980. By the 1990 U.S. Census, 32 percent of North Miami’s residents were black, many of whom were living in the Sunkist and Westside neighborhoods. Today few Anglos live in those communities. “We have, living on my block, one Caucasian,” says J.L. McCoy, who has lived in the Sunkist neighborhood since 1979.
The exodus of white households, along with low property values, created an opening for Haitian families desiring a suburban life. A house and a yard was “a sign of affluence,” explains Roseline Philippe, a Haitian-American activist who has lived in North Miami since 1993. “As you move up the ladder, you might leave an area that is more urban for something more residential.”
Despite a plunge in numbers, Anglos maintained absolute power thanks to a high voter turnout and the fact that all five city council seats were elected at-large. That changed after single-member districts were established in 1992. By 1995 the Westside neighborhood elected the city’s first African-American councilman, Arthur “Duke” Sorey.
Yet Sorey would only serve one term in office. (North Miami mayors serve two-year terms while councilmembers serve four-year terms.) He was defeated in 1999 by the first-elected Haitian-American councilman, Ossman Desir, a defeat that reportedly led to friction between the African-American and Haitian-American communities.
Two years later Josaphat “Joe” Celestin was elected North Miami’s first Haitian-American mayor. Another first: three out of the five seats were held by Haitian Americans, a ratio maintained after Celestin was elected to a second term.
Then Anglos regained the council majority for the next four years. Kevin Burns was elected mayor in 2005 and again in 2007, twice defeating ex-Councilman Jean Monestime (now a county commissioner).
Lucie Tondreau, a North Miami resident since 1985, denies that the city’s Haitians vote only for Haitians, a widely held view among Anglos and African Americans. When Celestin ran against Sorey in 2001 for the mayor’s seat, Tondreau points out, each candidate had both Haitian-Americans and African-American supporters.
Tondreau herself supported Pierre’s opponent, former mayor Frank Wolland, when he ran for the mayor’s seat in 2009. Indeed, some of Pierre’s Anglo critics are quick to note that they supported his first mayoral bid, believing the attorney, then 41 years old, could unify the city.
Tondreau says the ethnic divide is being perpetuated by a small group from the east side of the Boulevard, whom she refuses to name. “I think for the most part that the residents of North Miami are like a big family,” she says. “There are just a few of them, just a handful of them, who want to control everything.”
But the mayor’s detractors claim Pierre’s supporters are the ones provoking racial and ethnic tensions. They cite an August 16 Miami Herald article about an emergency meeting the mayor called to hire police chief Stephen Johnson to replace Russell Benford as city manager. Haitian residents told Herald reporter Nadege Green that 1320 AM radio personality Piman Bouk urged his audience to support the mayor “because white residents were going to oppose a plan to lower the water bill.”
Tondreau, who was in the studio with Bouk, claims the DJ really told his audience that they should go to meetings to stay informed and not just to complain about the water bill. “I don’t know who is translating the Haitian Kreyol, but I think everything said on the radio is being taken out of context,” she asserts.
As for Pierre’s popularity, Tondreau claims it is based on his work in the Haitian community since the 1990s, and his efforts to assist low-income homeowners. Pierre has also been at the forefront of earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, collecting $200,000 in public and private donations, visiting the stricken nation of his birth, and meeting with Haitian government officials.
Haitians also admire Pierre’s educational and professional background, as well as his election as mayor of a significant city. “There is an overwhelming amount of elation for him,” gushes Pastor Jonas Georges. “He is quite young and he has been mayor for only two years, but I do believe he is presenting to us hope for the future of the community.”
Pierre’s popularity is not lost on Jacques Despinosse, a former councilman who opposed Pierre in the election this past May. Despinosse believes the discontent on the city’s east side stems from a desire among Anglos to regain a three-seat majority on the council, but that more pressing issues must be addressed. “It is time for a cease fire,” he says, “to put down our weapons and start working with the mayor because we need peace. Black on one side, white on one side it is not good for the city. Leave the man alone and give him a chance to operate.”
Anglos may soon lose even more of their political clout as age is taking its toll on longtime residents, some of whom tell the BT that it is only a matter of time before they move from North Miami to be closer to their families living outside the county, or even the state.
“The house is too big at this point,” says Richard Annese, an Anglo living near the city’s downtown area. Many of his friends have died or left town. His son moved to Orlando. However, Annese adds, “I wouldn’t be as quick to be getting out if the city were in better shape.”
As Anglos ponder their commitment to living in North Miami, another group is moving in. Hispanics, currently 27 percent of the city’s population, are buying homes on both sides of Biscayne Boulevard. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, the city’s Hispanic population surged by 15 percent.
J.L. McCoy, president of the Sunkist Grove Neighborhood Association, takes it all in stride: “The changes come all the time. What can I say? North Miami changes. Everything changes.”
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible