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
Off South Dixie Highway in Naranja, down at the southern end of Miami-Dade County, is the winter home of a low-rent traveling carnival. On a football-size field, amusement rides in spiral shapes and bright colors stand jumbled together in various states of disrepair. A row of buses and the trucks of concessionaires flank a far fence.
It's a sunny day in November, and the carnival is packing up to head to Puerto Rico. Workers move giant crates with backhoes and tinker with attractions. On an adjacent lot a half-dozen identical, decrepit concrete houses intermingle with trailer homes rooted to old foundation slabs. The houses and the slabs line up barracks-style, neatly divided in two rows with a street down the middle; these are temporary accommodations for barkers and ride operators, though the buildings themselves predate the carnival.
Back in the 1960s, a migrant-farmworker camp occupied the entire property. Today the fields of tomatoes, pole beans, and strawberries have receded to the south, and there is little but dilapidated buildings to recall the bustling community of workers that existed here nearly 40 years ago.
Bored, raggedy carnies idle on the doorsteps. Their attention is focused on a woman walking down the road between the buildings. They have never seen her before. Despite their stares she seems oblivious to their gawking. The woman is attractive, her ethnicity hard to place. A diminutive figure standing only about five feet tall, her skin is a creamy coffee color. Faint smile lines extend from her eyes, topping high cheekbones. The woman's most striking physical trait, though, is her hair. Thick and black, it pours down past her waist. Not European, black, or Hispanic, at first glance she could be from someplace in the Mediterranean. She appears, in fact, to be Native American. It's not unusual for the secret of her origins to follow her like a lingering question mark.
The woman is Eve Marie Smith. She spent her formative years here when it was still a migrant camp. It is only the second time she has returned in the nearly 35 years since leaving. In the interim Smith has fashioned a career as an Internet trailblazer, Website developer, and civic activist.
A few weeks after her visit to the migrant camps, she will conquer a wide swath of South America's cyberspace. Over a period of days this past December, the 39-year-old Smith methodically captured hundreds of Web addresses that include the names of ten Latin-American nations as well as their major cities. She's added generic key words like apartment, guide, travel, and real estate to create domain names such as www.Hotels-Chile.com and www.BuenosAiresTravel.com. Smith grabbed the names in three languages: Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
Smith's South American domains are new additions to an Internet kingdom she has assembled over the past several years. Among her holdings are addresses of greater relevance locally, including Miami-Dade.com, MiamiDade.com, Miami-Dade.net, and MiamiDade.net, along with countless other variations of the name. If domain names are real estate, Smith owns the metaphorical Boardwalk and Park Place; she has a virtual monopoly of many of the county's best cybertitles. Indeed the names could make her a major player in cyberspace -- and potentially the plaintiff in Internet property lawsuits as courts assert control over this new frontier.
Yet chances are that if you've come in contact with Eve Smith, it is not because of her business endeavors, but through her volunteer work. Smith devotes much of her time to grassroots community activism. She has placed her Internet skills at the service of some of Miami-Dade County's most important civic struggles, including municipal incorporation, elimination of political corruption, accessing public records, and freedom of speech. Her most notable effort to date is MiamiCircle.org, a Website credited by many with being instrumental in rescuing the ancient downtown archeological relic from destruction.
Until now Smith has kept a low profile. But convinced that her latest activities will bring her notoriety whether she wants it or not, Smith agreed to several interviews with New Times. What emerged is a portrait of an intensely private woman whose desire to preserve her privacy has made her an enigma to many. She also is fiercely determined, both in her business dealings and in her commitment to promoting government accountability.
The origins of Smith's social conscience and her ambition began here in the migrant camp, where she spent the first five years of her life. Her memories from this place are of violence and want. She tells of witnessing the attempted murder of her uncle when a gunman fired through an open window into their crowded home. Smith and her siblings were forbidden by their mother to leave the house while the adults worked in the fields. As an added precaution, she remembers her mother dressing the girls in two pairs of pants held extra-tight by safety pins in case someone tried to rape them.
It was at the camp that she says she had her first cognizant thought. Smith believes it happened when she was about the age of three, while playing with other children. "I was very, very hungry that day," she recalls. Although there were bologna sandwiches, they were off-limits to all but the adults.
