By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
If Barbara North Burton could keep time in a bottle, the evening of March 11, 1989, would rank right up there with Dom Perignon. On that gorgeous Saturday night it seemed the whole Village of Miami Shores turned out to rally behind her dream - a plan to erect permanent barricades on dozens of village streets. At dusk residents massed in Memorial Park, off Northeast Second Avenue, to wash down hors d'oeuvres with wine, then caravaned ten blocks east, where rows of candlelit tables awaited them in front of Burton's spacious manor. Chefs from a newly opened Red Lobster restaurant fried up fresh fish and chips, while kids frolicked with the eatery's towering crustacean mascot. The line for grub snaked around the block. After dinner the throng headed north, curving past Miami Shores Country Club for the final leg of the epicurean relay: homemade desserts. Candidates for village council spoke briefly to the crowd, then a disc jockey was trotted out to spin Fifties records for those who could still move.
"That night was faaaabulous," Burton recalls, animating her normally businesslike tone. "Everyone was outside. We had 2000 people on my front lawn and folks dancing in the streets. It was like we turned the clock back twenty years." Seated in her Biscayne Boulevard law office, the attorney hovers over a map, retracing the revelers' path with press-on nails the color of pale cherries. For Burton, a driving force behind the campaign to seal off village streets, the bash marked a political watershed. "I remember going out to some of those neighborhoods the first time around, and people were so apathetic about street closures I wanted to cry. I think the street party proved that we'd won them over." A month after the fete, voters passed a referendum to fund the barricades by hiking property taxes for the next five years. The measure, approved by a hearty 58 to 41 percent margin, is expected to raise up to $700,000 for barrier installation and maintenance by 1994.
But just two-and-a-half years later, as the village council limps toward granting final approval to the closure plan's second phase, the only parties being discussed are the sort associated with lawsuits. And the barriers intended to restore the Shores's halcyon days instead have driven a wedge through this well-trimmed North Dade community of 10,000. "People are digging their heels in on this one," warns Bryan Smith, an anti-barricade activist whose family moved to the Shores 46 years ago. "Feelings are running real deep. You hear talk of class-action suits, civil disobedience, even secession. This thing's going to get uglier before it gets settled. We're looking at the granddaddy of all barricade fights."
Granddaddy indeed. While many of Dade's municipalities are just beginning to wrestle with the barricade issue, the Shores's squabble over street closures stretches back more than a decade. The debate began in earnest in 1982, when a clutch of citizens living east of Biscayne Boulevard presented council members with a petition requesting that their street be closed. Though that petition was rejected, complaints mounted about cut-through traffic from nearby I-95 and criminals cruising the streets off Biscayne. Worried citizens continued to lobby for barricades. By 1987, when councilmen staged a villagewide crime symposium at nearby Barry University, concern had reached critical mass. Then-Mayor Spero Canton put Burton in charge of a task force to generate solutions. The group quickly made street closures its top priority.
Burton set to work canvassing different areas for input. She and Canton, a smooth-talking former TV reporter, invited crime experts such as Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Paul Urschalitz to extol the virtues of barricades - or "environmental design devices" as proponents refer to them - for the local populace. The task force mailed out slick flyers that featured photos of children cavorting in the street and others snugly bundled in bed; all safe, the kid-scrawled captions assured, because of barricades.
The most vocal opponent of the plan was James Condit, a crusty retired rear admiral and former Miami Shores mayor. He argued that taxing citizens more than half a million dollars to pay for the barricades was a fiscally irresponsible ploy, engineered by elitists bent on privatizing their streets while others suffered increased traffic and decreased mobility. "You should have seen the way these jokers pushed this thing through, all the propaganda," says Condit, spitting out his words like nails. "They told you barricades were going to save your life, when all they've done is turn this damn town into a crossword puzzle."
But the ragtag resistance posed by Condit and his followers proved no match for the barricades' savvy boosters. After a seemingly endless series of combative meetings, modifications, and votes, the council bestowed final approval for Phase I in the fall of 1989. By the end of that year, temporary barriers had been installed in 65 locations, mostly on the perimeter of the 2.5-square-mile town. With a few notable exceptions, Condit among them, the first phase was well-received. What has reawakened the beast of civic strife is a proposed second wave that includes a dozen barricades lining North Miami Avenue. Residents living on the village's western fringe fear this array will effectively cut them off from the rest of the Shores. Those east of the busy artery are equally vehement in demanding that the protective blockades go up. The unofficial spokesmen for each side are intelligent, reasonable men. They are also dead set against compromise.
