21,000 Code Citations Can't Be Wrong
On Wednesday, October 12, shortly after 6:00 p.m., three police cars slide into the parking lot of a Walgreens on SW First Street and Twelfth Avenue. The sun is low in the sky, and the first lights are snapping on in Little Havana as residents arrive home from work. Tonight's raid will be a waiting game, and for the moment, police need to lay low.
In the muted interior of his vehicle, Maj. Mike Exposito, a stocky, mustached 31-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, recalls that he became a cop more than three decades ago by tagging along with a couple of friends to a recruiting fair.
Then the radio crackles: "Be advised. Owner of Latin market outside, talking to tow truck owner. Possible countersurveillance."
Exposito snaps to attention and presses the button on his walkie-talkie. "Moving out!" he announces. The squad cars leave the Walgreens, their lights flashing. The caravan sidelines evening traffic as it snakes down Twelfth Avenue and then turns left on Eighth Street.
At La Reyna Cafeteria, a small, inconspicuous storefront on Calle Ocho and SW Eleventh Avenue, the customers seem slightly stunned when, seconds later, a pair of plainclothes policemen burst in and yell, "Freeze!" The City of Miami Police Department, they announce, is conducting an investigation.
Enter Exposito, four uniformed police, and two code enforcement officers. The spinning lights of their vehicles blaze through the cafeteria's large windows. The all-male force now numbering nine disperses to the corners of the small eatery, eyes flashing, ready for action.
"Wow," is one customer's open-mouthed but frozen response. La Reyna is sparsely populated with a handful of single men. A diner in a yellow hat chews a plantain. The waitresses, dressed the careless way of women who expect to have food spilled on them, observe police with annoyed boredom.
Miami Vice it is not.
But fifteen minutes after the officers enter, police lead the restaurant's manager, a tired-looking woman in a blue T-shirt, to the squad car in cuffs. "This is unjust," she complains. "I have cancer...." The police shut her in the back seat.
"It's always something," Exposito sighs. "I have kids at home, I have cancer...."
This particular outing is Exposito's 160th since 2003. On this night, Exposito's illegal cafeteria task force visits three cafeterias and makes arrests at every one.
The crime? Serving beer without a full meal.
In 2002, Miami declared a war on such varied nuisances as illegal cafeterias, abandoned cars, and public drunkenness. The crusade was baptized with a vanilla name: the Quality of Life Task Force. Since its creation, a small army of fire, police, building, and code inspectors has issued more than 21,000 citations and visited over 1000 businesses. They've also made more than 1000 arrests most at cafeterias that serve alcohol without a meal or employ what is known in Miami law enforcement parlance as "b-girls." (Major Exposito explains them thusly: "A woman comes up and asks a man, 'Will you buy me a beer?' Her beer is $15; his is $3.")
Some other numbers from the battleground: 800 illegal gaming machines confiscated, 4312 abandoned cars removed, 698 illegal units cited, and 6427 illegal chickens netted. The task force has also collected $551,000 in fines from code enforcement violations.
In a city where civic largesse is not in abundance (ask anyone trying to merge onto I-95 during rush hour), Miami officials dream of a community-minded, rule-abiding place where well-maintained yards are empty of rusty automobiles, hens nest in neatly padlocked cages, and well-lit cafeterias serve cafecitos, not prostitutes, to their patrons. Task force opponents say that the City of Miami is using code enforcement as an excuse to rid itself of poor people, immigrants, poultry, fun, and anything else that might impede investment in a glassy high-rise mecca of state-of-the-art gyms and Sub-Zero refrigerators.
What happens in Miami where almost two-thirds of the population is foreign born and three-fourths speak a language other than English at home when the city government attempts a crackdown is different from what happens in any other American city: What happens in Miami is a clash of cultures.
The question stands: quality of life? Whose?
On October 12, eleven hours before the police raid on La Reyna, Sgt. Al Alvarez sits in a swivel chair in his Allapattah office. Wearing a gray Nike T-shirt, white Nike sneakers, navy sweatpants, and gold accessories, he pages through task force files. He stops at 5 SW 55th Ave., a cafeteria called Los Amigos, which this past summer, after numerous inspections, lost its license to operate.
