From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Just when a forlorn section of Liberty City is about to get the help it so desperately needs, along comes Miller Dawkins on his political bulldozer

Lorenzo Simmons can be forgiven the confidence with which he strode into the Miami City Commission chambers on July 26, 1994. The president of the Tacolcy Economic Development Corp. was a man with a plan to revitalize a key corridor of Liberty City, one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods, to replace a bombed-out slum with modern townhouses and large front yards, basketball courts, and even a swimming pool.

For six months preceding the meeting, he had leaped every hurdle blocking his path to construction. First he identified the need for affordable housing near Northwestern High School on NW 79th Street. The brand-new, $75 million school contrasts starkly with the carnal ugliness of Knight Manor, the 50-year-old housing project across NW Tenth Avenue. Crack addicts steal the project's window frames for the aluminum, which they can recycle for eight dollars a frame. Piles of old clothes litter the lots. Graffiti tags all of the two-story shoeboxes with spray-painted testaments of fidelity to Candi, and Six, and Bobby, and LaToya.

Second, and most important, Simmons lined up the money. In January 1994, Dade County commissioners promised him $2.5 million toward the cost of tearing down Knight Manor and replacing it with his project, which he dubbed Western Estates. Now, as he stood at the Miami City Commission podium in his best black suit, all he needed was $500,000 from the city to tackle one last detail: An environmental review had revealed a high concentration of toxic chemicals on a portion of the land where a dry-cleaning business had operated. The construction could not commence without a thorough decontamination.

Although this request for money marked the first time Simmons had appeared before the city commission regarding Western Estates, he had been meeting separately with each commissioner for months. Initially Simmons had proposed apartments for the property, but Commissioner Miller Dawkins had said no, because he felt the neighborhood needed the stability provided by homeowners. So Simmons and his staff switched to townhouses. Commissioner J.L. Plummer said he wanted to see more green space on the property, not just another high-density slum with people stacked atop each other in cramped quarters. So Simmons reduced the number of townhouses he'd build and added wider lawns, shrubbery, the pool, and other amenities.

"I believe the problems with Item 21 have been resolved," said Plummer at the July meeting as he prepared to rubber-stamp Simmons's request.

Three of the four other commissioners nodded in unison. Only one shook his head. "No, they have not been resolved," Dawkins barked.

"Oh, God," muttered Mayor Steve Clark. "Now what's happening?"
Dawkins leaned forward in his black leather seat and rested his forehead on the palm of his right hand. "They say here they're going to build a townhouse with 900 square feet," he said to no one in particular. "I think the minimum should be a thousand. That's what I think."

At the podium, Simmons stood silent, incredulous. His company had a sterling reputation. After the riots of 1980, when much of Liberty City was burned to the ground, Tacolcy resolved to restore the neighborhood by building much-needed affordable housing for residents, virtually all of whom are poor and black. Local and national leaders heralded the openings of Tacolcy's Edison Plaza, Edison Marketplace, and other projects. The founder of the nonprofit firm, Otis Pitts, won a $265,000 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award" largely on the success of his rebuilding campaign. Simmons, who assumed control of Tacolcy in 1993, had kept the company charted on the same course.

Pitts and Dawkins, the city's lone black commissioner, never got along. Politicians and lobbyists alike say Dawkins is jealous of all the attention Pitts received, friction that no doubt increased when one of Pitts's vice presidents at Tacolcy ran against Dawkins in 1993. "He always saw red in anything having to do with Otis," says one local politician, requesting anonymity. "I thought that had subsided with time, but clearly he has been partial to [his friends] and totally negative to Otis's people."

Whatever hard feelings Dawkins may have harbored, at the July 1994 meeting he was unequivocally opposed to Simmons's request. "There should be a public hearing before the neighbors. Let the neighbors see the design. They don't have a design, they're just coming here. And they say, 'Land acquisition, cleanup of environmental issues.' They do not identify environmental issues. They say, 'The design of the project.' I have not seen the design of the project."

