Days of El Portal's Lives
The Tequesta Indian burial mound has smoothed itself over centuries into a grassy rise sitting perpetually in the gray shadow of giant oak trees. The hillock is circled by a narrow asphalt road and watched by the shuttered windows of bougainvillea-covered bungalows and tile-roofed mission-style homes in the Village of El Portal, just north of Little Haiti. The mound is one of only a few local remnants of the Tequestas, hunters and fishers who faded from Florida in the late 1700s. In 1949 a bronze plaque was placed at the mound recognizing its historic significance, and it remains a source of pride among El Portal's 3000 inhabitants.
But could this peaceful patch of hallowed earth be harboring an ancient curse, some maleficent energy that could account for a history of unseemly, sometimes bizarre goings-on in El Portal? How else to explain, for example, the fistfights at village hall, the restraining orders and lawsuits, the slanderous pirate-radio broadcasts, the racial and ethnic mudslinging? The combatants over the years have included old-Florida Anglos, African Americans, Haitians, new immigrants, and gays, but the battle has remained one for political control, an ever-shifting power struggle fueled by grand passions -- all over a one-square-mile town.
Miami historian Paul George can't say if there's a curse associated with the El Portal site, but he does know that workers hired in 1896 to clear a Tequesta burial mound in downtown Miami believed they'd be hexed for violating the grounds. The Tequesta were just the first group to rise and fall in this cranny of the county. White settlers moved in during the government's wars with the Seminoles in the 1800s, and the Village of El Portal was established in 1937. It has since kept mostly to itself. "El Portal contains a great deal of history, including a unique and important landmark," George muses, "but nobody gives it much thought."
Outsiders have indeed overlooked the rustic municipality throughout its 65 years, leaving it to evolve into one of the state's most ethnically and culturally diverse communities. From a whites-only town at its incorporation, El Portal was transformed by 1993 to one of only three black-controlled municipalities in South Florida. That same year the first Haitian elected to any office in the United States, Philippe Derose, was sworn in as an El Portal councilman. In 2000 Derose became the first Haitian mayor in the nation, and El Portal was the first municipality with a majority-Haitian governing body. By the 2000 census, blacks -- more or less evenly divided between African Americans and Haitian Americans -- accounted for more than 60 percent of El Portal's population.
Within the past few years, however, yet another demographic trend has been changing the town's look. Gay and lesbian professionals, most of whom are Anglo or white Hispanic, are an increasing presence in the Upper Eastside and residential neighborhoods to the west, including El Portal. The latest revamping of the town's political makeup became evident in December 2000 with the election of one of Miami-Dade County's first and few openly gay council members -- the first white person to sit on the council since 1997.
As the entire Biscayne corridor north of downtown becomes increasingly fashionable after 40 years of decline, property values in El Portal and surrounding neighborhoods are tripling and quadrupling. Still pockets of poor folk remain on coveted land and are increasingly seen as a detriment to the area's ongoing gentrification. These days, in fact, a proposed "affordable housing" development has become such a touchy issue in El Portal -- where it is not located -- that opponents of the town's mayor are exploiting fear and loathing of the lower classes in hopes of thwarting her re-election. But then El Portal has gone through many cycles, and yesterday's winners often turn out to be tomorrow's losers. In this village, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two.
Take the vicissitudes of Daisy Black. The 53-year-old was the first African-American woman and only the second black person elected to the El Portal council, in 1991. Four years later she became the village's first black mayor (each year the council chooses a mayor from its own ranks). Black is currently serving her fifth two-year term on the council. She has been an El Portal homeowner since 1979 and plans to continue in local politics. She is a former long-time president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Miami-Dade County and current president of the Florida Municipal Democratic Elected Officials. She has received awards for her civic involvement, and her likeness looks down on the Dolphin Expressway from a gigantic billboard advertising her alma mater, Miami-Dade Community College. Yet that hasn't buffered Daisy Black from her town's particular brand of brawling: She's survived a series of assaults on her character, job performance, financial dealings, and basic worth as a human being. Now she's up for re-election in December.
And a new wave of attacks has already begun, led by a man who has unexpectedly reappeared on the local scene after a decade of relative invisibility. He now calls himself Michael the Black Man, and he was once a prominent disciple of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the religious leader who was recently released from federal prison after serving eleven years on a murder conspiracy conviction. In 1992 Michael -- a.k.a. Maurice Woodside, Maurice Symonette, and Mikael Israel -- was tried in Fort Lauderdale for murder alongside twelve other Yahweh followers and was one of seven acquitted. Since then he's been spotted as a singer in a musical venture with Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, and as a Republican Party activist. Then he started Boss Radio early this year.
