Postcards from the Edgewater

Miami's slummiest oceanfront neighborhood could be the next big thing. It could also turn into the next condo canyon.

In addition, just past the southern boundary of Edgewater, a much-anticipated performing-arts center will break ground when the county approves a contractor. A little further south developers are buying up properties to create movie and music studios. The United Teachers of Dade union currently is building offices on Biscayne Boulevard. Plans for at least one waterfront residential tower are in the works. And a few blocks past the northern border, the Design District has taken off. In 1996 New Times moved into the neighborhood. (New Times owns no property in Edgewater.) Internet startups geared toward Hispanic markets also are taking up residence.

As you drive along some of Edgewater's streets these days, you'll see beautifully restored houses on manicured lawns with SUVs and expensive foreign cars parked out front. On some blocks the upscale residences seem to be getting the upper hand over nearby dilapidated homes and apartments where, at 3:00 a.m., you can still see front doors wide open and young men lounging outside like watchmen.

Joel Rodriguez says he and his wife have tried to buy one building per year since they arrived. Unfortunately, he notes, it seems they are being priced out of the market.

Telltale sign the buidling is owned by landlord Raymond Navarro: Pay phone out front
Steve Satterwhite
Telltale sign the buidling is owned by landlord Raymond Navarro: Pay phone out front
Telltale sign the buidling is owned by landlord Raymond Navarro: Pay phone out front
Steve Satterwhite
Telltale sign the buidling is owned by landlord Raymond Navarro: Pay phone out front

Despite the real estate upswing, no one seems to know what kind of a future will be best for Edgewater. While the city has developed master plans for the nearby neighborhoods -- downtown to the south and the Design District and the Upper Eastside to the north -- it has none for Edgewater. “We haven't had a substantial involvement on the part of the residents or developers in the area pushing for it,” says Gregory Gay, an urban community planner with the city.

Perhaps the neighborhood's biggest booster is Miami Police Lt. Mario Garcia, who grew up near Edgewater and today oversees police activity in the area. He's so well-known here that some residents have taken to calling him the mayor of Edgewater.

Garcia, age 43, makes his rounds as a social worker and evangelist for renewal, as much as a policeman. On any given day he'll check in with a number of businesses. If someone is new to the neighborhood, he'll offer a welcome. He's not shy about fundraising, either, and enlists support for a host of community-building activities, mostly for children.

When he first arrived to patrol the area in 1996, he recalls, the employees at one local business on Biscayne Boulevard would sit by their window and take bets about how many johns the sidewalk prostitutes would service in a day. The city cemetery on NE Eighteenth Street and Second Avenue, where many of Miami's early civic leaders are buried, served as a sort of hooker hotel.

Garcia acknowledges city government is to blame for the deterioration here in municipal services, such as garbage removal, street maintenance, crime prevention, and code enforcement. And he recalls the hostility he faced when he came on the job. “There was a lot of mistrust and resentment,” he says, much of it left over from riots in 1988, set off after a police shooting in neighboring Wynwood.

Garcia began by encouraging residents to take part in Citizens on Patrol, which lets homeowners be seen in the company of police officers and take some ownership in local law enforcement. He invites people on ride-alongs while police conduct prostitution stings. “We've arrested football stars, judges, ministers, schoolteachers, even policemen,” he says.

He sees an Edgewater renaissance in the increased number of real estate agents who call him to ask for neighborhood crime statistics. (In five years the crime rate has dropped 48 percent, he likes to point out.) And there have been more requests for permits to close off the streets for ongoing construction.

Most days three or four prostitutes can be seen working Edgewater's main thoroughfare. Though prostitution and drug dealing continue, they are less blatant, Garcia insists. The stings have reduced the prostitutes' presence from the free-for-all it was five years ago, and more than 40 crackhouses have been demolished. Still, he says, he needs more patrolmen. Federal funds are available, but while the city has beefed up patrols to the north and south, there's been no increase in his district. He worries that crime will move back into Edgewater as it's squeezed out of the better-patrolled areas.

He does nonetheless credit the City of Miami for introducing the Neighborhood Enhancement Teams to bring key city services, such as code enforcement and police patrols, down to the local level. But the neighborhood NET program ran into some turmoil of its own in 1999, when the branch administrator stepped down after three years on the job. Though Garcia declines to discuss personnel matters, the administrator, who owned two buildings in the district, had received about half a dozen complaints on his properties about drug activity and illegal garbage disposal.

In June 1999 Sergio Guadix took over the neighborhood NET office. “[Edgewater] did need strong, constant code enforcement,” Guadix says. For a long time, he adds, “people looked the other way.” The 40-year-old bureaucrat has worked for the city for fourteen years, mostly as a code inspector for the fire department. “I don't own property here,” he declares. “And the only friends I have are the people who want what's best for this neighborhood.”

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