According to police reports from April 2004 to May 2005, he explains, officers made arrests at Los Amigos for drug possession ("While conducting a business inspection in an undercover capacity, I observed defendant drop a blue pen cap with a yellow-color baggy containing a white powder substance."); for weapons possession ("A pat-down of the defendant's outer garments revealed a knife-like object in his front right pocket. Upon retrieval of the object, an inspection of the knife revealed it to be a USA Super Knife, which is a switch blade with a length of five inches."); and for so-called mingling ("The defendant, who is an employee of the business, was observed by this officer masturbating a customer in the southeast corner of the club. The patron had his pants down....").
Also on the premises of Los Amigos, Alvarez continues, Miami police found illegal gambling machines ("No skills were used or necessary to control the outcome of the game, clearly making the operation of the machine a game of chance in violation of Florida State Statute 849.16."). And, working in an undercover capacity, Alvarez also made one arrest for prostitution ("Defendant agreed to go out to the car and give Sgt. A. Alvarez a blowjob ... she said it would be a hundred dollars.")
The arrest report from Los Amigos of one 49-year-old waitress (b-girls aren't necessarily a-list material) detailed the following system: "While conducting a routine bar check, we discovered a chart detailing a scheme where the bar girls sitting with customers would charge the customer's beer at $3, and the bar girl's beer at $10, each girl being assigned a number. Daily log reflected defendant as employee #8."
"You had to have been here from the beginning to realize the magnitude of the problem," says Major Exposito.
Miami's quality of life campaign is a variation on an anticrime philosophy made famous in Rudy Giuliani's New York. In 1994, then-Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, outlined a campaign based largely on a theory of criminology known as "broken windows," which was first discussed in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article of the same name by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
In that essay, the authors argued that a police focus on minor infractions petty vandalism, public urination, public drinking would have a great effect on more serious crimes. In 1989 the authors recapped their theory thusly: "If the first broken window is not repaired, then people who like breaking windows will assume that no one cares about the building and more windows will be broken. Soon the building will have no windows. Likewise, when disorderly behavior say, rude remarks by loitering youths is left unchallenged, the signal given is that no one cares. The disorder escalates, possibly to serious crime."
Wilson and Kelling recommended a strategy of "problem-oriented" rather than "incident-oriented" policing. (Al Alvarez often refers to himself as a "problem-solving" police officer.) When Giuliani and Bratton first tested this theory in the streets of Manhattan's West Village in 1994, they concentrated on crimes that while not necessarily dangerous impinged on residents' sense of safety. They changed zoning laws to cut down on sex shops and strip joints. They prohibited alcohol at street festivals, and cracked down on what the New York Times referred to as "threatening behavior by squeegee users." In Manhattan, joint-smoking college kids, underage drinkers, and public urinaters were suddenly worthy of arrest.
In 1999, the Times reported that the number of misdemeanor cases had soared by 85 percent since the early Nineties. The resulting drop in crime was well documented. So was public outcry. Giuliani's reputation as a tyrant made libertarians from liberals.
In spite of the backlash, authorities in other places noticed the initiative. "Previously there was very little enforcement in our city," Miami Mayor Manny Diaz says. "Politicians every once in a while would raid a place, but you can't just go in and raid a place to get it on the six o'clock news."
So Diaz encouraged a change. "This is a sustained effort until everybody either plays by the rules or doesn't play by the rules and shuts down."
In other words, attempting to apply a cookie-cutter approach to quality of life in Miami would not succeed without some tweaking.
At the Miami Jewish Home & Hospital for the Aged on NE 2nd Avenue and 52nd Street, a brown speckled hen and her black-feathered companion wander peacefully around a verdant lawn, oblivious to the wheelchairs and slow-moving walkers traversing a nearby sidewalk. A white rooster with a red comb rustles in the bushes of a gazebo; above him a pair of outdoor speakers emits a Muzak rendition of Nino Rota's "Love Theme" from Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet. In the shade of a banyan tree, red hens scratch idly at the ground. Gray pullets scamper and preen. Chickens at the Jewish Home live a happy, pastoral existence, one of sunshine and lush foliage, with a soundtrack of gentle stringed instruments lamenting the follies of youth.
The flock of ten birds fails to notice as three men with long-handled nets edge near, nodding cordially to doctors and attendants as they zero in on their targets. The men wear navy blue polo shirts emblazoned with a drawing of a terrified rooster, under which are written the words: CITY OF MIAMI CHICKEN BUSTERS.
