Brother to the Rescue

On a recent Saturday afternoon about two dozen people and a well-mannered yellow Lab gathered in a courtyard in Miami's Design District. Most owned homes in the nearby neighborhood of Buena Vista and they'd come to discuss mundane issues such as trash pickup, beautification, and code compliance. But the underlying agenda was power; for the past several years neighbors have battled one another over the fate of this somewhat rundown but architecturally rich inner-city community.

The man leading the meeting has emerged as a community powerhouse. He is 46-year-old Luis Penelas, president of the Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association and older brother of Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas. In spite of his famous name and growing visibility in the area, he is practically unknown in other parts of the county.

Luis Penelas moved into Buena Vista less than a year ago, but he has already sparked changes. He is involved in numerous local cleanup and improvement projects. His neighbors have even speculated that he might run for city commission. Although Penelas terms the idea "silly" for now, he doesn't rule out the possibility of a political career in the future.

The aforementioned Saturday meeting was unusual because it brought together Penelas's group and the Historic Buena Vista Homeowners Association, chaired by Jim Keane. Their aim: to solve problems of noise and loitering around the Food For Life Network's food bank at NE Second Avenue and 47th Street. (Buena Vista's sixteen square blocks are bounded by NE 41st Street, 49th Street, Second Avenue, and North Miami Avenue.)

Penelas opposed several residents' efforts to evict the food bank, which didn't comply with all zoning requirements. He called the meeting to elicit promises from Food For Life that it would become a better neighbor. If residents and the bank could reach a compromise, Penelas offered to reassure city zoning officials about the operation. "Since the main issue is noise coming from the [garbage] trucks, I would like for you to demand, not ask, that your trash pickup start after seven o'clock," Penelas addressed a Food For Life representative at the meeting. "Tell [your trash hauler] if they won't change the pickup times, you'll change companies."

For now Penelas declares himself content to be the 37-year-old mayor's "nagging conscience" on social issues. He says he "needled my brother to do something about saving the circle" (the downtown Tequesta Indian site endangered by development). And he volunteered with SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) Dade this past year in efforts to pass the county human rights ordinance. "I feel very proud in saying that my father and I were both instrumental in pushing my brother into taking action [in support of the measure]," Penelas says.

Alex Penelas didn't have time to speak about his brother, according to his press secretary Juan Mendieta. But the mayor did respond in writing to faxed questions. "It is not uncommon for [Luis] to offer me advice and opinions generally as any brother would," Alex Penelas wrote. "I value his advice generally, especially on issues that he is genuinely concerned about. An example of this counsel was his supporting my position to save the Tequesta Circle. He also helped me in the process as our community passed a human rights ordinance."

Luis Penelas is dark-haired (now graying) and handsome like his brother. He doesn't downplay his connections. "Why not use them to do good?" he reasons. He isn't reluctant to drop names or call key bureaucrats to arrange meetings or request advice. "Since I've been back a lot of people have called me for different things," he says, crossing his legs and bouncing his Topsider-clad, sockless foot. "Sometimes I've been sort of embarrassed. But because of my brother I am able to put people in contact with each other. If somebody around here wants to meet with the mayor, they call me. I truly love helping."

But not everyone loves Luis Penelas. There is some antipathy toward him within the Buena Vista community, though hardly anyone will publicly express it. Instead it seems phone lines are buzzing with rumors and observations about the new kid in town. Some perceive him as a partier who's getting a free ride on his name. Others think his admittedly emotional style has been divisive.

Penelas once criticized the tactics of some neighborhood activists, especially Kenny Merker, former president of the Buena Vista homeowners group. Although Merker has worked hard to upgrade the area, he has a reputation in some circles as an intolerant enforcer. Penelas hasn't done anything to improve Merker's image, Merker complains. "I don't like [Penelas] getting so much recognition when there are people working harder and donating money to community organizations," he adds.

Critics of Penelas also suspect that his family ties helped him win a job this past February with Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF). After decades as a restaurant, pool hall, and banquet manager, Penelas recently started a new job as a $446-per-week "public assistance specialist," interviewing applicants to determine whether they are eligible for public assistance. "Everybody asks me if I got the job because of my brother," Penelas acknowledges. "That's one of the reasons I never looked for a job in the county. I never even told him I was going to apply." (In 1997 the Dade State Attorney's Office investigated and dismissed allegations that Alex Penelas exerted improper influence in the hiring of his father-in-law Fermin Arrarte for a county Aviation Department job.)  

Given the modest salary, the favoritism claim seems overblown. And Penelas's background as a manager appears relevant to his new employment. The only mentions of the mayor in his personnel file are the mayor's office phone number jotted in a margin of the job application, and Luis Penelas's notation that he "volunteer[s] for the Friends of Alex Penelas."

