Where Did All the People Go?

A once-thriving neighborhood is now a ghost town thanks to Miami's multimillion-dollar housing fiasco

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There have been many days over the past two years when nary a customer has shown up at Freddie Southall's coin laundry in Model City. Two dozen front-load washing machines line the walls, but on most the glass is missing from the portholes and the bins inside are rusty. Much of Southall's meager revenue here on NW 62nd Street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth avenues comes from the soda machine a few steps off the sidewalk, where on most days he sits in a folding chair next to a pay phone. "I just come over here to get out of the house," the 87-year-old offers wearily.

Like many small businesses in this destitute section of America's poorest city, Southall's is suffering from the number-one cause of business failure anywhere: lack of customers. "They moved over 2000 people from back there," Southall says, pointing through the dimness toward the back wall of his building. He is referring to several apartment complexes that once stood just south of the launderette. Now there is just vacant land. This 40-square-block area in the heart of Model City -- from NW 55th Street up to 62nd Street and from NW Twelfth Avenue to NW Seventeenth Avenue -- once teemed with men, women, teenagers, and children from low-income, mostly black families who paid rent with Section 8 federal housing subsidies. But in 2000, long after the apartment complexes they lived in had become home to excessive numbers of rats, drug dealers, and gang members (and was informally christened Germ City), the City of Miami condemned the structures. Then came the bulldozers.

Where did all the people go? "Nobody knows," shrugs a middle-age man with a knee brace and an aluminum cane who has been visiting with Southall. The man limps away on the sidewalk and heads past a boarded-up building next door that once housed Johnny's Meat Market.

Even Karen Cooper, administrator of the city's local Neighborhood Enhancement Team office, isn't sure exactly where the Section 8 tenants went. "Some people went to North Miami. Some went south," she says. Cooper is certain, though, that city officials issued federal housing vouchers to residents of the razed apartments so they could relocate to other buildings whose landlords are authorized to receive housing funds. Because few such subsidized rentals remain in Model City, the residents had no choice but to leave the area.

Most other small businesses in Model City, if not defunct, are either dying or barely surviving. Next door to the boarded-up Johnny's is Thomas Produce Market. "This place used to be crowded," says Howard Thomas, who runs the store with his brother Cedric. Their father began the business 50 years ago. Two customers browse among bins of watermelon, peanuts, peppers, and other vegetables. Pushing a grocery cart stuffed with collard greens into a chilled storage room, Howard Thomas estimates the apartment exodus led to his market's revenues plunging 30 to 40 percent. He holds elected officials and city planners responsible. "They have turned this area into a graveyard," he says angrily.

His brother Cedric, the market's business manager, relates that city officials recently offered him $30,000 for the building, which is located on the northern edge of the Model City Community Revitalization District. The district is to be the locus of a grandiose, city-managed urban-development project that is supposed to result in hundreds of new townhouses and single-family homes. But he rejected the offer, noting it was a pittance compared with the value of the business. "I'm taking care of two 80-year-olds with this place," he says.

Gangs and senseless violence have also contributed to the necropolis. Two blocks south of the produce market a young man wears a T-shirt with a photograph of his brother printed on the front. "Nigger killed him over a girl," he says, then points to a small apartment building down the street. "It happened over there." The young man's murder was one of 30 homicides in Model City in 1996, far more than any other neighborhood in Miami. Since then, according to police records, 87 additional murders have occurred over a five-year period, including nine last year. Two blocks west, near the Sol Market at NW Fifteenth Avenue and 60th Street, residents armed with paint and brushes have turned a tree trunk into a shrine for Fish, a.k.a. Fly Head, one of the Model City murder statistics. "Gone but not forgotten," someone scrawled.

Karen Cooper, the NET administrator, notes ironically that a crackdown on one of Model City's biggest industries -- the drug trade -- has also hurt legitimate businesses. "On Fifteenth Avenue you used to see people out [dealing] all the time," Cooper recalls. "A lot of these businesses survived off the people working in the streets. The guys hanging out on the corners, they gotta eat. They gotta buy stuff. So of course they would be those smaller stores' patrons. So now that that is gone, business is not what it used to be." She suggests that until new housing brings new customers to the area, many of Model City's remaining small businesses may not survive without financial aid from local government.

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