Two years ago, Osvaldo Iglesias, a Miami-Dade fireman, bet East Little Havana NET administrator Pablo Canton he could catch a hen the two observed strutting around the NET office's parking lot. "You catch that chicken," challenged Canton, "and I'll eat it."
Iglesias, a tall and burly joker with glasses and a disarming grin, did exactly that. Although Canton did not make good on his promise, Iglesias, who has raised guinea hens, ostriches, and emus, had an idea. He enlisted fellow fireman Nelly Rivera and Bill Borges, a code enforcement officer, to present an idea to city officials: On a volunteer, biweekly basis, the three would net the homeless chickens of Miami's streets and sell them to area farms as a fundraiser for the Firemen's Benevolent Association.
The idea coincided with changes spurred by new development. "These areas have been solidly populated by immigrants for 30 or 40 years," Borges explains. "Now people from the suburbs are buying in the area. They're moving to East Little Havana and The Roads. They're not used to roosters waking them up at three or four in the morning. They complain.
"In Cuba," he elaborates, "which is where I come from, the Latin people have pigs and chickens as pets. They give children dyed chicks when they're little, and when the chickens grow up, they can wander around the yard."
But this is a new Miami, and reformation is on the march. The three received permission to catch the stray birds, and Chicken Busters was formed, an official Quality of Life intitiative.
The trio was surprised by the sheer magnitude of the problem when netting birds in earnest began in April 2003. Zebra-striped hens, majestic green-necked cocks, and day-old chicks pecked and strutted around Miami by the thousands. "We experimented a little in the beginning," Borges recalls. "There's an old wives' tale that the chickens are easier to catch if you feed them raisins soaked in rum, but the liquor didn't take. Then we tried using fish nets, the sort you cast out." But the best tool has proven to be the simplest: a large net on a long handle.
Soon the Chicken Busters' popularity grew. "After all of the media attention, it got bigger than the hierarchy," Iglesias says proudly. "[The city] gets too many complaints not to support it now."
On October 14 the busters met at 7:30 a.m. at the East Little Havana NET office. They loaded the cages and nets into Borges's white pickup truck. At the Miami River Fish Market they bartered some coffee for a bucket of ice to keep the Gatorade cold and then headed for the Little Haiti house of a she-male vodou priest, a notorious chicken gathering-place. Soon Borges netted a handsome red rooster.
In overgrown yards next to weed-covered Cadillacs in Allapattah, in alcoves of duplexes near the Orange Bowl, the busters jumped walls and squeezed through fences into chicken-strewn lots, netting birds by the handful. "Catch 'em by the wings, transport them by their legs," says Borges, removing a brown hen from the net. "It's almost a science."
Some residents anxiously watched the busters. "You're not going to kill them, are you?" asked a housedress-clad woman in Spanish. But owners rarely lay claim to their fowl. Keeping a rooster is illegal in Miami, and hens must be in cages. Few want to risk a fine by confessing responsibility, and there are plenty of replacements. Borges estimates the busters' catch rate at 30 percent.
And the chickens can be a nuisance. "It's one of the crazy things in the city that people are actually in favor of," Iglesias says. "Chickens destroy the landscape. If you plant a garden, it's gone."
By the time the busters reached the nursing home, they had netted some 60 chickens. The men were sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. The cranky birds gnawed on the plastic cages and crowed loudly.
The busters' daily average is 98, although they once caught 217.
Back at the nursing home, the gazebo's soundtrack switches to Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova standard "Desafinado." The CD begins to skip. The chickens suddenly pause in their pecking, apprehensive. The busters pounce. An explosion of birds shoots skyward in a cloud of feathers. Then ... the chickens have disappeared. The cluck of a hen is faintly audible from a parapet up above, but she is nowhere to be seen.
The city effort has produced disgruntled citizens, many of whom are convinced that Quality of Life is a racket, a way for the city to boost its coffers by leeching off of its poorest residents. Among the unhappy is Jeanette Marks, a tall, soft-spoken woman whose face is lined with worry. God is her copilot. It says so on the front bumper of her 1988 Buick LeSabre, a mostly maroon hulk with a tan hood. Marks has a small collection of city notices a ticket after a stray dog she used to feed bit somebody, a warning about citrus canker in an orange tree out back, and multiple citations from the office of code enforcement.
