The Apartment Building from Hell

Pay a visit to Overtown's New Jack complex, where drug dealers rule, kids play in sewage, and multimillionaire owner Garth Reeves makes excuses

She is referring to publisher, banker, and long-time civil rights activist Garth Reeves. The 80-year-old Reeves is publisher emeritus of the Miami Times, the black-oriented weekly newspaper his father founded in 1923. He is also majority owner of Peoples National Bank of Commerce, and has extensive residential and commercial property holdings in Miami-Dade County. These include at least one other rental apartment building, in Liberty City. More than $10,000 in delinquent property taxes are due on that building, which is currently vacant and has been cited by City of Miami code inspectors for being an unsafe structure.

But only the New Jack has come before the Nuisance Abatement Board, its condition aired publicly in televised hearings over the course of almost a year. "I don't know what was behind this thing," Reeves protests, claiming he put far more money into the building than he got out of it during thirteen years of ownership. "I don't know what [the tenants] were trying to prove, what they were trying to do to me. I have a reputation in this community. They weren't anybody but poor people; I think they were being used [by others who wanted the building closed]."

Both Reeves and Gladstone Cooper, the property manager Reeves hired more than a year ago, have insisted they've kept the building in the best shape possible. They blame the tenants for breaking what was fixed and the police for not controlling the crime. Most of all they blame the suffocating reality of Overtown, the poverty and drugs. Reeves estimates he spent at least $3000 per month on repairs and maintenance, but now the building is up for sale. "I'm not going to be a landlord anymore," he asserts. "I refuse to try to solve the homeless or drug problem or the plight of the poor. I've been living here 80 years and I'm through with championing causes." He has little choice now but to give up on Crispus Attucks. To put the property back on the rental market would require some $50,000 worth of renovations, and the federal Section 8 housing contract that once guaranteed Reeves plentiful rental income has been canceled.

Crackheads fired up in the meter room
Crackheads fired up in the meter room
Nearby crack dealers worked from a serve hole in a vacant second-floor apartment
Nearby crack dealers worked from a serve hole in a vacant second-floor apartment

Reeves, a multimillionaire who still works out of his office at the Miami Times, has received numerous awards for his contributions to civil rights and civic causes. Recently he's been involved in efforts to commemorate the history of Virginia Key Beach, formerly the only beach in Dade County where blacks were allowed to swim. In 1959 Reeves was among a group staging a "wade-in" at Crandon Park that led to the desegregation of the area's beaches.

Those who lived at Crispus Attucks find it absurd that Reeves is devoting himself to this long-ago cause when he has failed to maintain minimal standards of living for his tenants, who are also black. "He was just down there appearing on Virginia Beach," notes Alexis, who lived next door to Regina on the third floor before moving out this past week. "Why didn't he ever show up here and see what we had to put up with?"

The tattered, velour-covered sofa and armchairs in Alexis's two-bedroom apartment smelled of mildew, and there were deep holes in the kitchen floor and wall. The ceiling in the children's bedroom was showing water stains even after being replastered a year ago. Heavy rains in August 1998 turned the roof into a sieve, and most of the apartments were extensively damaged. Reeves put up several of the tenants in Biscayne Boulevard motels while the roof was fixed, but some apartments, the women say, continued to leak when it rained.

By the time Alexis and her four children finally found a new place, the closet in the children's bedroom had been unusable for months. Clothes were piled on the floor; there was no place to hang them and the closet doors had been pulled off the hinges and leaned against the walls. The window looking on to the balcony had a large, two-year-old hole in the glass. Alexis had nailed a board over the inside of the frame.

The view from that window, if it could be seen, would be of a dirt front yard, shaded by a thick black olive tree. Behind the front gate sits an ancient rusted barbecue grill and two metal poles that look like the base for a bus bench. Scattered on the ground along the north side of the yard are scraps of white tissue, debris from the last sewage leak.

Alexis's two eldest children are thirteen and eleven, both slim girls with huge round eyes like their mother's. But while 33-year-old Alexis is fast-spoken and edgy, the girls are quiet. They would sit patiently during summer afternoons on the pitted concrete steps of New Jack as if they were waiting for the inevitable: just a matter of time before they'd be pregnant, giving birth, and pregnant again.

For years no men lived at New Jack, at least not for long. Only young boys. The women knew that once their sons reached adolescence they'd be gone, one way or another. "They're either dead or locked up or working for drug dealers," Regina declares dryly. "They're all gonna die. If you play the game or associate with people who play the game, you will die. I tell the mothers every day: 'Try to keep a good picture of what your sons look like because you're gonna be taking them to the graveyard.'"

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