Days of El Portal's Lives

This tiny village is one of the county's most diverse, and boy do they fight about it

The December 2000 election, in which Salomon, Black, and Edmonson were all up for re-election, was the nastiest anyone could remember. Acting Chief Senderoff confiscated the city clerk's computer, claiming one of his officers had been illegally using it to produce campaign materials. Several officers went door-to-door asking residents not to vote for Salomon (she had reportedly vowed to freeze police salaries and reduce the size of the department). Then flyers from "Portal Police Association 2000" appeared in every mailbox. This mystery organization requested residents cast their votes for Salomon and against Black and Edmonson. Among the flyer's claims were that Edmonson had been institutionalized for mental problems -- she does in fact hold a degree in psychology and had been director of New Horizons Community Mental Health Center.

Despite such tactics Black and Edmonson were re-elected; Salomon, who for months had bitterly accused many town leaders of waging an anti-Haitian campaign, lost, and the Haitian majority on the council ended. The big surprise, though, was the candidate who received the highest number of votes -- newcomer Craig Smith, the attorney and gay activist who had only a few months earlier bought a house next door to Edmonson. She had persuaded him to run for the council.

In December 2001 Andrew Dickman, another white man, also an El Portal newcomer and an attorney, defeated Charlemange-Vancol. Now the sole Haitian left on the council is the first, Derose. He and Black remain the only constant presences on the council for the past twelve years.

Elizabeth "Libby" Bowen has been part of village history for more than a half-century, and would "crawl on my hands and knees for this community"
Steve Satterwhite
Elizabeth "Libby" Bowen has been part of village history for more than a half-century, and would "crawl on my hands and knees for this community"

Audrey Edmonson, who also recruited Dickman, was chosen mayor in January of this year (she previously held the post in 1999, when so many wild tales about village officials were circulating that she started a "rumor control hotline"). Edmonson, 49 years old, was born and raised in Liberty City. In the late Fifties she was among the first black children to integrate Allapattah Elementary and after high school went to work as a flight attendant in the white world of Eastern Airlines during the Seventies.

She moved to El Portal in the late Seventies. "When I first moved in there was maybe one black family on the east side," she remembers. "It was more of a retirement community, mostly older whites. There were no children here." Soon enough, prominent black citizens started moving to the village: comedian Flip Wilson, Johnny Jones (Dade's first black schools superintendent), Earl Carroll, Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves, attorney Jesse McCrary.

Today Edmonson is proud of the big improvement projects that have received funding on her watch: Since January, grants totaling almost one million dollars have come to El Portal to fix the storm-water drainage system, to beautify NE 87th Street, and to expand the police department.

In fact even critics of the mayor concede the current council may be the most competent and civic-minded in years. "Last year we were lucky to get three or four citizens in a meeting," Edmonson says, "but now people are seeing things happening in the town and they're coming back."

The audience numbered more than a dozen this past May 14 when Edmonson opened the regular monthly council meeting with a proclamation that not so long ago would have been the height of irony (and probably shouted down by some irate citizen, anyway). The month of May, Edmonson declared in her precise, sweet-toned voice, would henceforth be recognized as "Civility Month."

"Whereas," Edmonson read the proclamation text, "displays of anger, rudeness, ridicule, impatience, and a lack of respect and personal attacks detract from the open exchange of ideas, prevent fair discussion of the issues, and can discourage individuals from participation in government ... the Village Council of the Village of El Portal, Florida, calls upon all citizens to exercise civility toward each other."

That would include the residents of the Little Farm Mobile Court, situated less than a hundred yards from village hall, but they likely have never heard of the civility proclamation. These are the people who are not always welcome in the nicer parts of El Portal. Villagers and police know that at least some of the punks who've been burglarizing El Portal homes and selling drugs on street corners either live or hang out in the trailer park. A lot of the mobile home renters aren't U.S. citizens and can't vote, and most are simply preoccupied with the daily grind. They have little reason to come to council meetings; they're certainly not benefiting from the village's beautification projects or skyrocketing property values, though an increased police presence couldn't hurt.

Ofcr. John Gonzalez, working the day shift solo on a recent Saturday, gets a late-morning disturbance call at the trailer park. In contrast to the tree-shaded 80-year-old Tudor homes just across the train tracks to the west, Little Farm is a dusty warren of about 250 mobile homes packed together under a few scrubby palms, with shriveled hibiscus bushes and tufts of grass as fancy as the landscaping gets.

Gonzalez, a New Jersey native who sports large, colorful tattoos on both forearms, threads his squad car (a hand-me-down Ford from the county) through tight unpaved lanes until he's stopped by two gesturing women. He gets out to speak with a mother and daughter, Jamaican immigrants. The women are loudly accusing a neighbor, a Colombian who is nowhere to be seen, of attacking them with a machete. "She just come out the door and she's screaming she's going to kill me," cries the daughter.

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