Power to the Parish

Father Jose Luis Menendez of Wynwood takes the church to the people and the people to the streets

On this Monday evening at Buena Vista Elementary School, the only public school in Wynwood, the wind outside the open auditorium doors is whistling and banging. It is an apt accompaniment for the restive audience of 200 inside, where Carmen Lunetta, director of the Port of Miami and one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Dade County, is on-stage, explaining why the port needs to expand its storage yard for cargo containers, an area that currently occupies 55 acres in the neighborhood.

A row of high school students holds up handmade signs: "Respect Wynwood"; "Wynwood tiene derechos y los defenderemos"; "No Trailers"; "Why Wynwood?" Seated at a long table flanked by members of a task force formed to resolve the issue, Lunetta is clearly outnumbered. In response to the community's activism, he has significantly scaled back his original proposal, which would have encompassed a total of 160 acres of land. But residents are no more receptive to a plan that would expand the storage area to 90 acres and mean the loss or dislocation of two dozen businesses and more than 600 jobs. For years their neighborhood and adjoining enclaves have been de facto dumping grounds for many things nobody else wants: Drug treatment centers. Housing for the homeless. A jail. A county garbage-collection site. Plus the existing, poorly maintained port storage area, which extends from NW 29th Street seven blocks north, and from North Miami Avenue to NW Second Avenue.

As Lunetta and other speakers are continually interrupted, the port director, a poised, intelligent man, begins to wonder whether he's wasting his time. He has promised, after all, to listen to any and all objections. "Do we have the ability to expand into the community?" he asks, addressing the task force. "No!" comes a shout from the crowd.

Finally, audience comments are formally invited. After two local business owners come forward to warn Lunetta of the disastrous consequences for their employees should the Metro Commission allow the port to overrun the area, Father Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, steps to the microphone. Tall and patrician, with sparse streaks of silver in his wavy hair and beard, the Havana-born man of the cloth is dressed informally, wearing black pants and a black Windbreaker over his clerical collar. But when he takes his hands from his jacket pockets to speak, whispers of "Shhhhhhh" cross the crowd for the first time all evening. "We don't want to be emotional," says the priest, a Spanish lilt blending with the beneficence of his bearing to distract from his anger, "but when we talk about this port extension, we talk about our lives."

Menendez motions to a young woman in the audience who holds a large bundle of dusty leaves wrapped in dark paper, with what appears to be a single red rose in the center. She rises and walks to the stage. "Every time an important person comes to our neighborhood, we bring a flower bouquet," Menendez tells Lunetta. The crowd applauds enthusiastically as the port director extracts himself, beaming, from his cramped seat to accept the offering. "We try to make a bouquet of flowers," the priest continues, "but in our gardens, the only thing we have is dust from your park." Though he virtually spits the last words, the musical, rhythmic quality to his voice, disconcertingly, remains. "Thank you, Mr. Lunetta, for your contribution to us in Wynwood."

The smile has faded from Lunetta's face, but Menendez keeps talking, cataloguing the slights suffered by his neighborhood and promising potent opposition to any move that is contrary to the community's will. "This is not any more a small people without any voice," the priest warns, "because we as one can stop anybody." The cheering audience rises to its feet when he is through.

North of downtown Miami and west of the Omni, Wynwood stretches roughly between NW Twentieth Street and I-195 to the south and north and the Florida East Coast Railroad and I-95 to the west and east, hemmed in by railroad tracks, freeways, and poverty. In the 1960s Latin immigrants, predominantly Puerto Rican, began to displace the middle-class Anglos who were living in the area. The last twenty years have seen more variation, though Wynwood remains heavily Latin and immigrant. It's a transient neighborhood, one in which only 30 percent of residents own homes and unemployment runs as high as 55 percent, according to figures provided by the City of Miami Planning, Building and Zoning Department. Others cite census data indicating that only 17 percent of inhabitants have completed high school, while almost 38 percent live below the poverty line.

For the past few years, between an open-air cafeteria and an apartment building in the heart of Wynwood, the gray concrete body of a new structure has been slowly taking shape on NW Second Avenue near 32nd Street. The form of this two-story edifice crowned with a cross recalls Catholic missions of the past, which took the church to the people who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- come to it. So does the building's function: A sign outside announces the Misi centsn San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), where more than 100 people gather for Mass every Sunday. Most live within walking distance, which is a good thing, because few have cars. Owing to a shortage of pews, when they pray many worshippers must kneel directly on the building's dusty, ice-hard concrete floor.

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