Going South

Civics and spirituality. Politics and prayer. In the ongoing battle against inertia, Goulds bares the conflicts at its core.

On the other side of U.S. 1, several miles east of Coney's tent, is an entirely different sort of ministry to the poor. The twenty-year-old Community Health of South Dade Inc. (CHI) building is surrounded by neatly landscaped parking areas, patrolled by security guards, and bounded by a tall chain-link fence. Inside the blocky single-story structure, signs in English, Spanish, and Creole direct patients to physical, dental, and mental-health treatment offices. The gray floors and walls are shiny and clean; waiting areas are equipped with drinking fountains and color TV sets mounted onto the walls. In the bathrooms, toilets flush themselves and water faucets turn on and off without a touch. The setting is reminiscent of a shopping mall.

Here Odell Johns reigns supreme. Chairman of the board of the $21 million-per-year nonprofit agency, the 64-year-old Johns can't strut down the bustling hallways without nurses and other workers greeting him deferentially. A small, slender man with close-cropped graying hair and a mustache, Johns walks like the military man he used to be: straight-backed, square-shouldered, chest out. Groomed and dressed immaculately, right down to socks that match the stripes on his shirt, he gives no hint of the weekly kidney dialysis treatments he must undergo. As he speaks, he summons secretaries to provide him with information, look up phone numbers, fill in memory gaps, his manner a blend of ironic self-deprecation and braggadocio. Having grown up in the South during the Thirties and Forties, when white men were the arbiters at all levels of society, he has learned to conceal his individuality. "They just saw a little black person who couldn't be quiet," he remarks. "Then when I got things the way I wanted 'em, they came to find out Odell Johns got a doctorate of law!" The last words are italicized with glee.

Though he never did practice law, Johns has been the most powerful man in Goulds for a long time, having plied the equally persuasive art of politicking. Back in the early Seventies, he was largely responsible for the creation of CHI. South Dade's first facility for health care for the indigent now has 12 locations and more than 400 employees. As chairman of the Goulds citizens' advisory council of the Metro-Dade Community Action Agency (CAA) for the past fifteen years, Johns has been instrumental in channeling hundreds of thousands of county dollars to the community to build low-income housing, improve parks, install sewers, and pave streets.

Johns and his wife Juanita, a retired middle-school teacher, moved to nearby Saga Bay in 1976, but he has owned property in the neighborhood since 1959, when he arrived with his first wife. All told, he owns about a dozen rental properties in and around Goulds. Two are adjacent fourplexes in the blighted section of central Goulds that locals call the Stump, or the Hole, or the Stump-hole, a bleak area roughly between SW 220th and 227th streets and SW 115th and 117th avenues where crime is high and drugs are plentiful. Last year he rented the fourplexes to CHI for use as temporary housing for sixteen homeless people. CHI had won a grant from the Dade County Homeless Trust to operate homeless programs in Johns's fourplexes and in another apartment building in separate residential areas of Goulds -- at the time the only nonemergency housing available for the homeless in South Dade.

Just west of Pastor Coney's tent, across a weedy stretch, is a low wood-frame gray house with a porch. Amid the encroaching foliage, it looks long abandoned. In fact, though, it has been vacant only since mid-August. In front is a large sign: MOANN H. EVERETT CARE CENTER. SERVING THE SICK, HOMELESS AND ELDERLY SINCE 1916.

Moann Everett was the mother of the 74-year-old Lydia Walker, who lives not far from here, in a ranch-style home with coral-pink flowers growing in front and a vaguely violin-shape swimming pool in back. Also in back, near a satellite dish, is a big brown trailer, the kind that hooks up to a truck. Painted on the side of the trailer in large white letters are these words: WALKER'S FUNERAL HOME PORTABLE VISITATION ROOM.

"After the hurricane there was no place -- I mean no place -- to lay out bodies," explains Walker. Her dark skin is barely wrinkled. Her opaque eyes are shadowed by glasses. "I came up with the idea of using this mobile unit. It's really nice. Really nice. We did it all in this dark red velvet."

Though Lydia Walker was an entrepreneur when it was rare for any black person -- let alone a woman -- to own a business in South Dade, she has retreated from the energetic public life she used to lead. "I am bitter," she admits without hesitation, cocking her head and looking up sideways as if trying to avoid the memories.

After the hurricane, the most important people in South Dade met regularly at Walker's house to develop and implement a strategy for reconstructing the area, particularly the black communities. She was the secretary for the South Dade Alliance for Black Neighborhood Development. (Having since dropped the "Black," the group is now a powerful interracial assemblage of politically connected professionals from all around the county.) But Walker had a bitter falling-out with fellow officers over her proposal to secure funding to convert one of her properties into a day-care center.

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