By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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In the front yard of his salmon-colored, single-story house across the street from Brownsville Middle School, mechanic Lorenzo Jones, 49, slouches on a white lawn chair, holding a cup in his right hand filled with Coca-Cola and Jim Beam. Jones's bloodshot gaze is focused on the apartment buildings next door to the school. From this vantage point, Jones can make out who is going in and out of the courtyard at 4710 and 4730 NW 23rd Ct., two of six buildings on the same block that are part of Annie Coleman Gardens, a public housing project owned by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.
"This right here is the focal point of the drug activity in this area," observes Jones as he lights up a Kool, gesturing toward the apartments.
Jones is the president of the Treasure Heights Homeowners Association, a group of homeowners in Brownsville who are fed up with the drug dealing and related crime in their neighborhood, which they say comes out of the project. (Brownsville is a historically black community in unincorporated Miami-Dade County just northeast of Miami International Airport, between Miami and Hialeah.) For the past four years Jones has complained to officials, including Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, that the Miami-Dade Housing Agency has done nothing to resolve the problems at Annie Coleman. Jones claims the project's tenants are out of control -- engaging in vandalism, allowing children to run amuck at night, and harboring drug dealers. "Annie Coleman is little more than a breeding ground for American Talibans, drug dealers, and violence," Jones says. "There is no reason why Miami-Dade County's property has to serve as a sanctuary for drug dealers."
For Jones, a twenty-year county employee with the Miami-Dade Transit Agency, cleaning up Annie Coleman goes beyond trying to improve the quality of life in his community, which he moved into in 1997. By tackling the drug problem across the street from his home, he says, Jones is also confronting his own demons, trying to channel his volatile personality in a positive direction. Jones is a recovering crack cocaine addict who put down the pipe more than fifteen years ago. Seeing addicts roll up on bicycles and in cars to buy fixes in the courtyards and alleys of the Annie Coleman buildings is a constant reminder of his battle to beat addiction. "I know how drugs can destroy a person's life," Jones says emphatically. "From my perspective, the immediate thing to do is for Miami-Dade Housing to say: 'We are not going to have any drug activity at Annie Coleman.'"
Annie Coleman Gardens consists of more than a dozen apartment buildings scattered throughout a nine-block radius between NW 46th and 51st streets and NW 22nd and 27th avenues. Built in 1967, the project is named for a civic pioneer in Miami's black community during the Thirties.
According to a Miami-Dade Housing demographics study, Annie Coleman Gardens tenants have an annual household income between $3000 and $20,000. Families who qualify for public housing pay 30 percent of their annual income for rent. Of 1795 people living in Annie Coleman, 1112 are children under eighteen. Of the 683 adults living in Annie Coleman, only 216 have full-time or part-time jobs, according to the study.
Treasure Heights homeowner Blonell Johnson, 72, knows the project well. She lived in one of the apartments from 1967 to 1981. "Back then everything was calm and the neighborhood was nice," Johnson says, resting against the coral that adorns the façade of her house on NW 23rd Avenue. "I left when things started to get out of hand. Now everyone does whatever they want."
The once relatively crime-free environment began to deteriorate, Johnson says, when the Miami-Dade Housing Agency began allowing single mothers with fifteen or more children in the household to live at Annie Coleman. Guardians could barely keep tabs on their young charges, some of whom were attracted to the criminal lifestyle, she says.
Johnson moved into another housing project in 1981 before buying her home in 1986, where she raised eight children. Today, she lives with her two teenage grandsons inside the white three-bedroom, two-bathroom abode with metal bars on the windows and Carolina blue rain gutters. Johnson, like Jones, believes the housing agency has not done enough to fix the problem. Miami-Dade Housing, Johnson says, could make a difference by simply having an employee available on evenings and weekends to help curtail loitering and other delinquencies. The project's property management office is only open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. "As soon as it starts getting dark, you start seeing a lot of young men riding bicycles," Johnson says sarcastically. "And you know they ain't riding to improve their health."
Miami-Dade Police Maj. Charles Nanney, 39, commander of the Northside District, which patrols Brownsville, says Annie Coleman and its surrounding neighborhood has historically been one of the highest-crime areas in the district. According to district crime statistics, "Grid 0967," which includes Annie Coleman, has had 217 narcotics busts, 101 aggravated batteries, and 86 aggravated assaults from January 2002 through February 2004. In 2002, 23 Annie Coleman residents were arrested on narcotics-related, burglary, or aggravated robbery charges. In 2003, fifteen Annie Coleman residents were arrested on those charges.