Acquaintances and friends say Penelas doesn't gratuitously trumpet his connections. "I met Luis when he volunteered here and I didn't know he was the mayor's brother at first," SAVE Dade chairman Jorge Mursuli says. "He wasn't presumptuous about it. He seemed to be a very kind, normal person."

Penelas's credentials as a social activist are solid. His father Luis Penelas, Sr., was a prominent union organizer in Havana before the 1959 revolution. After the Castro government condemned him to death that year, Penelas Sr. sought sanctuary in the Costa Rican embassy in Havana while his family fled to Miami. Two years later he joined them. "My father was a revolutionary, sort of like myself," Penelas Jr. says. "I've always been involved in revolutionary causes. I was one of the first members of ACT UP in San Francisco. I was arrested on several occasions for civil disobedience." (ACT UP is a radical organization that began in the early Eighties to call attention to government inaction on AIDS issues.) "Here," Penelas says, "I'm trying to do things differently."

He graduated from Hialeah Senior High in 1970 and studied biology at Miami-Dade Community College for three years. After traveling in South America, he enrolled at Michigan State and then transferred to Wayne State in Detroit, earning a bachelor's degree in ad design in 1980. Penelas wound up in San Francisco at a time when gays were gaining social, economic, and political power in the city. The AIDS epidemic was also beginning there.

Around that time Penelas told his family he was gay. They didn't easily come to terms with his admission, he recalls, but eventually he grew closer to his father and to his mother, Mirta Torres Penelas. Alex Penelas chose not to respond to a written question about his brother's homosexuality.

In early 1997 shortly after Alex Penelas's election as Miami-Dade mayor, Luis moved back to the area. "I got to the point in my life where I needed to be closer to my family," he says. "Something drew me here. As it turned out, I was right. My mother was diagnosed with cancer right after the election and three months later she died." He and his father founded the Mirta Penelas Foundation a year later to provide financial assistance to families and dependents of people with cancer. This past year a gala at the Fontainebleau Hilton raised $60,000 for the foundation.

When Penelas returned to South Florida, he bought a condominium in South Beach and got a job as manager of Yuca restaurant on Lincoln Road. He quit after a year. ("It was enslaving," he remembers.) He also sold his $350,000 house in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco and started looking for a home in Miami. "I'm crazy about gardening, and I'm just not a condo person," he says. "The reason I liked Buena Vista is because of the pioneer feeling I got here. The most interesting people are assembled in this area, and some are offbeat. They have a genuine love for these homes and are trying to save them."

Penelas's palm-shaded 76-year-old Spanish-style home went for an all-time high price for Buena Vista: $199,000. The builders, according to Penelas, constructed "the first casino on Star Island." (He has no idea of their names.) The family that once owned the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain later purchased the house. It sports a broken-tile walkway installed by the family of (the late Cuban congero and TV star) Desi Arnaz, Penelas boasts. A bell tower is rumored to conceal a fortune in old coins. The outstanding feature, though, is the ghost of a murdered English butler, who opens windows and turns on water faucets. Penelas says he can afford the house because he rents out a back cottage and has a roommate. He also leases his South Beach condo, which he owns with his father.  

Buena Vista is heavily populated by Haitian immigrants who own or rent in the neighborhood. Some of those buildings violate city code because of illegal additions or overoccupancy. In recent years the Homeowners Association, which includes many Anglo and Hispanic residents, has led efforts to force city inspectors to cite code violators. This has produced some racial tension. "That's the first thing I was told when I started my job," agrees Roger Biamby, administrator of the City of Miami's Little Haiti Neighborhood Enhancement Team Office. "Haitians came to me and said the white population [in Buena Vista] was trying to run them out."

Penelas led a petition drive this past fall to establish a moratorium on code citations in the neighborhood. The Miami City Commission rejected the request, but agreed to support workshops on building code and zoning compliance. "He spearheaded this whole movement that resulted in [several city departments and community organizations] setting up a series of workshops at Edison Senior High," Biamby says. "So his leadership in this neighborhood association and his willingness to listen and work in cooperation with the city led to a series of good things." (Merker and other homeowners association activists complain they lobbied for the workshops long before Penelas moved in.)

Biamby nominated Penelas for a "Heroes" award that he received this past month from Community United, a coalition of social service and neighborhood organizations that work with the City of Miami Police Department. "I would say he's not just a talker, he's a doer," Biamby observes. "He's out there working every Saturday in our [Little Haiti] cleanup, and he has shown concern not only for the residents, but he's an advocate for the weak. This has made him a lot of friends."

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