Park Raving Mad

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

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 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

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.

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."

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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