In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.
After 45 years of poisoning the mostly black residents of West Coconut Grove, the incinerator Old Smokey was finally shut down in 1970. But tons of toxic ash remained, buried in parks, swales, and open fields. It may well have caused an epidemic of pancreatic cancer that still afflicts the area.
The City of Miami discovered the problem several years ago but buried the information.
Who uncovered it? An environmental justice project that is the brainchild of Tony Alfieri, a full-time University of Miami professor and part-time rabble-rouser.
"People on whatever side of the tracks have the right to know they are living next door to contaminated property." Alfieri says. "This is a disgrace."
The much-honored 55-year-old law school professor was born in Greenwich Village. He attended Brown University and Columbia Law School before embarking on a career in public service law and then landing in Miami in 1991.
Not long after arriving here, the self-described soccer jock founded the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami's law school.
"The mission was to educate and train citizen lawyers," Alfieri says, "lawyers with good judgment who are committed not only to ethics and professional responsibility but also to public service."
He took a particular interest in the West Grove and, along with his UM students, established relationships with the area's churches and several other neighborhood groups. One major recent project has been fighting a trolley garage on the 3300 block of Douglas Road. Alfieri recruited pro bono lawyers to help residents gather to stop use of the facility for most trolleys and buses.
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Perhaps Alfieri's legacy in Miami, though, is uncovering the mess of Old Smokey in the Grove and beyond. A tipster handed the director and his young charges a report showing high rates of dangerous chemicals like arsenic in the soil that the city had completed and then filed away for two years. Banner headlines and a community outcry followed.
The city has already spent substantial money to clean up the mess as a result of research and pushing by Alfieri and company. Much more is needed, the professor says.
"Miami is still a Jim Crow town," he says. "It has among the highest rates of inner-city, concentrated poverty in the country. The state has turned its back on the inner city. That must change."