His face frozen in a glower, Dawkins peered at the podium where Simmons stood behind a blown-up posterboard design of the Western Estates project. "I think all of this needs to come before us before we can vote on it, and that's how I feel about it. They should come back in September with these things and let us look at them."

Commissioner Victor De Yurre got up from his seat next to Dawkins and leaned back against the wall.

"[Tacolcy] had come in to develop townhouses," De Yurre recalls today. "It was a real nice project, but Miller, because he is enemies with the people at Tacolcy, bushwhacked the whole thing. He knocked it down. It was a real nice project, it was ready to go, and Miller got all demanding. He torpedoed the whole thing."

After the torpedoing, Western Estates sank. Simmons, who had only a limited amount of time to clean up and buy the property before it went back on the market, failed to meet his deadline. Tacolcy took its $2.5 million county grant and applied it to another project. Developers from Fort Lauderdale swooped in and signed a contract for exclusive rights on the property.

Like Simmons and Tacolcy, the Broward developers approached the City of Miami in search of government subsidies. Unlike the Tacolcy project, though, these developers were not admonished by Dawkins to hold public meetings or draw up new designs. Instead, Dawkins paired them with the Urban League of Greater Miami, a nonprofit corporation headed by his friend and former campaign manager T. Willard Fair.

Without waiting to see how many buildings the partners planned to construct or questioning whether the proposed houses would be affordable to Liberty City residents, and without ensuring that the land was environmentally safe, Dawkins urged his colleagues to award the partnership not the $500,000 Tacolcy had requested, but a whopping $4.7 million, with virtually no strings attached.

And his fellow commissioners, as they usually do when it comes to issues that affect Miami's black community, deferred to Dawkins, passing his motion unanimously.

"We're trying to do something here that everybody will be proud of," said Dawkins when he snuffed Lorenzo Simmons's request. "That's all."

But that wasn't really all. Unmistakably, this project to restore Liberty City would unfold with Miller Dawkins's blessing or not at all.

And now, nearly two years later, it is unfolding. And it's a mess.
Everyone in Northwest Miami awoke at 2:15 on the morning of September 22, 1951. That was the precise moment when two 100-pound sticks of dynamite exploded in an unoccupied building in Carver Village, a development that had been dubbed Knight Manor back when it was built as whites-only housing. Now, with a new name and with blacks moving in, Carver Village was the focal point of Miami's fierce racial tensions.

The explosion ripped the roof off the building and tore doors and windows from their frames, according to research done by Metro-Dade Division of Historic Preservation historian Teresa Van Dyke. Damage exceeded $200,000. On November 30, another early-morning bomb destroyed two more units at Carver Village. Three more bombs exploded on December 2.

City leaders had inadvertently lit the fuse 55 years earlier, upon the founding of Miami. Railroad baron Henry Flagler housed his black workers in a strictly defined rectangle of land northwest of downtown Miami, away from the river and the Biscayne Bay properties coveted by whites. Colored Town, as the area came to be called, maintained the same borders even as the number of blacks living in Miami grew with the rest of the city. Housing prices skyrocketed.

In the Thirties, a visionary (and shrewd) white real estate man named Floyd Davis devised a solution to the problem. Davis, through his attorney, proposed the construction of Liberty Square, which would be the largest housing project in the South, and, as he saw it, the nucleus of a new black enclave. Not only would Liberty Square relieve the housing crunch in Colored Town, it would also make Davis a wealthy man. He owned much of the land in the neighborhood in which the proposed complex would be built.

The project was a winner, for Davis and for the city. Blacks flocked to the sparkling new Liberty Square, described popularly as the most beautiful housing project in the country. A six-foot-high stone wall ringed the subdivision in which Liberty Square was built, a not-very-subtle reminder to blacks who might otherwise have been tempted to enter the surrounding white-occupied neighborhoods. Any black housing projects built inside the wall quickly filled to capacity.

The success of Davis's housing project caught the eye of two developers, Malcolm Wiseheart and John Bouvier, who cashed in on the building boom by constructing their own black housing project in the Forties. At the same time, they erected a sister project just outside the wall and named it Knight Manor. The black project, as predicted, quickly filled. Knight Manor, built for whites, didn't fare so well; renters never filled more than half the complex.