Until a few weeks ago, Michael the Black Man was broadcasting a series of sermonlike programs on an FM station that identified itself as WBOS, BOSS 104.1. Those call letters belong to a popular FM station in Boston, though, and the Miami station did not have an FCC permit to be on the air.
Nevertheless Michael seemed to attract a large audience for the bogus WBOS, much of it in El Portal, where residents tuned in to hear him and frequent guest Fred Thomas lambaste the village police, elected officials, and Daisy Black.
One of Michael's principal aims was to convince his black listeners to convert to the Republican Party. Quoting Scripture and condemning the "Demon-crats" as "slave masters" allied with the Ku Klux Klan, Michael and Thomas lumped Daisy Black in there with the forces of darkness, calling her a "devil" and advocating she be "set on fire." (Michael repeatedly hung up on calls from New Times to his cell phone.)
Daisy Black had no luck getting a response from Michael, either, after she requested a tape of one of his programs. "He said all kinds of things about me, and I called the station to request a copy," Black recalls. "The next day I heard Michael on the air saying, 'Daisy Black wants a copy of my show, but she'll never get anything from me!'"
Black, a substitute teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in El Portal, says she used to listen to the show driving to and from school. Black is the daughter and granddaughter of Bahamian immigrants, has worked since the age of fourteen, and is rarely disposed to put up with excesses of any sort. "One time," Black continues, "I heard Michael screaming, 'Daisy Black, I hate you!'" She pauses, her expression impassive; the caustic words hang in the air for a second. "I have no idea who this man is. He doesn't know me. After that I just stopped listening."
But Fred Thomas does know her. Which is part of the reason a Yahweh protégé was up to such on-air antics. Back in 1997 Daisy Black got Thomas fired from his job as El Portal's police chief. Ever since, Thomas and a handful of allies have been on the warpath, proclaiming whenever possible charges of corruption and malfeasance against Black and some of the El Portal police force. Thomas's detractors, in turn, accuse him of throwing stones from a glass house: Among other allegations against him are falsifying police records and domestic violence. The claims on both sides remain either unproven or not legally actionable.
From El Portal's earliest years, there are accounts of fistfights between village politicos. Like the one during the 1996 election, when newly hired police chief Thomas punched his newly fired predecessor, Zane Mason, outside a polling station. Thomas accused Mason, who was then a council candidate, of hurling racial slurs (Thomas is black, Mason white), physically threatening him, and then, after Thomas had knocked him down, spitting "blood and slobber" at the chief. Thomas was unsuccessful in his attempts to have Mason charged with battery on a law enforcement officer. Mason did win the election, though, and five months later voted with the council majority to fire Thomas.
But Thomas and his allies weren't about to call it quits. In ensuing years one council member applied for a restraining order against a Thomas supporter who was allegedly harassing and intimidating officials to force them to rehire Thomas. In 2000 two council members launched a brief campaign to bring him back as an "unpaid deputy chief." Many townspeople disapproved of this notion, mostly because Thomas was at the same time suing the village for job discrimination and would later receive a payment of more than $50,000 from El Portal's insurance carrier to drop the case.
That still was not the end of it for Thomas, now 62 years old, a former Hialeah police officer and long-time Carol City resident. He and his new friend Michael the Black Man didn't limit their crusade to pirated airwaves. On at least two occasions this past April and May, about a dozen protesters (who didn't live in El Portal and had not applied for a picketing permit) pulled up in a van across the street from El Portal Village Hall. The demonstrators stayed on the north side of NE 87th Street, technically in Miami Shores, calling for the riddance of the "criminals" in the police department and the "evil" Daisy Black. El Portal officers and village hall workers who happened to witness the demonstrations recognized only one of the participants, Fred Thomas.
In April Thomas and Michael, both African American, appeared on a Kreyol-language AM radio station and added a new ethnic element to their battle; they accused the majority of the El Portal village council members and the police department of holding anti-Haitian views and forcing (via code enforcement, fines, liens, and so on) some Haitian homeowners to move out of the village. Two Haitian council members have been voted out of office since 2000, leaving just one Haitian on the body, and the ex-council members believe their opponents used anti-Haitian and illegal tactics to defeat them.
Sometime in mid-June, BOSS 104.1 apparently went off the air (there are unconfirmed reports Michael is broadcasting on another frequency). This followed the eviction of the station from its office on NE 125th Street in North Miami; the eviction was for nonpayment of rent, but Michael had no occupational license, FCC permit, or permit for its antenna, and violated zoning codes. Michael and Fred Thomas have now added several City of North Miami officials to their enemies list.
While embroiled in their North Miami legal complications, Michael and Thomas paid for a small ad that ran in New Times on May 23. It was titled "Democrats/KKK vs. Black Republicans" and began with the false statement, "North Miami trying to destroy the only Black owned radio station in Miami."
