By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The late-day sun makes the cracked streets and crumbling buildings of Overtown look faded and flattened out in the yellow light and hot dense air. With a deceptively casual glance, Miss Regina reads the groupings of men loitering 50 yards away on front steps and sidewalks along NW Fifteenth Street. They're so obviously idle they look like extras in some minimalist movie, shot on scratched film.
"They're just waitin' for me to move out," Miss Regina announces with a toss of her head. She's standing at the tall spike fence in front of her apartment building, on the inside looking out. "Then they'll come back and take it over." The men, whom Regina and her neighbors generally refer to as dope boys, dealt drugs from their building for years.
Tanya, pushing a stroller out the front door of her apartment, nods silently at Regina's remark. The smooth oval faces of both Tanya and her month-old son are devoid of expression. Two of Tanya's other children are somewhere else, playing with their friends, all of them no doubt coated with sticky grime but hopefully not with the sewage that leaks onto the ground around the building. Her eleven-year-old son is across the street, shyly observing the indolent men, who are not much older than he is.
Regina and Tanya are among the last remaining residents of the Crispus Attucks apartments at 1445 NW First Ave. By August 10 every last mother and child was scheduled to have moved out, and perhaps by then the landlord would have begun boarding up the doors and windows. More likely, though, the dope dealers would have come back to their old haunts.
This 40-year-old, turquoise-painted building is named for the first man to die in the American Revolution, the runaway slave Crispus Attucks. The condition and reputation of the building are less noble. This past April the City of Miami's Nuisance Abatement Board (NAB) declared the property a public nuisance and ordered it vacated and shuttered. The April 30 closure order issued by the NAB calls the 27-unit Crispus Attucks "a drug haven and the source of heroin in the Overtown community." The spare description barely hinted at the reality that's confronted daily by the residents, all single mothers and their children.
They might have gone on in the same way indefinitely, a community of women locked in a nightmarish arrangement with men who make their living in Overtown's economic mainstay: drugs. About three years ago the building ceased to be a housing complex and essentially became a 24-hour department store run by drug dealers. Each group of dealers had its own specialty and its own section of the three-story property, and more than enough weapons to settle the occasional misunderstanding.
They operated in eight-hour shifts. "We're talking about ten different dealers, and each dealer has his lieutenants," explains Regina. "See, heroin was to your west. You got marijuana on the second floor in front. Crack was on my side. You know what they call this place on the street? New Jack." Translation: new money, drug money. "We had twelve other mothers here and drug dealers running around with MAC 10s." Police, guns drawn, would crash through the apartments at all hours in pursuit of dealers and robbers while the women and children scampered out of their path.
And then there were the rats, roaches, and ants; the broken toilets, stoves, and cabinets, and walls rotting with mildew; the trash heaps and ankle-deep sewage right there in the front yard. Those conditions the residents blamed for their children's scabies, ringworm, even lead poisoning. The building's exterior lights didn't work for a year and a half. At night the only way a woman could tell if someone was approaching her door was if Jacque, the communal watchdog, barked from her post on the third-floor balcony.
They would have continued existing in the middle -- afraid of the drug dealers and the police alike, watching their living conditions deteriorate and not even knowing whether help was available -- if Miss Regina hadn't decided to make an issue of it. At first she didn't know where to turn, but eventually she persuaded authorities to listen to a handful of unlearned, poor, black, single mothers to whom nobody had paid attention before. (All names in this story except Regina's have been changed.)
"We should not have to get used to that life," Regina exclaims, pointing in the air like a preacher. "We aren't going to play victim anymore." She is given to making dramatic statements that match her tall, ample physical presence. At age 42 she is among the eldest of the tenants, one reason the women began calling her Miss Regina. She is a "towner," having lived her entire life in Overtown, but unlike most of her neighbors she is educated and active in church work. Still, Regina contends she wanted only change, no big social drama, when she took on her rich and respected landlord.
"It shouldn't have been me to raise holy hell," she goes on. "The people in charge of this place should have been doing what they were supposed to. And what makes it even more difficult for us to understand is that the owner is a prominent businessman in the community. He let his own people down."