Bouvier and Wiseheart altered their bottom line, and the history of all Miami, in 1951, when they decided to rent 215 empty Knight Manor apartments to blacks. It was the first time in the history of super-segregated Miami that blacks were invited to live outside their clearly defined borders.

To fight the change, angry white citizens mobilized into groups with names such as the Dade County Property Owners Association and the John B. Gordon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. White residents of Knight Manor held an "Indignation Meeting," followed by a motorcade in which they drove around the now-integrated project flashing their headlights. Some of the more law-abiding Klansmen obeyed a Dade County ordinance banning cross burning and instead ignited giant wooden letter Ks.

The consonant burning, and the subsequent bombings, did not prevent blacks from moving in. So strong was the demand for affordable housing that the boundaries of the black neighborhood soon moved beyond Knight Manor to encompass a larger (albeit still confined) section of Miami that is now known as Liberty City.

Despite the expansion, the black housing crunch never abated. White leaders continued to covet property in Overtown, the name by which Colored Town came to be known. One white activist even encouraged the wholesale relocation of the black neighborhood's residents. Such a grand social engineering project proved unnecessary in the late Sixties, when federal transportation officials steered the new I-95 expressway through the heart of Overtown's main business district. "One massive highway interchange alone destroyed the housing of approximately 10,000 people," wrote Raymond Mohl, an urban historian at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, in a March 1995 article in the Journal of Urban History. "Despite official promises, few replacement housing units were built, and those people who were uprooted got little in the way of relocation assistance."

The housing supply was further strained by the arrival of immigrants, whose movement into the cheapest apartments available elsewhere kept Miami's blacks confined to the same old areas. "Take the neighborhood where I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina," offers T. Willard Fair. "The blacks moved out into the cheap housing that was left in the white neighborhoods. In Miami those affordable houses are taken by the Haitians and the Cubans. The black people are trapped."

This shortage of affordable housing has been cited as a factor in every riot in modern Miami history, including the devastating 1980 outbreak that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat to death black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie.

Today Knight Manor does not look like a place in which anyone --white or black -- would stake a claim. Starting on the corner of Northwest Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street and fanning west and south in an inverted, eleven-acre L, it is an ugly shadow of a development. The missing window frames make even the few buildings that are still occupied look vacant and deserted.

Lawrence Levine found out about the Knight Manor property soon after Tacolcy lost its option to buy. Levine, a 51-year-old Bronx native who runs a law firm in Fort Lauderdale, also dabbles in construction, having built two condos in Broward. In Knight Manor he saw the potential to erect his first property in Dade.

It is practically impossible to develop in the inner city without government assistance. To build apartments or houses that are profitable for the developer and priced within the budget of the community, some construction costs must be covered, mortgages and/or rents heavily subsidized. The traditional path to public money passes through nonprofit community groups such as Tacolcy, and that is where Levine turned first.

Lorenzo Simmons didn't want much to do with the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, who lacked experience (any experience) developing with public money. "The credibility of these guys is a problem for me," says Simmons, who is quick to add, however, that he supports any and all efforts to develop in Liberty City.

Rejected by the top Liberty City developer, Levine apparently took a different tack. Javier Odio, the brother of Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, says the Miami condominium development where he lives and works is owned in part by a cousin of one of Levine's partners in the Liberty City venture. Odio says Levine approached him and, as a personal favor, he smoothed the way into the city bureaucracy. "I set up an appointment through my brother's office," Odio discloses. "They went in front of the commission. I just basically introduced them to everyone."

Like Tacolcy, Levine originally wanted to convert Knight Manor to apartments. But Javier Odio was aware that Dawkins wouldn't go for anything short of home ownership. At his urging, the developers crafted a rough plan to tear down Knight Manor and replace it with 70 to 90 townhouses. Perhaps owing to the sketchiness of their project, Levine's group had trouble raising public money. "First they went to Dade County, and then they went to Tallahassee, but they couldn't get any money," Javier Odio recalls. "Finally they went to the city. I basically did the introductions. We went to meetings with city staff, who suggested that [Levine] take his plan to Miller Dawkins."