For the first time, Smith comprehended her situation.
"I had a moment where I looked around me, and I became aware of the poverty," she says. "I remember standing there looking at all my friends and being so hungry, and I thought to myself, When I grow up things are going to be different. I am going to make them different."
In the middle of December 1998, a friend of Eve Smith called to tell her about a circle built in limestone, found by the Miami River. The property on which the circle sat was owned by a developer who had plans to destroy the discovery and build a high-rise. Smith was busy and didn't pay much attention. She was working on a Website, Miami-Dade.com, which she put online January 1, 1999. (The site is a resource guide of community Websites.) Still the phone calls from her friends about the circle wouldn't stop. In February she decided to check with the domain registry and saw that MiamiCircle.org was available.
"I loved the name," she recalls. It occurred to her that it could be an excellent communication vehicle, though she wasn't quite sure how she was going to use it. "I wanted to see the circle preserved," Smith says. "I felt then and today a very deep bond with the site."
Shortly after purchasing the name, she called Becky Matkov, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, to volunteer use of the Website pro bono. "When she first called me and told me, 'I'm offering my Website,' I thought, What's the catch?" laughs Matkov.
This simple phone call resulted in grassroots activism for the cyber era, pushing the boundaries of both communication and citizen participation.
Matkov says people were attracted to the circle for many different reasons, but the one thing they shared in common was their desire for news. The preservationist agreed to e-mail Smith information, and the first Webpage went up late in the evening on February 9. In the center of the first Webpage floated an almost otherworldly nighttime photo of the circle. The Website also included an online petition to save the site, other photographs of the relic, a list of upcoming events, and news articles. The next morning Smith got a call from CNN. She declined to be interviewed, saying she was just the Webmaster, and sent the reporters to Matkov.
Friday night she checked the traffic counter, which records the number of hits to a site. "I thought something was wrong," she remembers. "People were just pouring into [MiamiCircle.org]." That night she recalls staying up until 5:00 a.m. watching the nearly 350 visitors per hour. They came despite the fact that the site had not been advertised or even listed on any Internet search engines.
By Monday Smith claims she was getting 12,000 hits per day. She had made the mistake of posting her phone number, and reporters and the simply curious called her from all over the world. She got even more calls after CNN mentioned the site on the air.
"To this day I don't answer that phone," she says ruefully.
Interest in the Miami Circle continued to grow. On January 29 UFO conspiracy theorist Richard Hoagland (see New Times, "The Hoagland Files," March 11, 1999) went on Art Bell's national radio program on WINZ-AM (940). Within three weeks the county commission would vote 11-1 to begin eminent domain proceedings to take the land. During the critical weeks leading up to the vote, MiamiCircle.org came into its own.
On February 15, 1999, a picture appeared on the front page of the Miami Heraldthat showed a local activist on Brickell Avenue holding a sign reading, "Check the Web: www.MiamiCircle.org." People visited the Website to see what was going on and where the next circle meeting would be. Before official meetings the phone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses of politicians were posted. At one point two days before, Smith received reports the server for the mayor's office had crashed under the weight of urgent e-mails from around the world.
Matkov describes saving the circle in glowing terms. "I didn't really participate in the Sixties," she says. "But I got a sense of what it was like to be totally involved in something bigger than yourself, where you were so energized that you would forget to eat. It was saving something that we felt was irreplaceable, saving it from man's folly." She believes that for Smith, whom she characterizes as a person with a lot of faith and "a believer in miracles," it was "a spiritual crusade."
Smith agrees the circle soon took on a greater meaning for her. Until the vote Smith lived at her computer. She only slept between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., she says, simply trying to handle all the incoming e-mail. "She is very tiny to be such a dynamo," Matkov says of Smith's vigil. "I have tremendous respect for her. She did a great service with this site."
Reflecting on the e-mail she received during that time, Smith marvels at how the circle seemed to touch people from different nations, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The concern and desire to preserve the circle spanned the globe. "It's not just a Native American thing," she insists. "It's a human thing."
