DISTRICT HOPEFULS RECORDS' SHORT OF PRISTINE,
Miami Herald, November 25, 2005
by Michael Vasquez
Little did South Florida know when former Miami
mayor Manny Diaz's senior advisor on urban issues
got in power, that she'd be his lasting legacy and
the punch-line to keep Miami's national reputation
as a political and social laughingstock front and center.
Just imagine how different things would be if Richard
Dunn II had been elected in the late November 2005
But that wasn't what the Herald's Editorial
Board wanted to see, so...
Suspended Commissioner Spence-Jones re-elected,
Video by Chuck Fadely, Miami Herald
THE HERALD RECOMMENDS
OUR OPINION: FOR MIAMI CITY COMMISSION, DISTRICTS 3 AND 5
If contentious issues and multiple contenders for office are signs of a healthy democracy, then Miami voters have no worry. In District 2, incumbent City Commissioner Joe Sanchez and challenger Luis Fernandez, a lawyer, are locked in fierce debate over the best ways to manage the city's growth and finances. In District 5, eight candidates are looking to wrest the seat away from incumbent Jeffrey Allen, who was appointed last year to replace the late Arthur Teele. Mr. Teele had been suspended in a corruption investigation.
Voters are left with the daunting task of making sense of the issues and winnowing down the candidate list to just two choices. These are our choices:
Incumbents usually have a strong advantage, but that is not the case here.
Jeffrey L. Allen, 49, appointed to replace Mr. Teele last October, has few political skills and has done little for the constituents of this needy district, which includes Overtown, Little Haiti, Spring Garden, Buena Vista and Wynwood. Fortunately, three of the candidates who seek to replace him - consultant Michelle Spence-Jones, 38, barber-shop owner Willie L. Williams, 46, and businessman Georges William, 52, - are well-qualified and each would do a credible job. But Ms. Spence-Jones, a former senior advisor to the mayor on urban issues, is the clear choice to replace Mr. Allen.
When Ms. Spence-Jones talks about economic development and creating more affordable housing, she does so from the perspective of someone who has worked closely on the political and practical steps necessary to turn those ideas into reality.
Unlike with Mr. Allen, Mr. Williams and Mr. William, no question about where she actually lives detracts from Ms. Spence-Jones' candidacy.
She would offer incentives or subsidies to developers to encourage affordable-housing projects and believes the city can do more to address the needs of senior citizens for food, shelter and medications during hurricanes or other emergencies.
For District 5, we recommend MICHELLE SPENCE-JONES.
Having already backed a racially-divisive and conspiracy-
minded candidate who was keeping it under her hat until
she got elected, Spence-Jones, who failed to win a majority
of the vote, the Herald's editorial Board played the role
it relishes -kingmaker:
THE HERALD RECOMMENDS
Voters in this runoff election have a choice on Tuesday between candidates with similar ideas about the district's problems, but sharp differences in their approach to the job. That should make the choice relatively easy for voters because one approach is divisive, and the other offers a chance for effective leadership, something the district sorely needs.
Michelle Spence-Jones, a former top advisor to Mayor Manny Diaz, is the better choice for this district, which includes communities such as Wynwood, Little Haiti, Buena Vista, Spring Garden, Overtown and Liberty City.
In the Nov. 8 election, Ms. Spence-Jones, 38, got slightly more votes (32 percent) than her closest rival, Richard Dunn, (28 percent) in a crowded field of nine candidates. Mr. Dunn, 48, pastor of a Pembroke Pines church, is running an aggressive anti-establishment campaign that pitches Ms. Spence-Jones as a ``yes man'' to the mayor. The problem with that is that Ms. Spence-Jones' record shows her to be strongly independent and nobody's rubber stamp.
The fact that Ms. Spence-Jones once worked for Mayor Diaz and enjoys his confidence is an asset that, hopefully, she will put to good use on behalf of the district. Both Ms. Spence-Jones and Mr. Dunn say that they would work to bring more jobs and affordable housing to the district.
As the mayor's senior advisor on urban issues, Ms. Spence-Jones has been actively engaged in working on such projects in Overtown, Liberty City and other areas in the district. In addition to jobs and affordable housing, Ms. Spence-Jones says she wants to focus on neighborhood-revitalization projects that can improve the quality of life for residents and help to reverse the departure of residents from the district.
This district is long overdue for an effective leader.
