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
Just a year ago the Allapattah Mini Park was so trashed that some of its neighbors didn't even know it was a park. The 18,000-square-foot property did boast a passable basketball court, but the rest of it was a treacherous, overgrown jungle, bristling with shards of glass and metal, syringes, and garbage. Drug dealers lurked in the shade.
"My kids kept saying, 'We want to go to the park,' and I'd be telling them: 'Ain't no park!'" recalls Diane McClendon, a young mother of four and resident of the Gwen Cherry Apartments on NW Nineteenth Terrace at 21st Avenue. The minipark, surrounded by a tall hurricane fence, is next door to the 70-unit public housing project.
But the place has undergone a renovation in the past six months -- doubly impressive considering the neighborhood is one of Miami's poorest and most overlooked. A colorful new playground now covers an area where litter and weeds dominated. The trees are trimmed back, a hazardous stretch of illegal concertina wire is gone, and a water fountain has just been installed.
The group of Gwen Cherry residents who spurred this improvement are mostly young, single mothers. They started from zero in every way, with no resources other than their time and persistence. Despite the progress they're not satisfied -- not yet anyway; there's a lot more work to be done on the park. They're tired of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, and they're weary of not being informed about the progress of their project. These residents, who admit to being "a little naive" when they began their campaign last August, have trooped into city offices, passed around neighborhood petitions, and made phone calls. They're still waiting for the results they expected months ago. Worse, they've come to the conclusion they're caught in a dead end of benign neglect. "We feel like we've been disrespected," opines Deborah Green, who has lived in the peach-color Gwen Cherry apartment complex for the past five years. "We've been getting the runaround."
In March 1999 the nonprofit Family Advocacy Center was established with funding from Barry University. Its broad mission was to "improve the lives of families and children in the county," and it targeted several areas with high levels of poverty. Among them was Allapattah, the neighborhood that stretches north and west of Jackson Memorial Hospital. Denise Perry, a former labor union organizer, and her co-worker, Marta Arrizabalaga, made the rounds of residents, merchants, and a host of nearby social-service providers. Gwen Cherry tenants and representatives of several agencies formed the Allapattah-Brownsville Community Advisory Board. The group's aim was to initiate improvement projects within and around the apartment complex.
Soon approximately a dozen advisory board members had elected resident Elaine Johnson to a three-year term as president and agreed upon a list of proposed improvements. Near the top was the repair of Allapattah Mini Park. Recalls Perry: "I thought, Hey, this shouldn't be real hard, and it's important to the residents. All right, let's start here."
The group had big plans: In addition to a playground, they wanted a concrete-floor shelter for after-class tutoring sessions. "We wanted it so we could have different activities in the park," explains Johnson, who directs a YMCA cheerleading program. "Even rent out the park for events. But we didn't know what we were getting into."
The advisory board meets every Wednesday evening. Last August a host of city hotshots accepted an invitation to a meeting. Among those attending were Commissioner Willy Gort and parks department director Alberto Ruder. The group inspected the park and the advisory board submitted its requests. Ruder said no city money had been set aside for the park because his office had assumed it was maintained by Miami-Dade County, which owns the Gwen Cherry apartments. He estimated a complete overhaul would cost $150,000. But, he figured, he could immediately find $30,000 by moving funds from other projects. That would kick off the renovation. The rest of the money would have to come from donations and grants.
In September the residents' advisory board made a presentation to the city commission, which approved the $30,000. Ruder agreed to install a new playground, benches, picnic tables, a drinking fountain, and a barbecue grill. He also pledged to make several repairs and maintain the grounds. The neighborhood resource officer stationed at the city's Allapattah Neighborhood Enhancement Team office, Leon Leonard, said he could help build the shelter since he also operates a construction company. "Once I get a floor plan," Leonard affirmed, "I can see about getting waivers and permits, and we can get going on that."
Not long afterward parks department officials told the residents they might be eligible for a Safe Neighborhood Parks grant of $17,500. In early November Elaine Johnson and other women from the Allapattah advisory board made a presentation before the Safe Neighborhood Parks board. They set up a display featuring snapshots of the horrible conditions at the minipark and a description of proposed improvements. "[The Safe Neighborhood Parks board] gave us a standing ovation," Denise Perry recalls. "They liked the proposal so much they gave us $18,000 instead of $17,500."
The residents were elated; they were making progress. City leaders were listening. Little did they know that $18,000 had many more channels to pass through before reaching them.