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Part-time security guard Conraad Hoever, sitting at a counter inside a small, tile-roof guardhouse on NE 50th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, watches dispassionately as a vintage white Honda turns toward him. The car slows, stops, doubles back toward Biscayne, and then continues northward on the boulevard. There goes another one. This scenario has been repeating ever since this past February, when security gates were installed in Miami's prosperous Morningside neighborhood.
"I wouldn't say it happens all the time," Hoever remarks, as a gray Jaguar sedan nears the white crossing gates. "But I see it regularly. A lot of people have the impression the street is now closed, although of course it's not. These are public streets. We can't prevent anyone from going where they want to go. We can't even ask people where they're going. All we do is write down the make of car and license plate number." The Jaguar nears, and the gates promptly rise to let it through. "Residents of Morningside get access cards," Hoever explains, "so they don't have to stop." A cheer erupts from the mini-TV he usually brings along on his weekend shifts; the Heat is about to edge past the Knicks.
Morningside, like just about every other residential area on the increasingly fashionable Upper Eastside, has barricaded itself against the outside world -- the world west of Biscayne, where drug dealers, prostitutes, and burglars lurk. Every road leading into Morningside is now blocked, either by landscaped barricades (mostly installed during the early Nineties) or by security gates at 50th and 58th streets (which began operating February 25). "The guard gates aren't to keep anybody out," says Melanie Broeker, a former president of the Morningside Civic Association. "They're only to deter individuals who are looking to conduct criminal activities in the neighborhood. By taking down license plates of visitors to the neighborhood, this gives police some kind of reference if and when there are criminal activities conducted."
It's too early to tell whether crime is down. But the gates, which cost residents more than $1 million for the first two years and $252,000 each succeeding year, clearly are scaring off habitués of Morningside Park (where boating facilities are now being added). And that is causing angry reactions from several corners, especially from the law-abiding residents west of Biscayne who have to travel miles to the next-nearest public park, and still further to one with facilities comparable to Morningside's. The park, bordered on the east by the gently lapping waters of Biscayne Bay, covers about 42 acres. Palm, gumbo-limbo, mangrove, and banyan trees surround a baseball/soccer field, tennis and basketball courts, a swimming pool, and a fancy children's playground.
Exacerbating the discontent is a troubling racial issue: Morningside's population is overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, while the majority of the westside residents who have traditionally flocked to the park are black and working class. Several people who attended an Upper Eastside community meeting on April 12 recall the comments of a black woman who complained the guard gates made her feel as if she were subject to apartheid.
Most community activists use more conciliatory language, but they don't mince words. "Right now Morningside Park is being used like a private club," asserts Leonie Hermantin, executive director of the Haitian American Foundation Inc. (HAFI), a nonprofit organization on Biscayne and NE 66th Street offering social-service programs to at-risk schoolchildren and low-income adults. "Even though it's a public place, the park is de facto blocked off. The guard stations are intimidating, and people have no idea what will happen when they drive up. Kids on the west side who are supposed to benefit from it are in essence shut off from the park."
Until recently there were two signs on the east side of Biscayne with arrows pointing to Morningside Park. These days nothing is posted at the guardhouses to indicate that one of the city's most beautiful parks is still open to the public. Miami's parks department director Alberto Ruder pledges to put up four new signs on Biscayne. But red tape will slow the process. "The city is submitting an application to the Florida Department of Transportation to put two signs on Biscayne in each direction," Ruder affirmed last week. "Biscayne is a state right-of-way, so we have to get approval from the state. It's feasible and the right thing to do." Ruder adds the signs will cost approximately $200 apiece.
Activists contend that's not enough. They believe many people headed for the park, particularly immigrants, will continue to be intimidated unless they're properly informed there's nothing to fear. Jean-Claude Nicolas, a photographer who lives in an apartment building overlooking the north Morningside guardhouse, says he tried about a month ago to help some people understand the situation. "I saw this car with a Haitian family inside," Nicolas recounts, "and it drove up and then turned around, so I called to them and asked them if there was a problem. And they said they were going to the park but didn't realize it was blocked off now. So I just told them: 'Go on, it's not closed. That guard just takes down your license number. This is a public street and don't let that stop you.' And then I realized I hadn't been seeing as many folks down there during the weekends. There used to be so many families and kids and people out there enjoying the natural beauty."