Marks, age 59, used to be a telephone operator until a fall on a freshly waxed bathroom floor eight years ago left her on disability with a herniated disc. Three years ago she moved in with her 84-year-old mother, Kathryn Trumpler, who is nearly blind from glaucoma and at times suffers from dementia. They share the bedroom of the tiny house at NW 50th Street and 17th Avenue in Liberty City that Trumpler bought in 1965.
Jeanette Marks doesn't know much about Wilson and Kelling's view on broken windows, but she has her own theory about criminology. "Somebody's getting paid in this city to take people's property. It's a racket they got going every Cuban place in Hialeah is full of these people's cars that they take for nothing." Marks used to have two vehicles, but since she couldn't afford the insurance and tags to run both, she parked the inoperable one, a 1988 Chrysler LeBaron, in the yard, ready for the morning that the machinery under the LeSabre's patchwork hood would fail her. "If one broke down," she explains, "I'd have something to fall back on."
Then, nearly a year ago, a code inspector told her the car with no tags would have to go. The portion of the yard she parks on, an "unimproved surface," would have to be paved. Then code enforcement stickered her cars, and before she knew it, tow truck drivers began routinely asking if they could take the car off her hands. In order to comply with city code, she sold the LeBaron, which she purchased for $20,000 in 1988, to one of the drivers for $20.
As for the driveway, she went to a city hearing and explained that on her stretch of NW 50th Street, the only place to park is on the sidewalk. Now she has to find the money to pave the driveway and to apply for a city permit.
Marks stands on the stoop of her mother's house and speaks her mind. "They don't care," she says. "They feel like they can do people any kind of way because it's their job." She scans the cluttered living room of the old house. She motions to the Buick, to her yard a patchwork of old lawn furniture, an overturned foot stool, a mango tree, a creaky chainlink fence. She gestures beyond, to the overgrown lot across the street, to the man ambling down the sidewalk with a bottle in a paper sack.
"A lot of people's souls in trouble because of their job," she says, shaking her head.
Mayor Manny Diaz sees things differently. "We're supposed to enforce the city code," he says bluntly. "That's why it's there."
A fiery native of Honduras wearing a vivid royal blue suit, Felicita Casildo wants to know why the city does not issue violations at expensive restaurants in Coconut Grove. "I have never had to go to a place where I have to get my food before I can have a drink. The law is supposed to be for everybody, not just certain people."
Casildo is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2004. An ad hoc group of 46 plaintiffs called the Union of Cafeteria Owners sued, claiming that application of code enforcement is capricious and targets those without resources and influence to stop it.
The problem, says Pablo Canton, administrator for the East Little Havana NET office, is that it was only after the city began raiding businesses that commissioners passed a city law to differentiate between restaurants and cafeterias; it even stipulated the difference between a meal and an appetizer. (Alcohol can now be consumed only with a full meal.) The ordinance states that a cafeteria must have, as its primary source of revenue, the serving of food, not alcohol.
The lawsuit, first filed by former Mayor Xavier Suarez (who declined comment), contends that such a restriction on a state-issued liquor license constitutes an illegal restraint of trade. It claims the cafeteria raids "appear to be based on discriminatory and selective enforcement ... since only the neighborhoods of Little Havana and Allapattah have been targeted." The city says the claim has no grounds. The case is awaiting review by a judge in U.S. District Court.
Alvarez insists there's a reason the illegal-cafeteria crackdown has been centered in neighborhoods such as Little Havana, Flagami, and Allapattah: That's where the laws are being broken. "I'm Cuban," says Alvarez. "It's not targeting immigrants. It's just that people in the north end of the city go to their restaurants to eat, not drink. We don't see the same problems there."
Exposito agrees. "All those businesses whose licenses were revoked were closed down three or four times, mostly in Little Havana, Allapattah, Little Haiti, the Hispanic areas. Liberty City is not the same people. In the north end they drink in bars. It's a Latin American thing."
When she is told of Exposito's claim, Casildo shrieks and then jumps up and down. "What about Monty's?" she demands, referring to the upscale raw bar on Bayshore Drive. "Don't tell me that at Monty's they don't serve you your wine before your food arrives. You don't see code enforcement there. You don't see women at Hooter's arrested for mingling."
(The difference, explains Exposito: Those restaurants are licensed by the state to sell hard liquor, beer, and wine. They only need to prove, at the end of the year, that 51 percent of their sales were food. It's a license, he adds, that's "a heck of a lot more expensive" to obtain.)