Fearful that the developer might destroy the Tequesta-created relic before its future could be ensured, Smith and other activists devised a system on the Website. If the words code red appeared on MiamiCircle.org it meant activists should rush to the circle. "If you saw a code red it meant 'Bodies count. Get to the bridge,'" Smith explains.
They only used code red once, on February 14, when a television news truck showed up at 10:15 p.m. to do a standup at the circle. The usual crowd had already gone home, leaving behind two volunteers to watch the site. One of them called Smith on his cell phone, and she put an advisory on the Website to turn out supporters. "It was important to show that people were willing to be there at 11:00 at night," she says. Within five minutes 30 people had arrived. Within fifteen minutes 50 people were there to show television viewers the depth of their support for the circle.
The response stunned her. "That's when it became clear what a powerful tool I had at my fingertips," she declares. It is a power Smith insists she takes very seriously. "I had always been keenly aware of the responsibility I have to provide credible information and direction," she maintains.
Smith refused to commercialize the site, although she had opportunities to do so. Yet not everything about the struggle to save the circle or her involvement is quite as uplifting. When it became apparent money would be needed to buy the land around the circle, Smith and others formed a nonprofit fundraising organization with the same name as the Website. The effort ended in a power struggle. "I think she backed off when there was some dissension," conjectures Matkov.
She is reluctant to talk about it now but Smith did give an interview to the Wall Street Journal last August on the subject. In the article she described a meeting on April 15, 1999, when some of the supporters demanded ownership of the Website. She characterized the move as "an attempted coup d'état" to take over the nonprofit and MiamiCircle.org. The organization dissolved acrimoniously after the meeting, its mission aborted. Smith kept the Website.
Smith's climb out of poverty came suddenly but not without difficulty. Born in Naples in 1960, she has no recollection of her natural father, who died around the time of her birth. Her mother took the family to the farm fields of South Dade that same year. Five years later, when the migrant camp was condemned, the family moved again, this time to a chicken farm on the other side of South Dixie Highway. When Smith was eight years old, her mother gave her up for adoption. She refuses to talk about her adoptive family or the years she spent with them.
As soon as she could, Smith embarked on a destructive party lifestyle. "I woke up every day and slowly destroyed myself," she recalls in a quiet voice as the car she is in drives away from the migrant camp.
Yet she also can laugh about some of her escapades during this period. One day while driving down U.S. 1 in the Keys, she sent her car sailing into the Gulf of Mexico. By some miracle the electric passenger window was open. "I was a drowned rat, but I got out," she says.
In another alcoholic delirium, she became convinced the world was about to end. "I was absolutely freaked because I could not decide what to wear," she says, laughing. "The world was coming to an end and I had to be decked out, baby."
Smith took her last drink in 1988, after experiencing a moment of clarity following a near-fatal illness. She refuses to go into specifics but it seems clear that along with her epiphany came a spiritual awakening. "It's like I've lived two lives in one," she marvels.
After her illness she worked as an office manager for a number of different companies. She also studied toward a communications degree on a full scholarship, first at Miami-Dade Community College and then for a semester at the University of Miami.
In 1996 Smith began to ponder seriously the question of what to do with her life. The Internet, with its flexibility and promise of continual growth, seemed tailor-made for her. "I saw the lifestyle and the opportunity," she says. "I saw that I could be my own boss and have my own hours. I could work anywhere in the world that I wanted to." She decided to concentrate on Website development. The creativity attracted her, she says. So Smith taught herself HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the code developed to create Webpages. She established a Webpage design firm, but the budding businesswoman became convinced there could be more lucrative uses for the medium. By January 1998 she had begun an intensive study of the moneymaking opportunities in cyberspace. The research led her to Internet domain names.
An Internet domain name is an address, a location in the vast nothingness of cyberspace. Usually the name begins with www. (for World Wide Web) followed by the actual address, and then .com, .net, or .org, which signify commercial, network, or organization respectively. Until recently Internic, a nonprofit organization, had an exclusive contract in the United States to distribute and manage domain names. Now under a new government procedure, several for-profit companies can register names. Despite the competition the price has remained fairly stable: It costs $70 for the first two years and $35 each year thereafter. Failure to pay the fee results in forfeiture of the name.