Odio says he pulled out of the proceedings at that point. "I wish I was involved in the construction, because that's where all the money is," he sighs. "But I wanted to avoid a conflict of interest." He says he was not paid for his services.

Before he departed, Odio set up the developer with a local architect, Nelson Mallo of Urban Architects in Coral Gables. Mallo is Javier and Cesar Odio's brother-in-law.

Levine responded by fax to written questions regarding this article. His recollection: "Most contact with the City of Miami has been without the benefit of introduction." He made no mention of Javier Odio, and was unavailable to respond to follow-up questions.

In March of this year, at the request of Cesar Odio, Miami City Attorney A. Quinn Jones ruled that Nelson Mallo's involvement in the housing project does not constitute a conflict of interest. "A member of my family which [sic] was only performing a specific service and was not in any way an owner or had ownership interest in the subject project would not create a conflict of interest or other legal complaints," Odio wrote in an April 4 memo explaining Jones's reasoning. (Neither the city attorney nor Odio responded to requests for comment for this story.)

Despite the unpolished plans, Miller Dawkins showed a strong interest in Levine's proposal. Notes on file in the commissioner's office indicate that he told the Fort Lauderdale developers he could get them nine million dollars in grant money to construct new homes. (The amount actually requested would drop to $4.7 million.) According to city commission minutes, he also handpicked the nonprofit they should work with: the Urban League of Greater Miami, and his ally T. Willard Fair.

City housing officials also took a preliminary look at the project, and calculated Miami's role more conservatively than Dawkins did. "Our initial recommendation from a staff point of view was to fund half of what they wanted," explains Jeff Hepburn, assistant director of housing. "Their initial request was $4.7 million and we recommended $2.3 million. Normally how these things go is, we give you a little bit, you get a little bit from the state and a little bit from the county so you can go to banks and say, 'We have all this money, why don't you lend us some more?'"

Hepburn and his staff presented their views at the September 1995 city commission meeting, proposing a resolution that called for the newly formed partnership between Levine and the Urban League to receive $50,000 to test the soil for contamination, with $2.3 million to be earmarked for release if the partnership obtained matching grants.

Dawkins waved off the resolution as it had been written. He wanted to give the partnership $4.7 million immediately -- even though the developers were still arguing over what kind of houses should be built (Levine wanted townhouses; the Urban League didn't think they'd sell).

Rather than settle the spat through further research, Dawkins proposed a novel solution: He wanted to give the developers a few million dollars to see whether the project would work. If not, then the partners could spend the remaining millions somewhere else. "I would like to move...that the Urban League and [Levine] be instructed to go to the [city] manager, develop townhouses with the two million we're going to give them, and hold the other two million in reserve," Dawkins orated that day. "After they build and sell the first phase for two million, we will know if townhouses will sell or if they won't. If they won't, you take the second two million and build what they want to build."

Only Victor De Yurre raised a serious objection. The real estate attorney switched on his microphone to plead for caution. "How are we going to sell this?" he asked. "And what is it going to be based on? Do we have feasibility studies? Do we know what the market area is?"

Dawkins, who had raised many similar questions about the Tacolcy project, cut De Yurre off. "We are there!" he thundered. "We are there, where we're going!"

The resolution that passed, after much further discussion, mirrored Hepburn's original resolution, with only $50,000 awarded. But Dawkins insisted that this published motion did not match the motion he had put forth, and in December he moved that the record be corrected to award the Urban League and Levine the full $4.7 million, plus the $50,000 start-up fee.

At that meeting, Commissioner J.L. Plummer repeated many of the concerns voiced three months earlier by De Yurre, who had since been voted out of office. "Four million dollars is a lot of money. What does the city have in hand to designate what's going to be built?" Plummer queried, sounding eerily like Dawkins had in July of 1994. "I have not seen the final designs....Have we guaranteed the rates that will be charged? Have we got any kind of bidding procedure that must be followed?"

