Land of the Rich and Home of the White

Morningside is supposed to be open to the public. So why is it closed off like a private club?

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."

Hoever, the security guard, doesn't volunteer information, but he has straightened out matters for confused motorists. "People see the security guard and think they're going to ask them questions," Hoever says. "Sometimes people pull up and ask, 'Can we no longer get to Morningside Park?' Or 'How do we get to the park?' Some don't even bother asking; they just see the guard gate and turn around."

Some Morningside residents such as Patrick McCoy, a former civic association board member, disagree that the park population is dwindling. "I personally have not noticed any change," McCoy says. "I think the park is widely used during the weekend, and now we have the unfortunate development of Jet Skis, which we never had in the past, and that certainly has increased."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ruth Adedeji and her two young children, who live on NE 62nd Street, had the playground almost to themselves. A hundred yards to the east, a few couples wandered among tree-shaded picnic tables, gazing out on the bay. The jogging trail was dotted with folks in T-shirts and sweatpants. The park's pool, tennis courts, and soccer field were unoccupied. Adedeji says she turned back when she first came upon the Morningside guard gates not long ago. "I used to come [to Morningside Park] all the time; I've been in Miami ten years," she says. "But I drove up one day and when I saw the gates up, I thought we weren't allowed to go in any more. So I passed it up. Then later I thought, This was a public park, so let me ask if I can go in. And they let me in."

Twenty yards from the playground, Michael Crawford and his wife, Vernita, were shooting hoops as their three kids and a niece chased one another back and forth across the basketball court. Crawford, a 30-year-old Miami native, says he practically grew up playing in Morningside Park. Now he lives on NW 100th Street and holds two jobs, one of them with a landscaping company that often works on projects in Morningside. Crawford, who is black, agrees the barricades and guard gates probably keep some people from coming, but he isn't bothered. "Used to be, man, you couldn't find a place to park," Crawford muses. "Sometimes fights would break out. A lot of homes were being burglarized. The crime kind of took people away [from the park]." He takes off his baseball cap and runs the back of his wrist across his forehead. Behind him Vernita is adjusting their Rollerblading younger daughter's neon-bright kneepads. "They have the right to protect their neighborhood," Crawford concludes. "It's a lot safer environment now."

A few blocks away, a navy BMW stops alongside Conraad Hoever's guardhouse. The car is packed with young, sportily dressed black men who are looking at him questioningly. He doesn't try to explain, just motions the BMW forward so he can see the license plate. He writes down the number and pushes the gate-lifting button, and the car glides down the street. "Probably going to the park to play in a soccer game," he speculates. "They have 'em most Sundays. I recognize a lot of the guys who come every week."

Hoever emigrated to the United States ten years ago from Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). He now speaks perfect English, substitute-teaches during the week, and is applying to law school. Until his full-time teaching certificate comes through, he says, he's grateful to have this weekend security job. "I used to live in a gated community," Hoever remarks, stroking his close-cropped beard. A silver badge is pinned to his short-sleeve khaki shirt; an arm patch reads Dade Line Security (a black-owned subcontractor). "But you had to tell the guard who you were going to visit, and then he would call [the residents] to ask permission to let the person in. Here, we have to let everybody go through. We're not really deterring anybody. I don't know why they want to waste their money on this."

Realtor Norah Schaefer, a Morningside resident, says some area homes have increased by five times in price over the past couple of decades. But the gates, she believes, are not the reason; it's a general shortage of housing. "I think guard gates keep us in the running as far as property values," Schaefer says, "because everybody else has them."

kathy.glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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