Big Fish, Little Pond

For more than a decade, Otis Wallace has called the shots in tiny Florida City. That seems to be just fine with the locals.

Otis Wallace is the undisputed heavyweight champion of politics and power in Florida City. Last month the voters in this southernmost Dade community handed him his seventh term as mayor, a knockout streak nearly unprecedented in contemporary South Florida, where political success is normally measured by how quickly your constituents send you out of town to Tallahassee or Washington, and where failure is commonly measured in jail time.

He's the original homeboy, an ambitious student who went away to college, graduated from law school, and returned to his birthplace, where he has held elective office for twenty years -- nearly half his life. "I don't want to be anywhere else," Wallace says simply. "It's where I grew up. I like it down here."

And why wouldn't he? Wallace is about as close to anointed as the democratic process allows. He's a black American in a town where blacks comprise the largest voting bloc. He's a college-educated professional in a community dominated by agriculture and manual labor. And he embodies a sense of pride and accomplishment that is inspired by his courageous stand against racially offensive symbols at his high school.

After twelve uninterrupted years as mayor, he was still able to attract a whopping 86 percent of the votes in the election this past January 23. As a kicker, the citizens also gave him executive power by approving a strong-mayor ballot measure. Everybody knows him, and practically everybody likes and respects him. In a different time and place, he might have been king.

Wallace's kingdom, however, is little more than a roadside blur to most people, a cluster of gas stations and fast-food joints at the end of the turnpike, a pit stop for those on their way to the Keys or to Everglades National Park. When they think of Florida City (if they think of Florida City), they might conjure a cliche image of white-trash rednecks, poor blacks, and stoop-shouldered farm workers inhabiting a godforsaken patch of flatland parched by the sun and brutalized by Hurricane Andrew.

This, needless to say, does not sit well with the 44-year-old mayor. "I've read some things that we're the poorest city in the Southeast," he says as he wheels his city-issue Crown Victoria onto NW Seventh Avenue, a homemade Grover Washington tape providing counterpoint. "No, no, no no, no. I've been to other places and this is hardly that."

As he drives, Wallace points out the homes with manicured lawns, the new townhouses, and the apartment buildings under construction. "It's not a rich city," he continues, "but I think most people are shocked when I tell them that 65 percent of our people in Florida City own their own homes. Most people have this idea of us living in hovels and that kind of thing, and that's just not so. We're poor as compared to Coral Gables, but we're not poor when compared to cities in the Appalachian states. It's just a matter of what you're being compared to."

But even a comparison to Coral Gables can be useful. Just as the City Beautiful's northern neighborhoods are not quite as beautiful as those to the south, so too Florida City's northern section is a poor cousin to the area south of Palm Drive, which historically has served as a line of demarcation between white and black, prosperous and poor. Though the southern end of town has become substantially integrated in the last twenty years, vestiges of the past can still be seen in the north: weed-choked lots, abandoned apartment buildings, shotgun shacks on narrow 25-foot plots.

At the corner of Twelfth Street and Ninth Avenue, north of Palm Drive, sits an abandoned cinderblock building. Constructed like a bunker, doors and windows protected by iron bars, it was once a restaurant and nightclub called Mom's Place, which enjoyed notoriety during the Sixties and Seventies. Mom's was a magnet of sorts, its dim interior drawing daytime drinkers and nighttime carousers, who in turn attracted frequent visits by the cops. It was the roughest spot in a rough neighborhood.

"People would get their purses snatched or cracked over the head for their wallets," Wallace recollects as he steers his car into the parking lot. "As you can see, it's closed now." Blue lettering along one wall announces a more recent incarnation: the Marriage and Family Enrichment Ministry of Pastor John Hoskins. "This was a minister who showed up as our savior after Hurricane Andrew, performing miracles and the whole nine yards," the mayor scoffs. "He was a charlatan."

Wallace knows this neighborhood well. Just two blocks to the north is the house where he grew up with his grandparents and six sisters. His father was absent much of the time, owing to his job as a farm-crew organizer in Clewiston, at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee. His mother traveled up there frequently from Florida City to spend time with her husband, but the separations took their toll on the relationship and it ended in divorce. Eventually she remarried and took the name Marshall. Hattie Marshall worked around Florida City as an office clerk, a packing-house canner, and for Metro-Dade's Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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