By the year 2001, it is expected there will be 100 million domain names registered, although some of them no doubt will be challenged in court. Currently new names are being registered at about one every ten seconds. If the goal of a Website is to have people visit it, a good name takes on added importance. With the commercial potential of the Internet expanding daily, a well-placed name can be extremely valuable.
Smith realized that Internet domain names are considered real estate property. Just like real estate, she knew it was all about location. "I decided to concentrate on certain names that are considered premium," she explains. She concluded the area that would be safest from regulation in the future would be geographic names. "How could you trademark or copyright the name of a city? You can't," she says. And there would always be a demand for it, she thought. To make the most impact, she would focus on one region. The biggest return would come from the largest area, a megalopolis being at the top of the list, she says. Unfortunately all of the variations of the domain name for Miami-Dade were taken, not by a slow-witted county bureaucracy that had pushed for the name change in a 1997 special referendum, but by private individuals.
Smith refused to walk away from her dream. For months she would check Internic to see if the names had opened up. Slowly, improbably, one by one, they did. "I thought it would be a miracle to get one, and ended up getting all of them," she exclaims. Smith soon collected scores of names, the exact number of which she refuses to reveal. She says she's not particularly interested in selling most of them. Rather she plans to license, lease, and build on her sites.
Smith calls herself an Internet domain broker. Some claim she is a "cybersquatter" because she hoards domain names. It's an appellation she disputes. In recent legislation Congress defined cybersquatting as trafficking in a domain name identical or confusingly similar to a trademarked name, she notes. (The October 1999 bill assesses damages against those who in bad faith register a domain name that is too similar to an existing trademark.) All of her names are either generic or locations, and are not tied to a specific company or person. She chose the names after a careful study of the most popular Internet Websites. Similar research led her to conclude it was the perfect moment in which to make a run on premium names for South America.
But her monopolization of domain names, particularly locations, raises a variety of issues. Is it fair for one person to have so many names? There is always the possibility that government could decide the names belong to the public. Smith believes this is unlikely though, because dot.coms were created specifically for commercial use. Ultimately it is likely the courts will determine this issue.
In the fast-paced and changing world of cyberspace, it's a crapshoot whether Smith's names will be worth anything at all. Any number of unknown events are possible. New domains like dot.biz and dot.inc could dilute the value of the dot.coms. But if recent sale prices for premium domain names such as autos.com ($2.2 million), WallStreet.com ($1.03 million), and Business.com ($7.5 million) are any indication, Smith might very well garner substantial profits.
Even if Smith's holdings don't make millions in the future, her domain monopoly of the county's name is a powerful tool. A fact the county itself has been slow to grasp.
Jane Gentile loves to tell the tale of how she met Eve Smith.
One Sunday in early August 1999, Gentile, a real estate agent and community activist, decided to write a letter to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, urging him to focus on neighborhood beautification as a way to boost the local economy. Gentile included her name, phone number, and address on the missive. Following a link through a Miami Herald Website, she e-mailed it to the county executive. The letter came back marked undeliverable. So she changed the address and forwarded it to mayor@Miami-Dade.com.
"About an hour later, I get a call from a sweet little voice saying, 'I think you got the wrong site,'" Gentile says, laughing. It was Smith. The two talked on the phone for three hours, developing a friendship in the process.
Gentile, a militant proponent of incorporation for her North Miami-Dade community Country Club Lakes, ends her story in the following way: "[Smith] responded to a letter to her Website within one hour. Four months later I am still waiting for a response from the mayor." (Gentile prefaces the tale by proposing Smith should be mayor of Miami-Dade County. But the self-declared Webhead emphatically insists she will never run for public office.)
Gentile's letter was not the only e-mail destined for the county that Smith had received. The day after Smith added e-mail to the Internet links on the Miami-Dade.com Website in May of 1999, she found herself the recipient of two dozen e-mails for county employees. (The actual Internet address for county employees is email@example.com "I thought it was pretty wild," she comments. She wrote short notes in reply, explaining that they had the wrong address. In return she got messages disputing her. "People were really baffled, and they started arguing with me," she remembers.
The e-mail continued and she grew worried. "I became very alarmed because of the type of e-mail I was receiving," she says. "It was personal stuff and legal documents." Smith made a point never to download information. But in order to differentiate between her legitimate mail and that of the county, she had to read the message text. "I was concerned," she says. "I didn't want the police showing up at my doorstep, accusing me of hacking through county servers."