For Miami City Commission, District 5, The Herald recommends MICHELLE SPENCE-JONES.
Twelve percent of eligible voters cast votes.
Spence-Jones wins 57 percent to 43 percent.
Apathetic Miami-Dade African Americans get
the Commissioner they deserve.
And now, all these years later, I know more
about Marvin Dunn's poor judgment than
I did back when I actually voted for him in
the '80's, and urged others to do so, as he
has become her apologizer-in-chief in the
pages of the Herald
What the hell happened to him?
Trust me, LOTS of well-informed people
in South Florida wonder about that, too,
including many whose names you'd recognize.
But I know how to keep a secret, so....
The first time the words "Michelle Spence-Jones"
appeared in the Miami Herald was April of 2004.
But that was many pet shop visits ago for her with
KING BLVD. VISIONARIES FACE LEGACY OF LOSS
"This used to be like a mall area,'' said Howard Thomas, 51, stacking bunches of collard greens as he recalled an era when sidewalks were packed with customers. "Now, it's more like a ghost town.''
His father, Reginald Thomas, the 87-year-old owner of Thomas Produce Market, on Northwest 62nd Street and 14th Avenue, is particularly skeptical.
He's competing for a dwindling clientele and yet last year, he says, the city of Miami told him he could no longer display fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk in front of his store, one of the few methods he still has to lure motorists who zip through on their way to Interstate 95.
"Ain't nobody putting money over here,'' he said, more than a bit exasperated. "Every time they put money here it goes somewhere else.''
In more than two decades, both men have heard myriad promises that government would pour millions of dollars into the area in hopes of bringing back businesses that left - most notably after the deadly and devastating 1980 McDuffie riots. Violence broke out in mostly black areas of the city after four white county police officers were acquitted of beating a black motorcyclist to death.
Now a community development agency, along with city and county officials, is offering still another plan, this one with even higher ambitions than usual. Officials say they hope this plan will reinvigorate the downtrodden area to attract new businesses, customers - and tourists.
The proposal, first unveiled a year ago today, is to bring a mix of shopping plazas, street improvements, park upgrades and - for the first time - cultural landmarks to the Liberty City and Little Haiti areas. Later this year, private developers will begin construction of a $9.3 million plaza at the site where Winn-Dixie stood for years at King Boulevard and Northwest Sixth Court, in the shadow of I-95.
Nearby, the city is planning a cultural Art Walk where national and local celebrities such as basketball star Alonzo Mourning will leave their footprints in wet cement. The design will be similar to the gold star sidewalk tributes at Domino Park in Little Havana and the handprints in front of the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.
Further along the boulevard, Internet kiosks and monuments are proposed to pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Haitian- and African-American leaders and events.
Also on the drawing board are plans for $26.8 million in upgrades to four city of Miami parks on or near the boulevard. Funding will come from a $255 million homeland defense/neighborhood improvement bond approved by Miami voters in 2001.
The city and Miami-Dade County have committed another $3 million for facade and street improvements along the boulevard, between Northwest Seventh and 37th avenues.
Another plan - though much less developed - calls for a transportation hub to bring a sorely needed parking garage to the area. The federal government so far has allocated $4.5 million to acquire property near Northwest 62nd Street and Seventh Avenue - another nearby major commercial artery.
Last year, when the plan was first discussed, more than 1,400 people came out to hear King's youngest daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, implore them to rekindle the boulevard's economic and social vitality.
Tonight, the community will gather for a second "Reclaim the Dream'' street service and candlelight vigil to remember the 36th anniversary of the assassination of King.
But it may be hard to build enthusiasm among folks like the Thomases, with their struggling grocery store, when few of the proposed changes are visible. David Chiverton, chairman of tonight's service and treasurer of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Agency, which spearheaded the drive, concedes progress has been slow. The first year, he said, was spent trying to win the confidence of area residents.
"When you talk about the black community, it sometimes drags out,'' Chiverton said. "We've made great strides in the last year, just having money in place and having interest from developers.''
City officials keep reemphasizing that improvements, especially cultural markers, have the potential to draw tourists and their dollars to what has been an economically depressed neighborhood for about 24 years.
"We want to create a cultural destination for people. But in order for them to come, you have to give them something to see,'' explained Keith Carswell, the city's director of economic development.