Cesar Odio piped up. The city manager is not permitted to make policy decisions; he may only implement the will of the commissioners. But in this case, he decided he had something to offer. "Can I say something, Commissioner Plummer? This is in an area -- I went out and looked at it the other night -- next to the new high school, next to an industrial area. If we do this, we're bringing people back to live in this area," he said, "and it's a beautiful project." He made no mention of the involvement of his brother and brother-in-law.

Notwithstanding Plummer's skepticism, every commissioner voted in favor of Dawkins's corrected resolution.

"My concern was, here was this group -- what track record do they have?" complains De Yurre today from his Brickell Avenue law office. "They were supposed to do a study, and based on that study it would be determined if the project were feasible or not. You don't just start building and hope the buyers come along. You get the buyers first and start building.

"You know where that money is going to go? It is going to go to total waste. You can't just turn over money like that to people. It is totally unconscionable."

Problems with the new project arose almost immediately. The purchase date was set for Friday, December 15, 1995. A day before the closing, Jeff Hepburn sent a letter to the Urban League noting that the most basic of matters had not yet been resolved. The developers had not had the property appraised, for instance, and they were intending to pay for the land with grants for which they had not completed the applications. The closing was bumped back three weeks, to January 8 of this year.

In a January 5 memo to Assistant City Attorney Linda Kelly Kearson, Alfredo Duran (one of Hepburn's staffers) raised more questions. Duran noticed that the purchase agreement Levine signed in late 1994 stated a price of $700,000, with the land composing only ten percent of the cost. The apartments were going to be torn down; why, Duran wanted to know, was the city paying $700,000 for $70,000 worth of property?

He also remarked on the wavering scope of the planned development. The Urban League told him the development would consist of between 70 and 90 single-family homes, while the grant applications described a 134-unit mix of townhouses and single-family homes.

With all these unresolved issues, Duran doubted the January 8 closing deadline could be met. Levine reluctantly agreed to push the closing back to January 31.

On January 26, Duran wrote another, longer memo, this one to his boss, Elbert Waters. Although the the scope of the project was still in flux, he noted, the developers had submitted a budget with a total project cost of nearly $15 million. At that price, Duran pointed out, each home in a 134-unit complex would cost an average of $111,000 to build, a figure that "appear[s] to be very high as well as making it difficult to provide these units as affordable housing."

It's evident from his memo that the relocation of current Knight Manor residents caused Duran some concern. By law, the Urban League would be required to relocate everyone to adequate housing A an expensive process in which each tenant is entitled to up to four years of rent subsidies, plus money to cover the cost of moving. Yet the Urban League budgeted only $180,000 for relocation. Wrote Duran: "[B]ased on past experiences by the City of Miami with relocation activities [the amount] is understated."

By now nearly everyone who rented at Knight Manor has moved out, many without all the aid to which they were entitled.

Some people, claims resident Climmy Taylor, didn't receive anything at all. "The Urban League told them they had to go and they left," Taylor gripes.

Not Taylor. He refuses to leave his two-bedroom apartment until he gets the $700 in moving expenses the Urban League is required to pay him. "I'm going to need to rent a U-Haul," he grumbles. "I'm going to have to buy some boxes. How am I going to move if I don't get money?"

Miami Legal Services attorney Carole Fruman is helping several residents secure the benefits to which they are entitled. In her fifteen years as a housing attorney, Fruman says, she has never seen a relocation program so poorly run. "It was a mess, an absolute mess, because nothing had been done in the order that it had to be done," she explains. "It has been my experience that there are occasions where relocations are not completely complied with, but I haven't run across one like this where virtually nothing has been done."

Oliver Gross, the Urban League's director of development, admits his organization was caught off-guard. "We underestimated the cost," he says. "We just underestimated that one." In a revised budget, the amount of money allotted to relocation rose from $180,000 to more than $500,000. Fruman believes that when the relocation is finally completed, the costs could be even higher.