Ken Lange came to Miami fresh out of law school in 1978 to join the Dade State Attorney's Office as a major-crimes prosecutor. In five years with the office, he sent hundreds of felons to prison. His specialty was first-degree murder. By 1983, ready for a change, Lange went into practice as a criminal defense attorney. Not a pretty line of work, he concedes, but one that has afforded him an intimate view of the criminal mind - and made him a strident supporter of barricades. "I think I have pretty good insight into the mentality," says Lange, from inside the dead-bolted confines of his fifth-floor Bay Harbor Islands office. "That's why I knew street closures would work. The key to cutting crime is preventing the criminal from casing your area by car. When you close off a street, suddenly you start to notice when strange cars are in your neighborhood. There's a sense of who belongs and who doesn't."
An avid runner who prefers polo shirts to power ties, Lange moved to Miami Shores with his wife a year after joining the private sector. The couple settled into a two-story house a block east of Miami Avenue on Northeast 96th Street. "I fell in love with the place," he recalls. "It felt like a real community. People were involved with issues. There was a kind of small-town feeling, as small-town as you can get in the middle of a huge city. I said when I got here, `The only way I'm leaving the Shores is in a box.'"
The move mellowed Lange, as did the birth of his daughter three years ago. But he lost none of the street hustle from his days as the state's top homicide prosecutor. When he heard a barricade plan was afoot, he set to work organizing his neighbors. "We have a corps of people working," he explains. "Each block has a leader and six or seven block captains. Under that we've got about five or six serious workers. In the referendum, our section had over 90 percent support for the barricades." Here Lange pauses, pulling back from the black formica desk he gavels with his fist to stress key points. "The fact is, we should have gotten barricades in that first phase." Both "first" and "phase" get gavels.
Instead, barricades went up two blocks west, along Northwest Second Avenue. Lange maintains the barriers have channeled cross-town traffic through his neighborhood, which lies in the prime shortcutting turf between I-95 and Biscayne Boulevard. "We've got the heaviest traffic in the Shores. People speed through there incredibly. They'll go down my street at 50 or 55 miles per hour," he says, his thick New England accent rising into a Wally Cleaver-like yelp. "That's a highway speed limit, you know?"
Without barricades or neighborly vigilance, Lange foresees a Miami Shores infested with crack houses and chop shops. Like most villagers, he has at least one real-life crime story to back up the doomsaying. "My neighbor across the street was home-invaded by guys with ski masks and shotguns. They hit him in the head with a shotgun," Lange says. "He was a good neighbor and he moved as a result of that home invasion. Had the barricades been there - and I think the police will agree with me on this - that home invasion would likely never have happened."
Lange insists he made efforts to compromise with the anti-barricade folks west of Miami Avenue, even going so far as to stuff their mailboxes with a leaflet offering to discuss a plan to install protective barricades on both sides of the thoroughfare. The response? A counterpamphlet that opened with the proclamation: Don't Get Fooled by Ken Lange's Flyer! "I wasn't trying to fool anyone, I was trying to help," Lange mutters.
"Ken Lange's help we can do without," asserts Mark Sell, the man chiefly responsible for the rebuttal. A veteran journalist who now works for the Miami Review, Sell is a curious breed, a kind of enlightened yuppie who can discuss alternative rock bands in one breath and lament property values the next. Still baby faced at 40, he moved into a small house just west of Miami Avenue two years ago. Like Lange, he was newly married and thinking of starting a family. For now he spends much of his time babying his two springer spaniels. The early evening ritual of dog-walking lends Sell an opportunity to muse about the fate of the Shores's western border and the threat posed by Lange's beloved barricades. "I call it the screw-your-neighbor program," Sell says, stumbling down 98th Street at the mercy of his spaniels. "We get to pay taxes to shut ourselves off from the village."
Sell believes erecting barricades along Miami Avenue will further marginalize the Shores's less-wealthy western edge, driving down property values and setting the stage for a mass exodus. "This is a good neighborhood, one that's working hard to save itself," he says, illustrating the point by rattling off the professions of a half-dozen of his neighbors. He continues down the sidewalk, past neatly kept, single-story houses, spouting a steady stream of pithy declarations: "We paid to live in the castle, not the moat." "Putting those barricades in is like taking $5000 out of my pocket. It's a political mugging." "Why don't they just put a wall around the city, charge ten dollars admission, and call it a theme park?" And so on.
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.
Not that the area destined to become Miami Shores was just a depot. From the start it was billed as a luxury destination. While lacking a meticulous planner on par with Coral Gables's George Merrick, the Shores was staked out by a series of perspicacious hucksters. In a fit of geographic hyperbole, one land company billed its 2500-acre plot as "America's Mediterranean." Others plugged smaller chunks of land on WQAM radio, which broadcast standing-room-only concerts of the Miami Shores Orchestra performing such favorites as "On Miami Shore" and "Miami Shore, You're Calling Me."
