What a Lovely Neighborhood

The effort to gentrify historic Buena Vista Has activists stalking city code inspectors, developers drooling, and racial tensions rising

Kenny Merker exits through a wrought-iron gate in front of his grand, two-story house and heads north along NE First Avenue to a dilapidated building on the corner of 47th Street. On its east face, the street number, 4620, has been unevenly handwritten. The door hangs open as if someone just left without closing it. Merker doesn't bother to knock. He strides in and stomps up a stairwell painted with a thick orange enamel. The handrail, loosely attached to the wall, slides off one of its metal brackets with a mere touch.

"Hello!" he calls. When he reaches the second floor, he walks a few feet farther into the house before three startled black men wearing boxer shorts emerge. Merker stops only a few feet away from them; other people can be heard but not seen. Someone has nailed numbers above the doors. Seventy years ago the edifice was an elegant old house, but today it has been subdivided, the residents renting small rooms. "I'm looking for Gene Davis!" Merker cries, referring to the landlord. His voice is a bit too loud, given the men's proximity.

"Not here," someone answers. For a few seconds, Merker and the men stand silently and eye each other. Then a woman calls out from a room near Merker. Her Creole-inflected voice is at once dignified and sarcastic: "May I please give him a message?"

Merker has no intention of speaking to anyone, not even Davis. He's in the building for one reason only: to observe and document violations of Miami's building codes. The neighborhood has been designated a historic district by the city to protect its houses built in the Twenties for some of Miami's most influential early citizens. Construction regulations are especially strict.

"We've been trying to have the city close this building down; it's all sectioned off," Merker says. A vacant lot abuts the house, the grass worn from parked cars. Some splotches have been ground down to gray sand. "We can't get rid of all the abandoned cars." Two cars sit in the lot as he speaks.

Across NE 47th Street, the civic activist brazenly scales a four-foot wire fence and jumps onto a cement driveway leading from the street to the side of a one-story, hot-pink house. About eight feet to the right of the driveway, two parallel strips of concrete, a car-width apart, also lead to the house. City codes allow for only one driveway, Merker explains, so the second must have been added illegally.

In addition to the front door, the house has six other outside entrances -- two on the east side and four on the west. Officially it has only three bedrooms and is zoned for a single family. Its inhabitants are out, but Merker claims that as many as five different families have lived in it at the same time. Some left their trash behind. Strewn in the grass on either side of the house are a rusted old stove, a two-foot-high pile of plastic gallon water jugs, a stack of weathered wooden panels Merker says were once part of a chicken coop. "The inspector said there was nothing wrong with it," he growls. The inspector, Miami code enforcement inspector Jean Mimy, is his nemesis.

For the past year and a half, Merker, who is president of the Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association, has monitored Jean Mimy. He has compiled a fifteen-page packet of letters and a list showing 26 houses against which, according to Mimy's own reports, the city should have issued liens because the property owners have not complied with the law. Merker has also documented thirteen examples of Mimy's alleged failure to sanction illegal construction. He has repeatedly challenged city officials to address what he considers negligence and to investigate what he describes as "possible criminal wrongdoings of Inspector Mimy." Twice he has presented lists like this to Mimy's superiors, demanding action. "I've been working almost a second job trying to clean the neighborhood," he grumbles.

But instead of getting cooperation, he says, in the last few months he has been stonewalled. For example, this past October, when Merker demanded an investigation, an assistant city attorney told him to report Mimy to the Miami Police Department's internal affairs unit. Only after Merker submitted a complaint did he discover that internal affairs investigates just police officers.

The neighborhood association has achieved some measure of success, however. Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith, who oversees the city's code enforcement office, has met twice with homeowners, listened to their complaints, and redoubled efforts to close down the illegal apartments and clean trash from the streets. Smith himself has patrolled the neighborhood in a city vehicle and on foot, as has Fedy Vieux-Brierre, Mimy's immediate supervisor.

But those officials have returned to their desks and their busy schedules, while Mimy operates on his own -- with Merker keeping watch. He alleges that Mimy has retaliated against him by issuing him frivolous citations, such as a $250 fine for failing to hire a private garbage hauler, as the city requires, for the apartment buildings Merker owns. "I provide Inspector Mimy with a copy of my waste-hauler contract. He rolls the copy in a ball and throws it on the floor," Merker wrote in a November 11 letter to city officials. "I'm still trying to get this cleared."

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