Back in El Portal, Daisy Black is catching less vitriol for the moment. But the political bottom line here is that ethnicity and race, while used as weapons, have never mattered nearly as much as the ability to win friends and influence people.
For instance Black was low on influence when she was forced off the council in 1995 by a faction led by yet another sworn enemy, Lawrence Kennedy, also African American. That was the year Black had just been chosen the town's first African-American mayor, but not everyone celebrated this political landmark. Lingering resentment from the town's old white guard was expected; however, Black also encountered some opposition from her own race, reluctant to acknowledge a woman as El Portal's number-one official.
Kennedy and his supporters publicized several damning (but unproven) allegations against Black, including unauthorized expenditures of public money and a rumored "sealed" police record. After that election Black filed complaints against Kennedy and two other candidates with the Florida Election Commission and the Miami-Dade Elections Department; Kennedy threatened to bring unspecified criminal charges against Black. The next year, after Black went public with Kennedy's past arrests (carrying an illegal weapon, domestic violence, and DUI, on none of which he was prosecuted), he and another foe of Black's were defeated and Black was returned to the council with the largest vote total of any candidate.
The following year Black was a target, along with two white council members, of a recall attempt. Among the recall leaders were Kennedy and Earl Carroll, Dade's first African-American commissioner, who was indicted in 1970 for soliciting a bribe and recalled from office in 1972. The 1997 recall failed. But the dramas continued.
As was evident during the police-chief fistfight, power politics doesn't just involve politicians in El Portal. The men (and women) in blue are a big factor.
The police department, which is at the mercy of the council in funding and personnel matters, has experienced its own factionalism and instability. For a time during the mid-to-late Nineties, a series of chiefs and acting chiefs popped up and down like so many shooting-gallery rabbits.
In 1996, after police chief Zane Mason was fired and before Fred Thomas took over, Ofcr. Gari Senderoff -- whom Mason had fired in 1993 but who arbitrators later ordered reinstated -- was named acting chief. In 1997, then-councilman Mason lobbied for an internal affairs investigation of Senderoff, and then-chief Marvin Wiley fired Senderoff from the force a second time. Senderoff went to court and won reinstatement a second time. When Wiley himself was terminated in 2000, Senderoff was back for ten months as acting chief. He's still on the force, facing sexual harassment charges, but currently Sgt. Eugene Morales is El Portal's acting police chief; there's no word on when the council will hire a permanent chief.
During Wiley's three-year tenure he also fired a part-time officer named Islande Salomon. She had just returned from helping the U.S. government train police officers in Haiti, but an El Portal police internal-affairs investigation found she had misrepresented her position in El Portal to get the high-paying federal job.
In December 1998, Salomon was elected to the El Portal council, along with long-time resident Audrey Edmonson. And the next year Laura Charlemange-Vancol won a council seat. She, Philippe Derose, and Salomon composed the first Haitian-majority municipal governing body in the nation. But by mid-2000 the maneuvering and sniping among council members had grown so vicious residents were known to walk out of meetings in disgust -- those who weren't haranguing or threatening their elected leaders. Once-robust attendance at meetings was down, and the Miami Herald even published an editorial in March 2000 scolding the village's elected officials for "engaging in petty politics in the worst sense of the phrase."
The editorial was triggered by the firing of police chief Wiley by a council divided along ethnic lines: Islande Salomon enlisted the help of the two other Haitians to get rid of Wiley, the man who had fired her a few years earlier. This move was supported by little more than Salomon's complaints that Wiley was "lazy." Through this and other disputes, Philippe Derose, the nation's first Haitian mayor, developed a true politician's talent for compromise, flexibility, and being on the winning side. He voted with his Haitian cohorts on the Wiley firing, but he's been able to work with different council factions over the years. This past December Derose was re-elected to a fifth term with the highest vote total of any candidate.
The December 2000 election, in which Salomon, Black, and Edmonson were all up for re-election, was the nastiest anyone could remember. Acting Chief Senderoff confiscated the city clerk's computer, claiming one of his officers had been illegally using it to produce campaign materials. Several officers went door-to-door asking residents not to vote for Salomon (she had reportedly vowed to freeze police salaries and reduce the size of the department). Then flyers from "Portal Police Association 2000" appeared in every mailbox. This mystery organization requested residents cast their votes for Salomon and against Black and Edmonson. Among the flyer's claims were that Edmonson had been institutionalized for mental problems -- she does in fact hold a degree in psychology and had been director of New Horizons Community Mental Health Center.
