Gone with the Wind

How would you react if a crematorium moved into your neighborhood?

"Don't come in, he's just exposed himself," yelled Steve Hollabaugh, rake in hand, speaking from inside Merrimac House, a low-income boarding establishment at 189 NE 26th St. Merrimac is home to fifteen mostly male residents. Some tenants are formerly homeless and trying to get it together. Others are substance abusers who work dead-end jobs and make enough to pay the weekly rent. A few suffer from some form of mental illness. Hollabaugh, who lives there, cut through the beautifully landscaped front yard of the two-story house and came to Merrimac's green wooden gate.

He'd called New Times to complain about his new next-door neighbor, Oakwood Cremation Services. While making references to the Holocaust, he asserted that the presence of a crematorium causes him psychological and emotional distress. (Hollabaugh says he has Jewish blood.) "I have nightmares," he muttered morbidly, his eyes crossed. "Especially when the wind comes from the northwest, there's a strong sulfur smell. And in the daytime, when I hear the hum of the exhaust fans operating, it bothers me."

Before renting a room at Merrimac this past April, the 46-year-old Hollabaugh was one of countless homeless men from out of state living on the streets of Miami. "I left Lansing [Michigan] because I saw a lot of things behind the scenes," Hollabaugh confided in a robotic tone. "Next time you buy an American-made car, think about what culture you're buying into," he warned. ("Steve, uh, has been in a lot of places," politely remarked Judy Garchow, a neighbor who knew him back home. "He's been calling my husband, a former high school teacher of his, for ten years....")

Merrimac resident Earl Don Smith (left) opens a window to the crematorium as fellow resident Michael Hayden watches in amusement
Steve Satterwhite
Merrimac resident Earl Don Smith (left) opens a window to the crematorium as fellow resident Michael Hayden watches in amusement

Glenn Williams, a black Merrimac resident whom Hollabaugh has accused of flashing, followed Steve outside. They began arguing, and then Manny Watson, resident manager of the boarding house, arrived on the scene. Williams went back inside. "Get rid of him Manny," Hollabaugh whined, clinging to his rake. "He's bad news."

"I will, I will. Just let me handle it, okay?" Watson urged. "You stay out of it."

Robert Steele, owner of Oakwood Cremation Services at 167 NE 26th St., bought the property next to Merrimac last year from Javier Acevedo. (Acevedo also owned a crematorium on the lot called Mortuary Care Center.) In March 2000 Steele obtained a certificate of use from the City of Miami, but at least since Acevedo's proprietorship, in 1998, the facility has been licensed to incinerate the dead in the neighborhood. Steele, who lives in Broward County, employs three workers to run Oakwood and has an answering service that takes business calls. His crematorium, he said, is set up to burn 24 hours a day. On a typical schedule, an average of twenty bodies are incinerated at about 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Steele, between 25 and 40 private and corporate funeral homes supply the corpses. And Steele, who declined a request to tour Oakwood "out of respect for the families," isn't bothered by the ramblings of his neighbors.

"I don't really care to know who they are or what they're saying," he said defensively. "Are you trying to slam me? Because if you are, it's not going to work. Yesterday the City of Miami came by to inspect us. I'm sure you had something to do with that, but anyway, we passed [inspection] with flying colors."

But not according to José Ferras, the acting building agent for the City of Miami who did the inspection. "All windows on the east side of the building may have to go," he said. "In my opinion those windows should be blocked. The laws that apply to incinerations affect [those openings]. If they have a fire inside there, we don't want it to spread."

Tony Lugo, a homeowner who lives next door to Oakwood Cremation Services, related that before 1998, the rectangular, warehouselike structure was nothing but an abandoned dump, used by crackheads as a motel. Indeed, according to Juan Gonzalez, zoning administrator for the City of Miami, there are no records for the property from 1981 to 1997. Back in 1973 it operated as a wholesale furniture store; in 1980 it was a distribution warehouse for wire hangers.

"When they moved in [both crematoriums], in a way it was like a plus," Lugo commented while standing barefoot on the cement of his carport-covered driveway. Behind him his tidy yellow cottage sported newly installed, tightly-sealed windows. His two-year-old son was by his side, wearing diapers.

"More creepy than having a crematorium next door is having live people in there, smoking crack and doing God knows what," Lugo said.

Still he acknowledged the frustrations of other residents in the Edgewater neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes, boarding houses, and small businesses: "I'll be honest with you, the crematorium doesn't affect me. You're asking someone who's insulated. But I know everybody can't afford to put in these kinds of windows. I know a lot of people around here sleep with their windows open, with a fan on, and I know the smell must get them." One thing Lugo added, which predisposes him to be friendly about the situation, is that Oakwood employees have agreed not to burn bodies during the barbecues or birthday parties he holds in his back yard. "They're trying to be good neighbors," he noted.

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