Black Gawk Down

Steve Meeks, Sr., and Steve Meeks, Jr., say black is always in
Jonathan Postal

Maybe pink really is the new black. In Little Havana's Latin Quarter it seems pastels are now de rigueur, at least for building façades. Black is not only out in the LQ but, supposedly, illegal.

The exterior in question belongs to Borders Picture Framing and Gallery, which is located in a minimalist one-story building at 1601 SW First St., on the northwest edge of the Latin Quarter. Owners Steve Meeks, Jr., and Steve Meeks, Sr., who are among the premier framers in town, moved into the space three years ago. Back then the exterior was yellow and pink. "Looked like a Taco Bell," says Steve Jr. So knowing a thing or two about art and design, they painted it "dark, dark gray," as he describes it. "Almost like a slate black. Because it's a very flat, straight building. We put silver reflective tints on all the windows. It's a very sort of modern look."

About a month ago a mysterious fellow with a goatee showed up at Borders, saying he was a private contractor sent by the city's East Little Havana Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET). According to the younger Meeks, the man told him the frame shop didn't conform to the city's Latin Quarter color guidelines and offered to paint it another shade at no expense to the owners. They refused. "I said, 'Look, I don't have anything from the city telling me that I have to paint my building,'" the picture framer recounts. "It just struck me as very weird."

Turns out the man with the beard was actually sent by the Small Business Opportunity Center, a private nonprofit corporation that has served as a funnel for taxpayer dollars into Little Havana since 1976. The SBOC is connected to CAMACOL, the Latin Chamber of Commerce, whose founder, Luis Sabines, was one of Little Havana's great caudillos. He died in 2000. His son, Luis, Jr. , runs the SBOC from its office in the CAMACOL headquarters just a few blocks from the Meekses' store.

SBOC is a long-time recipient of the federal grants doled out yearly by the city's Department of Community Development for a plethora of noble purposes, in this case the commercial façade program, to which $700,000 was allocated this fiscal year.

The problem is the city and SBOC have put a very gray cart before the dark horse of code enforcement. Pablo Canton, the East Little Havana NET administrator, admits he hasn't been able to get an inspector to issue the Meekses a violation notice for their offending hue. That could be because the only two inspectors he had were recently reassigned to another office as part of a NET downsizing plan. But it could also be that even if code-enforcement sleuths are on the case, it's likely they can't figure out what colors are in the clear in the Quarter. Canton tells New Times he doesn't know exactly what's in the official Latin Quarter palette, just that black and other dark colors aren't. "We have certain rules," he declares. "We don't want a purple building or a dark-green building. Personally, I don't really like black either." For the definitive word, Canton referred New Times to veteran city planner José Casanova for the "approved" LQ colors. (Casanova did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Meekses think the guidelines are obscure at best, according to a 1988 copy of such that they possess. "It doesn't say it cannot be gray," Steve Jr. notes. "It says, 'Light shades of color are preferred.'"

Lured to the Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort by a wily flack promising interviews, cocktails, and a chance to "hobnob with soon-to-be stars of the hit reality program" The Apprentice II, the Bitch was ambushed on Monday by an elaborate sales pitch for the adjoining Trump Grande Ocean Resort & Residences (otherwise known as "condos").

Though a man in a brown suit and blue oxford shirt greatly resembled the ousted Bowie from the current Apprentice season, it was in fact Trump development partner Gil Dezer. With no other stars on hand, there was no comparing claws with next year's Omarosa. Instead a pack of duped but proudly impoverished journalists mingled awkwardly with Realtors intent on moving seven-digit units in the Sunny Isles Beach palace, and, oddly, the entire staff of a Scion dealership. Surely the closest the disposable imports get to Trump property.

Though the big cheese -- The Donald -- was most definitely not in the house, there were some big wheels -- of camembert, chèvre, and Morbier du Livradois -- and free liquor on hand, served with glossy brochures for the properties.

Rob LaPlante, an agreeable mensch with tousled hair and smudged glasses who is the casting producer for the forthcoming second installment of the NBC series, calmly filled in as a celebrity surrogate. LaPlante recalled last week's open casting call for The Apprentice II, which saw a line "three football fields long" of careerist-on-camera hopefuls snake down Collins Avenue.  

"I interviewed more than 1000 people in one day," LaPlante sighed, though he was mum on how many from the South Florida audition made the cut to contestant. "Sometimes people from a certain setting work out, and sometimes they don't."

When a retinue from Miramar-based NBC affiliate WTVJ (Channel 6) showed up to support their network brethren, some expressed genuine enthusiasm for the reality show.

"Last year I filled out the application to be on the program," admitted WTVJ's Ginelle Nelson.