For Carswell and two of the city's other principals in the project, Michelle Spence-Jones and Clarence Woods, the project is personal. All grew up in or near Liberty City.
All of them have family who still live in the area, and Carswell and Spence-Jones recently purchased homes there as well.
"The difference is the level of commitment and passion behind this plan,'' Woods said. ``At the end of the day if we don't produce we have to go home and explain.''
Moselle Rackard, who has lived near 62nd Street for more than 40 years, remembers a day when grocery stores and department stores such as Shell City, Lerner, and Jackson Byrons were on or near the boulevard. And on Seventh Avenue, nightclubs were the draw, attracting blacks and whites from Miami Beach.
"The whole place was vibrant. You didn't have to leave the neighborhood for anything,'' she said.
Rackard, who is 70-something, wonders what changes are in store. Her hope: A mid-or upper-level store such as Macy's or Dillard's will locate an outlet shop near her home.
"I don't see why not. We pay taxes [and] we like good clothes,'' she said.
As for Reginald Thomas, he'll believe the changes are real once he sees something concrete - literally. He wants to see the lot adjacent to his store finally paved for parking.
And he'd really like to display his vegetables on the sidewalk again.
"We aren't bothering anybody. We're trying to help people,'' he said. "All I've tried to do is make a dollar and to help someone along the way.''
* The second annual Reclaim the Dream ceremony to remember the 36th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begins at 5 p.m. today along Northwest 62nd Street in Miami.
* Participants, which include community and civic leaders, will march from Northwest Sixth Court to the main stage at Eighth Avenue. Speeches, gospel music and a candlelight vigil will follow.
* For more information, call the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. at 305-757-7652.
Amazingly, three weeks later, the Sun-Sentinel
was on hand at what we now know to be the
scene of the crime, publishing this puff-piece,
breathlessly quoting special events coordinator
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
BUSINESS OWNERS LOOK FOR UPTURN -
NW SEVENTH SEEN AS HEART OF REBIRTH
Up and down Northwest Seventh Avenue, shop owners are taking part in a tiny revolution: trying to reclaim a once-thriving thoroughfare they say has been in decline far too long.
They continue to work here because Liberty City is their home. After years of neglect, small-business owners say the area is finally seeing signs of an economic turnaround.
"This is my community, my streets, my home," said Edward Colebrook, owner of Shantel's Lounge, which specializes in down-home barbecue and spicy conch salad. He's among the dozens of merchants who have banded together for monthly cultural events they hope will attract visitors and boost business.
With "Soul on Seventh," community leaders in Liberty City hope to revitalize their neighborhood, much like Little Havana's "Cultural Fridays" sparked new life on Calle Ocho.
When people like Colebrook look around their neighborhood, they see a place where people know each other's names, black faces adorn murals and the names of African-American leaders are memorialized on buildings and streets.
Once a flourishing black middle-class neighborhood, Liberty City is still the kind of place where middle-aged men gather to play checkers. Large banners dot the area's main drag, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, reminding people to "Reclaim the Dream."
The dream might have drifted when Liberty City began to decline in the 1960s. As freeways intersected neighboring Overtown, displaced residents who lost their homes overcrowded Liberty City.
The area's sudden growth attracted a number of mostly white owners who built cheap apartment complexes, then failed to maintain them. As integration gained momentum across the country, black professionals left, fueling the area's decline.
It seems fitting that Seventh Avenue would be at the heart of the area's rebirth, said Michelle Spence-Jones, a special events coordinator for the city of Miami. The first soulful celebration -- featuring food, jazz and a Bahamian junkanoo band -- took place Feb. 27. More than 500 people attended. The events are scheduled for the last Friday of each month.
"This was the life of the black community," Spence-Jones said, admiring the rows of storefronts that still thrive on the avenue.
They include places like Happy 2 B Nappy, which specializes in natural hair care for black women; Timbuktu Marketplace, where artists gather and sell their wares; New World Cafe, where a French-trained chef from West Africa serves chicken wings and African dishes on special order; and Body, Mind & Soul, a health food shop where customers can order a veggie burger while shopping for African herbs.
"We need to bring people back to Seventh Avenue," said Elaine Black, executive director for the economic development coalition, Tools for Change. Black notes that several redevelopment projects in the area are already in the works.
"Give us five years," Black says. "Liberty City will be the place to be."
Five years later it isn't and we know
at least one of the many reasons why.