Park Raving Mad

This group of single moms thought it would be easy to revive their minipark. Then they encountered Miami's finest bureaucracy.

By Christmas 1999 the minipark had a new padlocked gate. (Johnson became the guardian of the gate key and keeps the park closed until afternoon hours.) The overgrown jungle east of the basketball court had been trimmed and landscaped. And, best of all, a sandy playground had appeared: A big bright fire engine with a slide was stationed beside a jungle gym and a seesaw, and on the side were three ponies on springs. It was beautiful.

Yet the lights didn't always come on at dusk, the concertina wire still posed a danger (although the neighboring property owner had been cited), and there were no benches, tables, or a water fountain. At a January advisory board meeting, parks department staffers gave a copy of a city purchase order to Perry as assurance the items had been ordered. But residents found most official responses evasive. "They told us we should be happy we got a nice playground," Johnson says. "We are happy. But if y'all promised us those other things, then we should get those, too."

"In March I talked to [a parks official], asking him why we didn't have the water fountain," relates Deborah Green. "That's when I heard that tone in his voice, like he wasn't listening to us anymore, like we should be glad to get what we got. That's when I stopped believing them."

The Allapattah Mini Park is a great place for kids to play, though Elaine Johnson and her neighbors still don't have a place to sit and watch
Steve Satterwhite
The Allapattah Mini Park is a great place for kids to play, though Elaine Johnson and her neighbors still don't have a place to sit and watch

Twice following that encounter a group made surprise visits to parks department offices to try to learn the project's status. "We've constantly asked for information," Perry says. When she requested an update on the $18,000 grant, she heard only that the money "had not been released."

By May the items on the purchase order still hadn't appeared in the park, so Perry decided to inquire at the city's procurement office. "They said that order went in on January 27," she recounts. Two tables, five benches, and a grill, plus labor, came to a little more than $3000. When Perry checked with the city, she was informed the purchase order was incorrect. The price really was $5000, so the department had to wait until extra money was available.

"Finally I just threw my hands up in the air," Perry sighs. "I said, You know what? I don't care about their money. We know what we want and how much it costs. We'll do it without their help. We don't know enough about the system; it's too easy for them to lie to us."

As for the shelter, the residents hadn't heard from Leon Leonard in months and no longer were counting on his help. The group also had given up on Commissioner Gort. But Gort says the advisory board was mistaken in thinking his office wasn't doing its part. "Everybody would love to have a neighborhood park in their back yard," he observes with some exasperation. "Within two blocks you have Curtis Park with five shelters. That's not so far. We made the commitment [to fix the minipark], but they need to realize it takes time."

Having decided time was not on their side, the advisory board began seeking volunteer assistance this past spring. Florida International University architecture students drew up several plans for the shelter. A local office of the county's Community Action Agency agreed to provide materials and a construction manager (as required by building codes). Neighbors and art students said they'd be delighted to paint hopscotch outlines and other colorful artwork on the pavement by the basketball court.

Now it turns out the volunteer work and contributions may not be crucial. Two weeks ago, unbeknownst to the Allapattah folks (and seven months after they first appeared before the Safe Neighborhood Parks board), the city commission approved the long-awaited $18,000 grant. Finally, says parks director Ruder, the money can be put to use, probably to build the shelter. He's just drafted a letter to the advisory board explaining this. The Gwen Cherry residents apparently had never understood the convoluted process involved in getting their hands on the funds.

Ruder insists his office, urged on by the Allapattah advisory board, has accomplished a lot in ten months. "We didn't even have one penny dedicated to that park," he says. "We started moving money from other places. We had to move our schedule to that park from other parks, and we delivered on our promise to have the playground in by Christmas."

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