"Cleaning up the Grove, a few blocks at a time"
      By Tony Doris

Miami has a great opportunity within its grasp.

Before the City Commission today are management agreements that open the door for recreational programs along Coconut Grove's waterfront, at the site of the old Virrick Gym. If approved, Shake-A-Leg Miami will have an enlarged home for its sailing programs for the disabled, and the YMCA will have a new pool and a fitness center, open to those who can afford a membership and to those who can't.

In the Grove, where high and low-income residents live back-to-back, these new programs and facilities could reshape many lives and encourage unity within the community, if you'll forgive the sloganeering.

Meanwhile, even more promising is a separate, germinal effort being spearheaded by commission newcomer Johnny Winton to revive the long-neglected West Grove, to take it out from under the clouds of poverty, drug dealing and decay. Winton has marshaled city staffers and community activists to take the neighborhood back, three blocks at a time.

Winton, a real estate investor and manager who campaigned on the lack of code enforcement, said it became clear to him, as he spent more time in the neighborhoods, that the problem was a lack of fundamental neighborhood services. Shortly after his election five months ago, he formed a task force with staff from various city departments, as well as West Grove residents and people from other neighborhoods, to try a pilot program to eradicate urban blight.

They focused on three blocks bordering Virrick Park (a mile from the unrelated waterfront project), on Carter, Plaza and Hibiscus streets, considered the worst in the neighborhood. The park itself was slated for rejuvenation, including a $2.1 million youth center on which construction began Wednesday.

The task force plan was to go after the criminal offenders in the neighborhood, the crack dealers, and the civil offenders, the absentee landlords and others who'd allowed their properties to fall into disrepair. The task force inspected and evaluated every house in the target area. They found 27 homes that had code violations of one kind or another. They set to work to get the violations fixed. Six weeks later, says Winton, only a half-dozen homes still have violations, and all but two of those are being fixed.

On half of Carter Street alone, a half-dozen abandoned cars were hauled out. At least two homes had serious drug dealing going on, and those tenants are out. One house had an illegal building behind it that served as nothing but a room for drug sales and use; that's been shut down.

It's never been a mystery to anyone in the neighborhood which houses the drug-sellers inhabited. But it has taken the focus of a determined effort by Winton and the city staff to shake off a legacy of official neglect, to address a problem that for decades has been staring the city in the face.

The beauty of the effort is that virtually no component of it is new. It was just a matter of getting code enforcers, police, loan and grant program administrators and the neighbors themselves to use tools already at their disposal, and then to define measurable goals, to track performance and make sure the job gets done. As Winton puts it, "It's just basic blocking and tackling is all we're doing."

The next three blocks, Oak, Day and Percival avenues, also around the park, are about to get the same treatment. The hope is that once the three-blocks-at-a-time process has been repeated four or five times, the word will get out and the bad guys will pack their bags or clean up their act.

Andy Parrish, one of the few for-profit builders to venture into the neighborhood in recent years, says the neighbors are already ecstatic with the results. He's been building houses there in a price range affordable to working, low-income residents, and he foresees a big increase in business. In fact he's in a rush to build houses for people who live in run-down houses in the mainly African-American neighborhood, before absentee investors lock up land on speculation that it will gentrify. Parrish, who built 12 homes in the West Grove over the past five years, plans to build 20 this year alone. "It's a race against time," he says.

Winton says, "he expects to take the neighborhood clean-up effort to other poor neighborhoods, from Little Haiti to Wynwood and elsewhere." What many of Miami's pockets of poverty have in common is that they are pockets small enough that problems can be addressed a few blocks at a time, a few recreational programs at a time, and have long-term results that are greater than one might expect. Small, successful efforts will gain a lot of visibility and will encourage more efforts.

I predict that if all goes as planned in the Grove, for one, people will notice a change quickly, not just in the immediate area of the clean-up, but in surrounding neighborhoods as well. Urban decay is a cancer that may be localized, but which surely is felt throughout the system. Likewise, the treatment should bring relief to all of us.

Web Published Thursday, April 13, 2000
Published in Daily Business Review on: Thursday, April 13, 2000

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