With Enough Money

Ed Hanna has been the driving force in promoting the development of West Perrine. He's done well for himself. Too bad West Perrine can't say the same thing.

While the county audit raised serious questions about the way federal housing and economic-development dollars are monitored in Miami-Dade, the problems may just be beginning for Hanna's organization. In terms of grant dollars awarded, between the county's housing agency and OCED grants, the West Perrine CDC received more than double the money other well-funded nonprofits received. For example the Little Havana CDC has been awarded $3 million in the past four years, while the West Perrine CDC has obtained grants that total $7.8 million.

The gravy train's regular trips may soon be threatened. A far more thorough audit of the West Perrine CDC's operation is under way. It was scheduled for completion in March but has been delayed because county auditors have not received all the documents they need.

Hanna, who is 50 years old, balks at the suggestion the West Perrine CDC somehow has fallen short. Since 1985, he says, the organization has built and sold more than 138 homes to first-time buyers. The organization also began constructing a business district along Homestead Avenue, where a ragtag collection of duplexes and shacks once stood. The work of the CDC contributed to rising property values in West Perrine after years of stagnation, Hanna says. A home that sold for $46,000 in 1998 sold for $59,000 in 2000, according to the Miami-Dade County property appraiser's office.

From his grocery store, Wilbur Bell has watched West Perrine weather good times and bad over the past 23 years
Steve Satterwhite
From his grocery store, Wilbur Bell has watched West Perrine weather good times and bad over the past 23 years
From his grocery store, Wilbur Bell has watched West Perrine weather good times and bad over the past 23 years
Steve Satterwhite
From his grocery store, Wilbur Bell has watched West Perrine weather good times and bad over the past 23 years

If anything, grouses Hanna, his CDC should be regarded as a model for other nonprofit development organizations. "Is this community not a whole lot better now?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes, the community has changed 180 degrees. Is this a better place? Yes, it is a better place. Has the crime rate gone down? Has the quality of life improved? Yes it has."

The problem, says Hanna, is that the county department overseeing CDCs doesn't factor in the obstacles nonprofits face in poor communities, or the obstacles any developer has in coping with the notoriously convoluted county permitting process. Expectations are unrealistic, he says, because the agency doesn't understand development. It's like the old folks say, Hanna offers by way of explanation: "You can't teach what you don't know. You can't lead where you don't go."

"How did you find West Perrine?" Wilbur Bell enjoys posing that question. By that phrase he means: How did you come to be in this sweet place, more country than city, south of Kendall, between SW 168th and 186th streets, U.S. 1 and SW 107th Avenue? Bell returned to his home turf 32 years ago, after serving in the U.S. Air Force. He opened Bell's Short Stop on SW 104th Avenue, a store two of his children operate today. At the time of Bell's homecoming, this part of Dade County was mostly farmland. Since that time development has woven West Perrine into the suburban sprawl that stretches south from Miami's outskirts, but it retains a rural feel. On a recent balmy afternoon, a group of men sits around card tables set up under the shade of a banyan tree, engrossed in checkers. At a nearby softball field, a small crowd clucks in disbelief and hollers good-natured insults at the umpire as Goulds upsets West Perrine 4-3. Patrons greet other customers at a local restaurant, even if they're strangers.

For all its small-town allure, West Perrine's charm has a troubling edge. The place looks as though it is from another time because, like many neighborhoods settled by African Americans, Bell explains, West Perrine was long left to its own devices. Providing water and sewer hookups and sidewalks weren't county priorities. Zoning regulations and building codes weren't enforced. People built where they wanted to, whether the property had been platted for single-family homes or not. Many of the African-American farmworkers who lived in West Perrine rented tiny wooden cottages crammed one after another onto deep lots only 25 feet wide. West Perrine had a lot of "rickety, raggedy shotgun houses," Bell remembers.

But poor and neglected as West Perrine was, unemployment really wasn't a problem years ago, recalls grocer Nathaniel Green. Anybody who wanted to make a few dollars could find a job in the fields. Farm trucks stopped by every store in the neighborhood during tomato- and bean-picking season to gather workers, he says.

When farming moved further south, the air went out of the community. Poverty and unemployment ate at its soul. In the Eighties drugs and desperation found each other. While it wasn't the kind of income that led to economic stability or would show up in census reports, some of those mired in poverty found wealth in the drug trade. Murdered grocer Lee Lawrence, who made his living the old-fashioned way, accused police of looking the other way. Lawrence suspected the drug trade was corralled in black areas like West Perrine to keep it out of white communities.

Although it's been twelve years since Lawrence died, more than 100 people gathered in the parking lot of Lee's Grocery on the evening of March 20 for the annual memorial. Father and son Rochelle and Greg Swan grilled chicken and deep-fried yellowtail snapper and hush puppies for the crowd. The Cathedral of Praise Youth Choir sang. Rev. Walter T. Richardson of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church reminded the audience how bad things had gotten in West Perrine the night Lawrence lost his life. And he reminded them how much things have changed. "We are here to let the world know, we are here to let Dade County know, we have not forgotten the vision of, the murder of, and the example of Lee Arthur Lawrence," Richardson trumpeted to the crowd that blustery night. When he talked about West Perrine's rebound, Lawrence mentioned Ed Hanna and the seventeen-prong plan the CDC and other community groups devised to bring change to the area in 1990. "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I heard Ed Hanna say this," Richardson intoned. While Lawrence's death gave West Perrine resolve and passion, the minister acknowledged that Hanna's obsession with economic growth gave it bricks and mortar.

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