In his memo to Elbert Waters, Duran also noted that in the first budget submitted to the city, developers' fees, general overhead, and administration costs totaled nearly two million dollars A almost half of what the developers foresaw in such payments for the entire project. The city's financial contribution to the project, meanwhile, amounted to less than twenty percent of the $15 million budget.

On the scheduled day of the closing, Assistant City Attorney Linda Kelly Kearson advised Waters that the developers had still not provided her office with any evidence that the project would be affordable to low- and very-low-income families and individuals. Without this assurance, she noted, the city could not legally transfer the money needed to pay for the land. The closing was suspended indefinitely.

In letters to city officials, Levine implored that the closing take place as soon as possible. Any further delays could jeopardize his agreement to buy the land, as had been the case with Tacolcy's ill-fated bid.

On the other hand, Levine was billing the City of Miami for his time. He is an attorney. And although he is the president of the development company -- and although he and the Urban League employed two other law firms to work on the project -- Levine submitted bills for $18,200 in fees.

In response, Kearson did not challenge his right to bill for his time. She did, however, complain that he had charged for services dating back to October 1994 A months before the city became involved.

Levine adjusted his billing hours accordingly and submitted a new bill: for $20,600.

"My law firm billed for the legal work performed on behalf of the project prior to closing. The work was provided with an expectation of payment and was approved by the partners," he says.

The closing finally occurred on February 15. The city paid the entire $700,000 purchase price, plus a $25,000 bill to cover closing costs. The itemized statement Levine submitted included $12,250 in "attorneys' fees." Kearson later wrote in a memo to Cesar Odio that the city had already paid two different law firms a total of $15,000 in fees for the closing. She wondered how Levine had justified an additional $12,250.

The haggling over money didn't cease with the closing. If anything, the friction escalated. The Urban League's first request for grant money arrived in late February, and on March 4, Duran sent his bosses a breakdown of each item requested.

Fort Lauderdale-based realtor William Murphy, one of Levine's partners in the venture, requested a brokerage fee of $70,000 for the Knight Manor sale. Duran noted that according to the sale agreement signed back in 1994, a different broker, John Mayers of Prudential Florida Realty, was to be the sole broker involved in the deal. Duran suggested the city not pay for this item.

The Urban League requested a "consultation fee" of $40,000. With the Urban League a full partner in the project, Duran wrote, "it appears that the consulting service is being made by the partnership to itself." He further noted that the City of Miami already provided the Urban League with a separate $50,000 grant to create affordable housing. He suggested that this item not be funded.

Architect Nelson Mallo, too, was asking for money; through the Urban League he has asked for $30,000 for architectural services to date. But according to the contract Mallo signed with the developers, the most the architect could possibly be owed was less than half what was requested. "Since no justification has been provided for the $30,000 requested, funding is not recommended," wrote Duran.

For something called "buyer's qualifications," the Urban League wanted $20,000. Duran declined to pay it.

Lawrence Levine billed for yet more of his legal time: nearly $6000.
Altogether, the Urban League requested $474,000 on its first trip to the city coffers for the project. After carefully reviewing each item, city officials paid out only $70,000.

"Some of the things they put in the budget we just don't agree with," comments Jeff Hepburn, Duran's supervisor. "We are going to fight them tooth and nail on every one of these things. We're here to protect the taxpayer."

By April the city still had not approved a working budget from the partnership. Levine faxed over draft after draft -- knocking out the broker's fee, tripling the amount allotted to relocation -- yet city staffers could not bring themselves to approve the figures.

On April 8, housing officials gave up trying. Elbert Waters sent a memo to Cesar Odio, asking that an outside consultant be hired to review the Knight Manor budget. According to the memo, the consultant will "research comparable projects, review and analyze historical data and review the projects' hard and soft costs, in addition to providing the City with the final project development cost recommendations."

The consultant, Keith Emery, who will be paid $4500 for his services, says he has just commenced and cannot yet provide any insight.

"I don't think any of our numbers we pulled out of the sky," offers Oliver Gross, the Urban League's director of development. "If they have problems with numbers, we have done the best we could to allay any anxieties. Whenever you have issues of difference, you try to address them."