For the shrewd investors who had plotted the land, the chiming of the register was music enough. On September 3, 1925, for instance, land-hungry buyers snapped up 400 one-acre lots of leveled mangrove that were barely covered with sand. In less than three hours, $22,414,700 changed hands. The land company had to carry the booty to the bank in barrels. The boom, of course, soon went bust; two devastating hurricanes and the Depression put a damper on development. But by 1932 the town had coalesced enough to incorporate, elect a council, and officially proclaim itself Miami Shores (conveniently ignoring that a nearby city, which was to become North Miami, was already using the name).
From the beginning, village fathers exhibited a suspiciously Coral Gables-like passion for rule-making, enacting - among other lunatic ordinances - a law requiring that cats wear bells, an edict subjecting owners of barking dogs to prosecution, and later, a curfew on the use of power lawn mowers. For the first fifteen years of its existence, the prim community remained a quiet outpost of affluence, playing "the village beautiful" to the Gables's hallowed City. The only notable addition to the Shores was the sprawling country club built in 1936. Ironically, the club that would later become the seat of bayfront aristocracy was built by Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.
After World War II the village hit another boom era. Drawn by its manicured lawns and quaint downtown district, hordes of suburb-hungry families jacked the town's head count to 5000 by 1952. Fifteen years later, the population had grown to 9000 and available housing was growing scarce. The influx brought no significant ethnic diversity. Census figures show that in 1970, the city was less than one percent black. Those who remember the Shores of this era invariably use the same word to describe the place: heaven. "It was the American dream, you know, right down to Main Street," recalls west-sider Bryan Smith, who grew up during the Fifties. "People didn't have to lock their doors. The streets were safe." Tight control over zoning and code enforcement has allowed Miami Shores to retain a tranquil, Mayberryesque ambiance. Crisply defined blocks stretch on and on without convenience stores, malls, or other unsightly urban fixtures. A vigilant crusade against commercial exploitation has kept cafes and shops off of Northwest Second Avenue. The sedate downtown strip, long coveted by developers as a CocoWalk-in-waiting, remains lined with banks and law offices.
But while the Shores was perfectly content to stop growing 30 years ago, the rest of Dade exploded. Unincorporated neighborhoods mushroomed around the village, bringing a shifting cast of immigrants to the outlying areas. Highways and major thoroughfares replaced placid two-lane roads. And the effluvium of this urban sprawl -screeching cars and trolling criminals -imbued Miami Shores with a siege mentality. By the Eighties, bars were going up on windows and high-tech alarm systems were being employed to supplement beefed up police and civilian patrols. The village beautiful, in short, paid a dear price for trying to live the myth of Eisenhower in a post-Reagan reality.
Seen from this perspective, proponents argue, the barricades should be embraced as the measure that has, in one fell swoop, liberated the Shores from its xenophobic trembling. "Before the barricades, people were afraid to leave their homes. The streets were empty," recalls Barbara North Burton, whose exclusive east-side enclave was corraled with barriers in Phase I of the operation. "Now you have people outside all the time; joggers, kids, pets. People get together and talk about issues. We've created a very desirable residential area."
Peter Muller calls the process retro-fitting. "What they seem to be doing with these barricades is redesigning the town in the mold of planned community," explains Muller, the chairman of the University of Miami's geography department. "For most of the new luxury developments, the basic plan is to dig out an artificial lake, use the dirt to encircle the housing, and set up one entrance with a guardhouse to regulate who comes in. In the end, it's building a wall to protect a way of life."
There is no question, Muller says, that this process of girding will surge as the nation's blighted downtowns spill into once-isolated suburbs. Law enforcement officials are turning, in ever greater numbers, toward crime prevention through environmental design, a pseudoscience spiced with paramilitary buzz words such as "defensible space" and "access control." Muller points to the growing number of communities - more than nineteen in Dade alone - that have erected aesthetically pleasing barriers and/or guard stations to keep out traffic and riffraff. Even once-Bohemian Coconut Grove has resorted to barricades to deter traffic in residential neighborhoods. And Shores officials are quick to note that calls for barricade advice have come in from numerous communities, including nearby Surfside and Bay Harbor Islands.
What sets apart Miami Shores - and what vaulted it fleetingly into the national media - is the scope of its plan. If and when Phase II is completed, the town will have more than 90 barricades scattered across its 50 streets. It comes as no surprise that neighboring communities, especially the middle-class city of El Portal to the south, have greeted the barricades with resentment. But Muller says he's intrigued at how the second set of barriers appears to have tweaked the town's internal class battles, as well.
