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Every so often another unsuspecting motorist comes zooming down SW Thirteenth Street into Coral Gables. All at once, a few blocks past Le Jeune Road, the pleasant residential route becomes a nightmare of a country road, complete with monster potholes, pint-size boulders, and a gloomy absence of streetlights.
"The next thing you hear is 'Bang! Wham! Crack!'" says homeowner Donald Fox. "That's the sound of one more broken axle."
For reasons no one can quite figure out, unlucky Thirteenth Street never got paved between SW 45th and 47th avenues. Metro officials agree that the two-block stretch is probably the very last unpaved street in urban Dade County.
"I wasn't aware there were any," says Dennis Carter, a retired assistant county manager. "That whole area should have been paved 50 years ago."
James Leone, chief of Metro-Dade's highway division, scratches his head. "I think it was just overlooked and forgotten," he hazards. "If the folks along there never complained, that might explain why we missed it."
Fox and sixteen other homeowners whose houses face or back up to the unpaved portion say they have complained in the past. Fox built his house in 1957, then made an annual pilgrimage to county hall to see about the road.
"I'm a fighter, but I finally gave up," says the retired construction foreman. "They would send me up to the thirteenth floor. I'd get off the elevator and there would be no one at the desk. They were all in the back room smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. I asked again and again about the street being paved and they always said, 'Not in the near future.'"
Fox's neighborhood lies within Little Gables, a five-by-ten-block island of unincorporated Dade County bordered on the north by the City of Miami and on the other three sides by Coral Gables. The enclave is a quirky mix of mostly middle-class homes, along with a healthy sprinkling of trailer parks, cheap motels, and tarpaper-roofed bungalows that may one day soon be annexed by wealthier, primmer Coral Gables.
Or maybe not. A frustrated Abdo Socorro, chairman of the Little Gables Neighborhood Association, says the two-and-a-half-year-old annexation effort is essentially stalled.
"There have been delays, excuses, political games, and the rest is unfit to print," Socorro says. "We're in limbo again, and our situation is extremely weird. There's no other county land for miles around, so it's easy for the county to forget about us when it comes to basic services.
"A lot of people say it's Merrick's fault," he adds, referring to Coral Gables founder George Merrick. "They say he gave this area to someone as a payment when things went sour for him. What I know for sure is that we're the proverbial pink elephant that nobody sees."
That sense of abandonment -- along with a consequential independent streak -- may be most intense on Thirteenth Street.
Frustrated by the absence of streetlights, about twenty years ago Fox and several of his neighbors finally called Florida Power & Light and simply purchased one. Now they each pay $250 per year for it. This past summer Thirteenth Street citizens formed a chain-saw crew and spent days doing away with several enormous ficus trees and dense bushes that posed a navigational hazard to cars and provided a dumping ground for dead chickens and other sacrificial victims of Santeria rituals. And most recently Fox began paving the street himself, bit by bit.
"As the potholes wash out and get deeper and deeper, I get two or three bags of cement and mix them up myself in a wheelbarrow," he explains. Several crude, gray blobs at the west end of the street attest to his labors. He hasn't yet tackled the east end of the street, which contains the single worst pothole.
"You could lose a tank in there, man, or at least a good-sized bread truck," notes new homeowner John Graham.
Residents do credit the county with a quick response in one instance. Twelve years ago homeowners awoke to find that one of their brethren had planted a hedgerow from one side of Thirteenth Street to the other, in an apparent attempt to close the street to traffic and seize a portion of it for use as a back yard. County workers were dispatched to pull up the shrubbery.
Will Thirteenth Street ever be paved? Leone, the county's highway division chief, says it could happen. If residents make a formal request, the county will consider performing the task -- and then charge homeowners for the job by requiring them to pay a special assessment tax for years to come. By contrast, if Little Gables winds up being annexed by Coral Gables, the City Tidy would pick up the entire tab for the paving project.
"An unpaved street is something the city simply wouldn't allow," says Sandy Youkilis, a Coral Gables assistant city manager. "We would use city capital funds to pay for it, through the street improvement program financed by the gas tax."
Neither Leone nor Youkilis would guess at how much the paving project might cost. But one resident, who bought her house during World War II, offers a comparative figure. "If they had paved it when they should have, it would have cost a fifth of what it would now," she snorts. "It's been an eyesore and a mess for 50 years.