By Michael E. Miller
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His shtick stops as he approaches the end of the block. He points to an island of sod, fronted by dainty trees and two signs studded with red reflectors. "We are now approaching barricades," he whispers, arching his eyebrows mischievously.
On the other side lies unincorporated Dade. Differences are quickly apparent. Lot borders blur. Yards fray at the edges. Sidewalks trail off into asphalt. Setbacks shrink and fill with vehicles, the tip-off that more than one family is sharing an address - a zoning no-no in Miami Shores. The houses themselves may be identical in structure to their counterparts across the barricade, but in the realm of property appraisal, such subtle environmental distinctions can mean $20,000 or more, the gap between firmly middle-class and just hanging on. "More dogs over here," Sell observes trenchantly. "And more mixed breeds."
The man and his dogs head due east, back into the Shores, toward the proposed wall of barricades slated for Miami Avenue. "Call it the Berlin Wall," Sell muses. "Or the Berlin Fortress." Should the barriers go up, Sell's house will be hemmed by twenty barricades, with Miami Avenue the only exit route, which means he will have to drive up to an extra dozen blocks to reach the churches or banks on Northeast Second Avenue. Proponents of barricades insist that police, fire, and medical-rescue authorities have given their blessing to the plan, noting that they travel primarily on main thoroughfares, anyway. Sell doesn't buy it. "I'd hate to be an 85-year-old lady on the other side of that wall, waiting for an emergency-vehicle driver who doesn't know the Shores," he snorts.
In the heart of Ken Lange's neighborhood, Sell scans the street theatrically. "I leave it for you to decide if you're seeing a cut-through traffic problem," he says, over the squall of crickets. "What is it, 7:30 on Friday night?" The houses here are a bit nicer, two-story models becoming more prevalent, and Sell plays the class distinction to the hilt. "Was this street really meant to be a private driveway?" he asks, pointing down a lane divided by a strip of palms. "You gotta watch out for the middle class, because most of the village is middle class." (He is thrilled to learn that Lange drives a blue Mercedes convertible. "I drive a Ford Taurus," he blurts. "A used Ford Taurus.")
For all his populist posturing, though, Sell is every bit as prone to suburban safeguarding as his higher-rent foes. On his way to visit an elderly neighbor, Sell spots two police cars parked several blocks away. A police helicopter, hovering suddenly overhead, chops at the blue-black clouds and sweeps the ground with a spotlight. Sell spots a young black man at the end of the barricaded street, dressed in a yellow sweat shirt and jeans. "He doesn't look like he knows where he's going," Sell says, watching the man round a corner. "I sure don't recognize him."
At his neighbor's house, Sell immediately phones in a report to the police. "I just didn't recognize the guy, you know, so I figured I'd call it in. Yeah, he looked real nervous and I think he may have been running until he saw us...."
Except for unavoidable occasions, such as this, the racial dynamic belying the Shores's barricading remains eerily implicit, dependably downplayed by folks on both sides of the issue. But the fact remains that for many Shores residents, the sight of an unfamiliar black face is immediately suspicious - a sentiment candidly voiced only by those too old to censor their speech.
"I first noticed it getting worse when the Haitians and Cubans came," Sell's 84-year-old neighbor confides. "On one occasion my brother was in town and my sister-in-law got her purse snatched. It was dark when we came back to the house and we didn't see a car out in front with its engine off. We got out of the car and this nigger - I'm sorry, but I'm from the South and anyone who robs from a white girl is a nigger - he nearly broke her arm tearing that bag away from her."
Before he leaves, Sell asks the woman about her neighbors and learns that both the Haitian family across the street and a white woman next door have been checking in on her. "You see, he takes care of you and he's black. And she takes care of you and she's white. We all take care of each other, right?" Sell says, as if the impromptu moral lesson could undo a lifetime of calcified racism. The shriveled woman nods obediently and peers out through her screen door, looking terrified of the dark night itself.
Put in such bald-faced terms, Miami Shores's lily-white legacy is not a pretty thing to confront. But in this village - where oldsters admit the settlement of a Jewish clan raised eyebrows in the early days - old baggage dies hard. And the Shores has a Buick full.
The town was born on the wheels of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, which chugged into South Florida in 1896. One of the line's two stops south of Palm Beach was Biscayne Station, located in the heart of what is now the Miami Shores Country Club. The bayfront property surrounding this landmark, long since drained of marshes and Indians, became a crossroads for merchants and settlers. But it took the Florida land boom of the mid-to-Roaring Twenties to solidify the town's position as a northern link to the still-boggy tip of the southern peninsula.