"I suspect the Shores has always had an invisible landscape, with the largest, most opulent houses east on the bay and the wealth gradient flowing down from there," Muller observes. "The [proposed] barricades on Miami Avenue have given visible features to that landscape, and that's ruffling feathers." And if ruffled feathers translate into "For Sale" signs, as a few angry west-siders insist they will, the village could be in for trouble. Muller stresses that a bedroom community like Miami Shores, which lacks commercial attractions, depends on a steady influx of young professionals to revitalize itself. For many, such as Mark Sell and his wife, the west side's cheaper houses mark the only access into the Shores. "If they continue to alienate that replacement community, they're writing a death sentence for Miami Shores," Muller warns. He adds that the village already faces an obstacle in luring younger families: the dearth of upscale job opportunities in the corridor east of I-95.
Mark Sell maintains the problem extends beyond age. He notes that the west side is also a growing destination for up-and-coming black families, many of them Haitian, that have boosted the village's black population from one to twenty percent since 1970. He says the perception that the area is now being cleaved from Miami Shores proper may send out a message, whether intended or not, that blacks are not welcome. And that is not a perception, he says, that the Shores can afford. "The Shores is going to have to be a place where integration works, where whites aren't scared away," Sell maintains. "Take a look at the demographics around here. Take a look at Miami Shores Elementary School. It's 60 percent Haitian and 90 percent black." Not all villagers keep up with such gauges, he adds, especially since many white kids from the Shores attend private grade schools.
Ask Stephen Loffredo how he feels about barricades and the veteran councilman's face assumes the sheepish posture of a man hoping to slip quietly away from the fan before the shit makes its inevitable appearance. Loffredo, a lawyer who joined the council in 1987, just as the barricade issue was coming to a head, voted in favor of Phase I. "The problem with Phase II," he says cautiously, "is that we never settled on what it was supposed to be in the first place. We were too busy implementing Phase I." Though he has not taken an official position on Phase II, Loffredo has received plenty of heat about the issue. He expects to take a lot more. "The sparks are going to fly on this one," he promises wincingly. "We're just warming up."
On that, at least, all parties seem to agree. A study of the traffic impact of the Phase II barricades went out to bid last month. The approval process should take another four to six months and probably will require another vote by the council. After four years of contentious meetings and mailings, the interim promises a crescendo of quarreling sure to focus on that holy tandem of village neuroses: crime and property values. Loffredo expects both to bend what little hard data exists toward their cause.
The consensus is that barricades have helped contribute to last year's four-percent drop in felony crime and the ten percent dive so far this year. But Miami Shores Police Chief Mike Zoovas, who has refused to take a stand for or against the barricades, cites a variety of other factors, including the police department's addition of four extra patrol officers since 1988 and the closing of the Shores discount movie theater, which was a magnet for crime. Proponents of the barricades are likely to crow over the ten-percent leap in property values in 1989, but less likely to tout last year's figure, which revealed Miami Shores as one of only three Dade County municipalities where property values dropped.
Sell and his coalition vow they will not go quietly. If a referendum pushed through the barricade concept originally, anti-barricade forces insist they can block Phase II by demanding another villagewide vote, which would require only a 500-signature petition. Should this fail, opponents are looking into the option of a class-action suit. Former mayor Jim Condit says village officials are bucking for a personal-injury lawsuit. "Suppose someone dies on account of an ambulance driver getting lost," the admiral croaks. "Is the council prepared to deal with that?"
Among more radical west-siders, the murmurings of secession have seeped into strategy powwows. "That's the only way to solve this damn thing," rants F. Richard Vane, a 30-year Shores resident. "People are trying to keep that ace in the hole quiet, but I don't give a damn."
One of the few villagers not bracing for the clash is Barbara North Burton, the godmother of barricades. "We heard the same objections last time," she says matter-of-factly. "You know, this is a funny little village. There's a handful of people here who would object to anything. You could have a referendum on motherhood and there'd be a faction opposing motherhood."
Newly elected mayor Steve Johnson, who still remembers the bruising experience of presiding over his first barricade meeting in August, is less inclined to shrug off the impending rift. Though he supports barricades, he is all too aware of why others don't. "Some people's property values did go down. What can I say? You can never please everyone. The west side, the side that says they're being shut out of the Shores, has felt neglected for a long time, and there is some credence to that. There's nothing we can do but assure them that we're not cutting them off and try to demonstrate that by providing them services and increasing code enforcement over there. But a lot of this anger, the vehemence, I think comes down to change. People don't like change," Johnson says. "And barricades are a big change."
As for the messy talk of the race or class dynamics bubbling beneath the barricade fray, Johnson speaks for his village. "How the hell can people think like that? I don't care if someone's black or white or green! I don't check their tax returns! They just better keep it to one family per house and better keep up the house." He pauses for a moment. "If you don't care about yard work, you shouldn't buy a house in Miami Shores.