She believes messages with errors in the address are defaulting directly to her Website. The problem continues to this day.
Toward the end of last May, she sent an e-mail to the county's Information and Technology Department (ITD) and called them in the hopes something could be done. (Smith provided to New Times examples of the errant e-mail, including one from ITD, which handles county computers.) Smith believed at the very least officials could put an advisory on their Website or post a memo to employees informing them of the confusion. But several e-mails and phone calls failed to elicit a response from ITD. Finally in late July she got a call back.
Smith says she was told there was nothing that could be done. "We didn't have any technical problems," says Judy Zito, Webmaster for Miami-Dade County. "It was obviously people typing [Miami-Dade.com] by mistake."
Oddly enough Zito recalls the county had the opportunity to buy Miami-Dade.com from a previous owner. She cannot remember the price but says the offer, which was received in a correspondence, was rejected as too costly. When asked for documentation, a county spokesperson says no such correspondence exists and that Zito is mistaken. The spokesperson, Rhonda Barnett, suggests information about the offer is an "urban legend."
One consequence of Smith's sobriety was more time to indulge in a passion for politics. Ever the pragmatist, she passed on volunteering for the 1988 presidential campaign, convinced her efforts wouldn't make a difference. Instead that August Smith scoured the newspaper for a local politician with whom she could identify.
"I did it very systematically," she recalls. She chose to help a novice Democrat named Tom Easterly in his improbable bid to win election for state representative for District 118 against incumbent Republican Bob Starks. Easterly had vowed not to accept any contributions over $100. Starks raised more than $100,000. The Democrat, a successful insurance agent, ended up spending about $60,000 on the campaign, most of it his own money.
Although Starks claimed 250 volunteers, for most of the campaign Easterly only had one: Smith. Until the final weeks, she worked alone and obsessively. Smith remembers calling undecided voters repeatedly and later roping her friends into the struggle. In addition to going door to door for Easterly, she parked herself on Kendall Drive with an American flag, a poster of her candidate, and a boat horn to try to raise awareness.
When the votes were counted on election day, Easterly led Stark by 215 votes. After two recounts the final tally showed Easterly over Starks by eleven votes. "That was my intro into poli-sci 101," Smith remarks.
Toward the end of his two-year term as a representative, Smith claims Easterly called her for help on a bid for the state Senate. She never returned his call. "What had he done as state rep? Nothing," she answers her own question.
Smith has since supported several candidates, but perhaps her most noteworthy campaign involved another underdog: County Commissioner Katy Sorenson. Smith volunteered for Sorenson's first campaign when the commissioner successfully challenged Larry Hawkins in 1994. "Eve was a big help on the campaign," remembers Sorenson. "She brought in a lot of volunteers."
Today, after more than a decade of political involvement, Smith has become more cynical. "Democrat, Republican, it's all the same color -- green," she says disgustedly.
Looking for a new route for her activism, she turned to cyberspace.
On August 15, 1999, Smith launched her latest Website, MiaFla.com. The site strives to be a comprehensive look at Miami-Dade politics from a grassroots perspective. It also is a fascinating experiment in local activism. Through Smith's many contacts in the community, her friends have begun to feed her information to put on the site.
In a short manifesto at the beginning of MiaFla.com, Smith lays out its mission. "We want to provide access of political information and opinion to all residents of Miami-Dade County.... Thus MiaFla.com plans to be your 'eyes and ears.'"
By her association with Gentile, Smith became involved in the incorporation movement, which is featured prominently on the site through a group called LINC, short for Let's Incorporate Now. LINC claims to represent sixteen different communities in unincorporated Miami-Dade County that want to form their own municipalities. Their common bond is a feeling that county government is unresponsive. They believe the only way to change this is by retaining more localized control over decisions. Rebuffed in court and threatened by powerful interests opposed to incorporation, the group's momentum has nonetheless started to build. Unhappy with the responses of politicians, their latest project, which is endorsed by Mayor Alex Penelas, calls for term limits for commissioners.