As discouraged real estate agents and guzzling guests emptied the wine cellar, the only person who seemed as cool as the ocean 31 stories below was Trump's on-site director of customer relations, Elena Baranoff, beautiful and elegant in red slingbacks and Chanel earrings, surveying the scene with a serene but distancing smile.

"The only way to get through these things is to keep drinking, keep slugging 'em down," advised Trump lawyer Joseph Silver.

It's just possible that Fernando Zulueta has the best hair of any charter-school executive ever. But then again, the Academica president has to compete with the sleek coiffure of some of his own consultants, notably the sea-otter look of zoning attorney Juan Mayol, and the suave puffiness of zoning and land-use lawyer Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. But a united front of good hair worked no magic for Zulueta on March 24, when his team attempted to get the Doral City Council to approve plans for a new pre-K through eighth-grade charter school he wishes to open in an industrial park at 8750 NW 21st Terr.

It wasn't that the council didn't want to give Zulueta the nod. Several council members expressed a desire to see more schools built in their growing community, so much so that they ignored the advice of their own advisors. A council staff report issued earlier in the day recommended denial in part because the proposed school site is inside the "no-school zone" around Miami International Airport. The county's aviation department sees this as a potential public-safety problem because the school would operate in the flight path of three busy runways.

At the meeting, Doral staff also recommended the council defer the hearing because the county and the school district have no interlocal agreement governing the approval process. But Team Zulueta rolled out Mayol with a hearty "justice delayed is justice deferred." Carlos Becerra, aide to school board member Frank Bolaños, urged the council to get on with it because, clearly, the people who pay Becerra's salary haven't managed to build many schools in Doral. "We have failed as a system probably," he offered in brief eulogy.

If that wasn't enough to tease the cowlicks of any well-meaning public servant, a dapper Carlo Rodriguez sprang to the podium to assure the council that several other municipalities had approved charter schools without an interlocal agreement. Rodriguez is a high-ranking administrator in the school system's Schools of Choice division, but it wasn't clear whether he was speaking on behalf of his employer or the charter school.

Alas, Zulueta's hopes were dashed by the clock when at 11:00 p.m. the council was forced to defer the matter to a future meeting. Should the proposal eventually win Doral's yes, it will then go to the school board seeking ultimate approval.

Mo De La Vega waxes optimistic about volunteering for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Miami, putting a happy spin on animal-rights activism in a city not known for welcoming that sort of thing. He's in front of the Torch of Freedom at Bayfront Park on March 26, simultaneously keeping his "IAMS TORTURES ANIMALS" placard from blowing away in the stiff breeze and extracting his legs from the tangled leash that holds his dog Rusty. The pooch, a perky, calf-high attention-getter, approaches passers-by with an irresistible dog grin, and De La Vega swoops in with a pamphlet detailing alleged abuses by dog and cat food maker Iams, a minion venture of Procter & Gamble. PETA claims an operative worked at Iams in 2003 and observed -- among other things -- dogs and cats confined to small enclosures, some of them for up to six years; animals with untreated mouth and ear infections and paws wounded from balancing on metal-bottomed cages; and live kittens washed down a drain.

Most people brush past the six PETA sign-bearers (three with dogs) at the park; only a few stop to ask about the protest. One existentialist driver waiting at a traffic light on Biscayne yells from her car window: "Who is I ams?"  

De La Vega, protesting during his one-hour lunch break (he works at his family's translation company), may say Miamians are fairly receptive to PETA's politics, but his recent past tells a different story. In October he was arrested after donning an orange vest and heading out to a well-known dove-hunting area on the edge of the Everglades. He says that he and a half-dozen companions spread out across the field and started picking up trash. They weren't confronting hunters, De La Vega says, just making it hard for them to get off a shot. They were arrested on misdemeanor charges of "hunter interference" and De La Vega, 26, wound up with 100 hours of community service, 50 more than he'd have potentially received for a DUI.

Opa-locka is a poor city, forever, it seems, plagued by a sievelike water and sewer system, lawsuits, political intrigue, and endless cycles of hirings and firings. But possibly the saddest thing is that the city of about 15,000 people (with a poverty rate of 35 percent and only 52 percent of adults over age 25 with a high school degree) has no library. In June 2003, citing financial concerns, the city commission decided to shut it down.

Community-resource officer Ian Sachs notes that there are several county libraries near Opa-locka that residents can use.

In 2001 the city received a $100,000 grant from the county's Office of Community and Economic Development to refurbish the library with furniture, books, a computer, and audio-visual equipment. At the moment the building stands nearly empty, waiting for the city to hire a contractor to renovate it for office space. Sachs says that should happen soon.

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