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Nov 20th
Walled In, Walled Out PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
November 2018

UMSAs are unknown and overlooked

OPix_JohnIse_11-18ne of the great essays in modern times on the topics of class and community belongs to economist Robert Reich and is his “Secession of the Successful,” which ran January 20, 1991, in the New York Times Magazine. The modern world offers an abundance of material advantages; it can also segregate and chop us up into tribal clans who eye other groups with suspicion and even hostility.

To Reich, society has become increasingly distinguished by the upwardly mobile who wall themselves off, both figuratively and literally, from the rest of society.

Reich’s essay came streaming back to consciousness as I surveyed the unincorporated areas that surround Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, and El Portal. The starkest reminder of the divide can be found with a wall that spans five blocks, cutting thorough streets to separate Miami Shores from the unincorporated area to its west.

The wall extends from NW 3rd Avenue between NW 91st Street, then creeps up to NW 95th Street and snakes eastward to NW 2nd Avenue, where it continues as fencing northward to Barry University. It serves as a physical barrier to prevent crime and traffic from our western neighbors, and is a metaphor of the village’s status.

There’s an undeniable truth that the unincorporated Dade pockets that abut the tri-villages area are too often disorganized and disheveled. A notch down the economic ladder, these areas are collectively known as Unincorporated Municipal Statistical Areas, or UMSAs, where Miami-Dade County offers municipal services, from trash collection and police protection to code enforcement. To many, these low-tax, low-service areas offer freedom from municipal nitpicking at an affordable price. To others, the UMSAs spawn blight, neglect, and crime.

The UMSA areas that surround Miami Shores, El Portal, and Biscayne Park are named by Miami-Dade County as “Community of Interest (COI)” #11, #12, #13, and #14. Touring around these areas on my bicycle, I was tempted to ask residents I encountered how they enjoyed living in COI #14 or COI #12.

COI #11 is the enclave to the east of Biscayne Park, north of the old Kmart that then crosses Biscayne Boulevard, extending to the bay and encompassing the Quayside condos. The area, informally known as Biscayne Shores, consists of close to 8000 residents and has been target of recent cherry-picking annexation efforts by both Biscayne Park and Miami Shores.

Miami Shores sought to annex the old Kmart lot and neighboring car wash, while Biscayne Park tried to extend its boundaries by jumping the FEC train tracks and creating a narrow corridor eastward so as to capture office complexes on Biscayne Boulevard. Both were naked cash grabs that excluded the area’s remaining residents and their 29 percent poverty rate.

COI #12 is the wedge directly to Biscayne Park’s southwest, south of North Miami, north of Miami Shores, and hemmed in on the west by Barry University and I-95. The area consists of 5600 residents densely packed into 1600 units of housing.

COI #13, the home of Phyllis Miller Elementary, is known as North Shorecrest. An island of 1400 residents, North Shorecrest is surrounded by Miami Shores to the north, Miami to the south, and El Portal to the west. It is undoubtedly the funkiest neighborhood of the bunch, having a rough yet unique vibe that I find appealing when contrasted with overly aseptic and manicured nature of Miami Shores.

COI #14 is the community of 9000 wedged between the Miami Shores wall to the east and I-95 to the west. The area extends south from Barry, jumping over the Little River canal, to Miami’s northern tip.

These UMSA areas are quasi-governed by Miami-Dade’s Community Councils, which are elected and serve mainly as zoning boards for the unincorporated pockets. Newly elected Community Councilmember Diane Washington, a Teach for America alumna from Las Vegas who now teaches at North Miami Beach Senior High School, represents the Biscayne Shores area and is acutely aware of the communal and governing void. Brimming with idealism and optimism, Washington hopes to serve as a voice for residents and to marshal county resources for Biscayne Shores.

But being a bicycle-bound tourist atop my Trek, I sensed disorganization. Speaking to anyone who was willing to stop and chat, it was clear that most are well aware that their community lacks identity and attention. Asking what they call the neighborhood they live in, most simply said “Miami” or shrugged. And, in fact, some of these communities have no name beyond “COI” and a number.

All this gets to the larger question of why Miami-Dade allows itself to be put into this mousetrap. Large unincorporated areas and contiguous areas like Kendall might work well enough to keep the status quo, but unincorporated islands and donut holes are recipes for mass inefficacy.

In 2016, the county commission received a report prepared by the Broward-based research firm PMG Associates that recommended the county’s unincorporated areas become their own municipalities or be annexed into neighboring cities, leaving the county to focus more on regional issues and services.

And while that makes sense, the fine print is where the controversy begins. For most UMSAs, incorporation/annexation would likely mean higher tax bills. On the other hand, these communities would undoubtedly be improved by having independent, neighborhood-based governments that create community identities and set tax rates, and whose elected officials and municipal department heads are empowered, accountable, known by name, and a mere phone call away.

If garbage and disorder prevail at Miami Shores recreation fields, I can easily call the head of the village rec department. But if I see the same at the Biscayne Shores and Gardens Park, who do I call at Miami-Dade County…and would I even get a return call?

Yet for every argument in favor of incorporating UMSAs, there is the inconvenient case of municipal basket cases like Opa-locka. More akin to a criminal enterprise, Opa-locka is where corruption and extortion prevail, and its residents would arguably be much better served with the city’s dissolution.

Then take a quick look to the north and Miami Gardens, where residents are satisfied with their 15-year old city -- and perhaps Opa-locka should be viewed as the drunk who needs to hit rock-bottom before embarking on the road to recovery.

Which leads us back to how tri-villagers and our UMSA neighbors relate -- or not. The surrounding UMSA areas tally to approximately 24,000 residents, while Miami Shores, El Portal, and Biscayne Park collectively total just 16,000. Yet how much do we know or even care about our UMSA neighbors? Perhaps a genuine effort to build bridges to these UMSAs, and not just walls and gates, would be the first step.

 

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