"[MiaFla.com] reaches the people who don't participate in community groups," says Bev Gerald, co-chair of LINC. "We are so lucky to have [Smith's] ability. It's information and access, and it's priceless." The site also touches on environmental and zoning issues. There is an urban beautification section, and news articles from local papers are archived. In a reader's forum she posts letters from citizens. Smith has provided links to important state statutes, county ordinances, the home-rule charter, and the U.S. Constitution. There is a long section on access to public records, including information about and links to the Citizen's Accountability Network.
Throughout it all Smith tries to present the facts without editorializing. Sometimes she includes the results of her own investigations scouring county documents available online. Her goal, she says, is to spark thought and research by others. Still one danger inherent in Websites like Smith's is that readers will fail to understand that the information often is open to interpretation; that it's not as methodically scrutinized or reviewed as academic or media sources can be.
Smith says that according to her traffic counter, the two most popular areas on MiaFla.com are the "Scandals" and "Only in Miami" sections. The former includes details on controversies such as the Los Van Van concert, along with foreign-policy decisions made by the county commission. The scandals section also contains news stories on indictments of politicians and information on the county ethics commission.
Under the "Only in Miami" heading is what she claims is the site's first major victory in putting a stop to a possible breach of governmental ethics. At the end of September 1999, Smith placed information on MiaFla.com about an item to be heard before the county commission on October 5. On that day Milton J. Wallace, twenty-year chairman of the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority, asked for a waiver of the county conflict-of-interest rules so a company he owned could bid on a three-million-dollar airport contract. His wife, a member of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust, also sought a waiver. Previously Wallace had requested a ruling by the County Ethics Commission, but when it became apparent the ethics commission would recommend against the waiver, he withdrew his request and went to the commission instead.
Smith says that after the information appeared on the Website, people called their commissioners. Wallace fell one vote short of receiving his waiver. In anger he quit the Housing Finance Authority on the spot. His wife resigned from her position as well.
Today Wallace says he is unaware of MiaFla.com. He adds that if Smith thought he didn't deserve the waiver, she was mistaken. "I feel very badly," he says. "I cannot believe that anyone who understood the picture could think there was a conflict of interest."
Despite MiaFla.com's apparent initial success, Smith made what she believes to be a troubling discovery. On August 23, 1999, a friend at the county called to inquire about a problem with the site. According to a statement Smith made to the American Civil Liberties Union, her friend previously had been able to log on from his county computer, but he now received a message stating "access forbidden." At this time Smith says her traffic counter indicated that hits to her Website from county computers had stopped.
Ramon Maury, one of her business advisors who works as a lobbyist and maintains good relations with many politicians, did his own checking. They both came to the conclusion that the county was blocking access to the site on employee computers. "It became clear that this was the only Website that had political content that was being targeted and blocked," he says.
When Smith complained to ITD, she received an unsigned e-mail from the county Webmaster. "I accessed your site and was not denied," wrote the Webmaster. "Your friends from the county may not be authorized to surf the World Wide Web. If they are authorized they should call the county's help desk to report the problem."
Smith fears that her friends at the county could suffer if it was known they read her site. Maury agrees. "The county employees that notified her about the blocking of the site are afraid of losing their jobs," he says. "People [here] can't really say what they want [to say] because of fear."
ITD Webmaster Judy Zito categorically denies the county has blocked the Website. She claims to have no problem accessing the site. "If we don't have the name of the person who is having the problem, then we don't even know what to look for," she says.
After weeks of investigation, the ACLU could not verify the blocking of the site. New Timeswas also unable to confirm the accusations. Smith insists she is not out to get anyone. "I'm not the Eve of destruction," she quips. "The only thing I am doing is expressing my inalienable rights. I find out what is going on, and I post it on the Web. All I've done is take my little American flag and signs and my blowhorn and put it up on cyberspace. That's how I perceive my role. I wanted to make a difference."
Smith is eating lunch at the South Miami-Dade eatery Lots of Lox. She dubs the place her "office." In between bites of a ham sandwich, she grows more passionate on the subject of Miami-Dade County politics and citizen participation. "Most people have a feeling of complete powerlessness," she says. "Apathy has set in. I believe each and every single one of us working and taking responsibility can and will make a difference."