Counters Jeff Hepburn: "Our concern at this point is, basically, that we are the only money in the deal. That is why we are so concerned. There is no commitment from the State of Florida. There is no private commitment out there. We are concerned that if this project doesn't happen, somebody is going to take the fall for it."

He means City of Miami taxpayers.
At the Elks Lodge on Northwest Seventh Avenue, transformed on this bright Friday afternoon into the kickoff headquarters for T. Willard Fair's campaign for a county commission seat, optimism reigns. A fleet of greeters stands sentry at the hall's double doors, ushering in supporters with hugs and handshakes. The tallest member of a four-person jazz band plinks slow-motion background music from a Yamaha keyboard.

Friends are asked to sign the register and to grab a handful of flyers decorated with Fair's face and his challenging slogan: JUDGE ME! PLEASE. The darkened hall is decorated with yellow and black campaign posters. One yellow and one black balloon are tethered to every chair. Standing in the back of the hall is T. Willard Fair himself, decked out in a banana-yellow suit and black cowboy boots. At Fair's side, nodding silently at every word spoken by the Urban League president, is Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins.

Fair's political race will be one of the most contentious on the November ballot. Several notable black Miamians all want the seat, and in the early going the race is so close that many local black leaders are withholding their endorsements until a runoff winnows the field. Dawkins already supports Fair. "It's all about the runoff, but I think he's going to win," the commissioner asserts.

The hopefulness of the campaign kickoff spills over to both men's assessment of the Knight Manor project. Sure, no money has yet been lined up besides the City of Miami's. But that's not unusual in a business deal. "The city's money is for preconstruction soft costs," Fair preaches. "If you want us to go and get a letter from NationsBank, we will. The city's money provided support money. This is not unique. We go forward from here."

Dawkins has heard all the criticism of the project before, and of the speculation that he "torpedoed" the Tacolcy project because of a personal vendetta or petty concerns. "Tell the supporters of groups like Tacolcy that Miller Dawkins is the commissioner," he instructs, orating in the third person. "Why does he have to work with them? They have to work with him. He doesn't have to go around making sure the project is good for them. They have to go to him and make sure it is good for him."

The mere mention of the Tacolcy name causes his lips to part in a sly smile. "Let me tell you something," he barks. "Back when [County Commissioner] Maurice Ferre was the mayor of Miami [in the early Eighties], Tacolcy got everything. Ask anybody. Tacolcy got everything. I am not going to give Tacolcy everything. I am going to spread it around. If they don't like that, that's fine."

The Knight Manor project has a new name: Northwestern Estates, a moniker that plays off the proximity to Northwestern High but also evokes the memory of Tacolcy's seminal Western Estates idea. At the site, two yellow tractors stand watch over plots of land where two Knight Manor buildings have already been razed. The Urban League's Oliver Gross predicts construction will start soon, with the first houses going up in the spring of next year.

A white sign stuck in the dirt at the construction site announces that the cheapest homes will sell for only $68,000 -- about half what they will cost to build. Fair is confident that he will acquire the very large amount of financial aid and mortgage subsidies necessary to achieve this price. He predicts all the homes will be sold by June 1998.

Lorenzo Simmons hopes that the optimism is warranted. "I support the cause," he swears. "I want to be on the record as saying that. I wish them all the success. We need them to help. This was a major, major bold move they have committed themselves to. What we can do as a total community is get behind it."

Fair's friends are streaming into the Elks Lodge in one eternal river of smiles and support. The candidate excuses himself to greet a few dozen of his backers, shouting over his shoulder as he makes his way to the door: "We can sell these units! I know that we can!"

Miller Dawkins recedes behind a long table at which a teenage boy is mixing a bag of ice cubes with two gallons of fruit-flavored red syrup. The commissioner's arms are crossed at his chest as he scans the room. The band, true to the mood, plays "Happy Days Are Here Again." On the backs of every chair, the yellow and black balloons remain buoyant. Not one of them has popped.

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