According to Pablo Canton, the first cafeteria raids targeted only the businesses where neighbors or police complained about fights or prostitution. After the task force developed a policy regarding cafeterias, the city began being more aggressive arresting cafeteria owners for serving a single beer before a meal, or waitresses for chatting with a patron.
Alvarez bristles at accusations that raids on smaller operations are unfair. "Lots of places of different magnitude cater to single men," he says. "For them, it's a work-and-drink cycle, then a drink-and-drive cycle. The married man, instead of going home, blows his paycheck on women and beer. They urinate everywhere on the street; they get robbed or they fake robbery reports so their family doesn't know where the money's gone the wife's upset when he comes home drunk with no money; the wife gets abused; the children suffer. The only winners in this situation are the restaurant owners."
But the restaurant owners have their own narrative of debt, ruination, and divorce the sort that happens when the family business gets shut down for code violations.
"My life changed totally," says Maria Fajardo, a native of Nicaragua whose cafeteria, La Poderosa, lost its license to operate in 2004 after repeated visits from the police. Fajardo is another of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the City of Miami. She was arrested once and the manager of her restaurant twice for serving beer without food. She describes being strip-searched in jail as "the greatest humiliation of [her] life." After losing her license, Fajardo found herself seeking employment with an arrest record. Now she cleans houses for minimum wage, and she wants the city to take some responsibility.
"They ruin lives! I had ten employees, people who had families. Not even in Cuba do people experience the persecution we have to live through. They should start listening to the poor instead of worrying about the rich. They should remember how they came to this country as immigrants, like we did."
Fajardo's opinion of Al Alvarez is venomous. "Es un perro," she says coldly. "He's a dog."
"These people hate me with a passion," Alvarez admits, then pauses. "But I've never arrested anyone who didn't need to be arrested. We're not here to crucify you, but ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you're not guilty, hire an attorney. If your only violation is not having a license, we won't arrest, just close the place, on the promise that you will appear in court." He snorts at the Union of Cafeteria Owners' self-characterization as beleaguered victims of injustice. "This is a little group of people making money and not paying taxes. So we revoke their license."
Despite its name, El Sol Superclub opens only after the sun goes down. A sign posted behind its barred windows reads "Cafeteria Lunches," but at lunchtime the pale orange building is padlocked and deserted, its parking lot empty. Deprived of black light, the Day-Glo tigers of the murals inside sleep during long afternoons. Its electronic gambling machines blink for no one. Chalk dust lies undisturbed on the felt of its pool tables.
But on Friday nights, the parking lot and surrounding streets are full. A gauntlet of security guards at the front door frisks patrons and checks purses. Inside, more than two dozen scantily clad women in midriff-baring halter-tops and miniskirts serve beer to the overwhelmingly male clientele, whose own wardrobes range from Kobe Bryant jerseys to cowboy hats. The language is Spanish, the music is bachata and cumbia.
Rotating blue spotlights hover over a fenced-in dance floor, where the same women who serve the beer dance with customers. In the back, men surround two pool tables. In the bathroom, a heavyset attendant in a T-shirt listens to God's word on headphones, a highlighted Bible open before her. A diligent servant of the Lord, she delivers her pamphlets in both Spanish and English. A painted sign hangs over her head: "No fighting. No drugs. Be brief."
El Sol squats dimly on the west side of NW 27th Avenue at 28th Street, just a few feet outside the Miami Police Department's jurisdiction, which ends at 27th Avenue. Indeed, only four lanes of traffic endow El Sol and its owners with a smug sense of impunity. Al Alvarez is a man with a zero-tolerance approach to smug impunity. He loathes El Sol, but only because it's a difficult reality to accept: Many of the bars the task force closes simply move to Hialeah, to unincorporated Miami-Dade, where they are free from Alvarez, Exposito, and any top-down definitions of life quality.
From 2002 to 2004, overall crime in Miami decreased by eight percent, and perhaps in correlation with the rise of the Quality of Life Task Force. But Mike Exposito says that the numbers, in the end, don't even matter. "Citizens aren't looking at stats in their mind. If they go to a place and it looks safe, then it's safe. If it looks bad, even if it's a safe area without much crime, they'll feel unsafe."
Alvarez mentions El Sol only to those who complain about the task force. The sergeant sends them to the club to see what sin looked like in the city before he banished it to the Tartarus of unincorporated Miami-Dade. "Those b-girls, that gambling machine not anymore; that was how it used to be," he hopes to one day tell them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.