Despite such tactics Black and Edmonson were re-elected; Salomon, who for months had bitterly accused many town leaders of waging an anti-Haitian campaign, lost, and the Haitian majority on the council ended. The big surprise, though, was the candidate who received the highest number of votes -- newcomer Craig Smith, the attorney and gay activist who had only a few months earlier bought a house next door to Edmonson. She had persuaded him to run for the council.
In December 2001 Andrew Dickman, another white man, also an El Portal newcomer and an attorney, defeated Charlemange-Vancol. Now the sole Haitian left on the council is the first, Derose. He and Black remain the only constant presences on the council for the past twelve years.
Audrey Edmonson, who also recruited Dickman, was chosen mayor in January of this year (she previously held the post in 1999, when so many wild tales about village officials were circulating that she started a "rumor control hotline"). Edmonson, 49 years old, was born and raised in Liberty City. In the late Fifties she was among the first black children to integrate Allapattah Elementary and after high school went to work as a flight attendant in the white world of Eastern Airlines during the Seventies.
She moved to El Portal in the late Seventies. "When I first moved in there was maybe one black family on the east side," she remembers. "It was more of a retirement community, mostly older whites. There were no children here." Soon enough, prominent black citizens started moving to the village: comedian Flip Wilson, Johnny Jones (Dade's first black schools superintendent), Earl Carroll, Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves, attorney Jesse McCrary.
Today Edmonson is proud of the big improvement projects that have received funding on her watch: Since January, grants totaling almost one million dollars have come to El Portal to fix the storm-water drainage system, to beautify NE 87th Street, and to expand the police department.
In fact even critics of the mayor concede the current council may be the most competent and civic-minded in years. "Last year we were lucky to get three or four citizens in a meeting," Edmonson says, "but now people are seeing things happening in the town and they're coming back."
The audience numbered more than a dozen this past May 14 when Edmonson opened the regular monthly council meeting with a proclamation that not so long ago would have been the height of irony (and probably shouted down by some irate citizen, anyway). The month of May, Edmonson declared in her precise, sweet-toned voice, would henceforth be recognized as "Civility Month."
"Whereas," Edmonson read the proclamation text, "displays of anger, rudeness, ridicule, impatience, and a lack of respect and personal attacks detract from the open exchange of ideas, prevent fair discussion of the issues, and can discourage individuals from participation in government ... the Village Council of the Village of El Portal, Florida, calls upon all citizens to exercise civility toward each other."
That would include the residents of the Little Farm Mobile Court, situated less than a hundred yards from village hall, but they likely have never heard of the civility proclamation. These are the people who are not always welcome in the nicer parts of El Portal. Villagers and police know that at least some of the punks who've been burglarizing El Portal homes and selling drugs on street corners either live or hang out in the trailer park. A lot of the mobile home renters aren't U.S. citizens and can't vote, and most are simply preoccupied with the daily grind. They have little reason to come to council meetings; they're certainly not benefiting from the village's beautification projects or skyrocketing property values, though an increased police presence couldn't hurt.
Ofcr. John Gonzalez, working the day shift solo on a recent Saturday, gets a late-morning disturbance call at the trailer park. In contrast to the tree-shaded 80-year-old Tudor homes just across the train tracks to the west, Little Farm is a dusty warren of about 250 mobile homes packed together under a few scrubby palms, with shriveled hibiscus bushes and tufts of grass as fancy as the landscaping gets.
Gonzalez, a New Jersey native who sports large, colorful tattoos on both forearms, threads his squad car (a hand-me-down Ford from the county) through tight unpaved lanes until he's stopped by two gesturing women. He gets out to speak with a mother and daughter, Jamaican immigrants. The women are loudly accusing a neighbor, a Colombian who is nowhere to be seen, of attacking them with a machete. "She just come out the door and she's screaming she's going to kill me," cries the daughter.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, finds the Colombian inside the mobile home where she lives with her Cuban boyfriend. Gonzalez knows just about all the trailer-park residents, and he is aware that fortysomething Carmelita has occasionally "flown off the handle" in the past, though she has no arrest record and the machete is a new touch. A meek Carmelita, dressed in bike shorts, bright orange T-shirt, and snakeskin mules, insists she was only defending herself. But even the boyfriend's version of events tends to corroborate the Jamaican women's story, and Gonzalez -- by now having received two more calls -- decides he'd better take Carmelita temporarily out of the mix by arresting her.
"My problem is," Gonzalez explains, "three people say [Carmelita] was waving the machete in the street, which would be aggravated assault. I think everyone's calmed down now, but I'm by myself today, and I don't want to leave and have them kill each other. This time I feel better being more cautious."
He drives Carmelita to the village hall, where the police station is, to fill out the obligatory hour's worth of paperwork before transporting her to the county jail. This takes Gonzalez off the street, and, pursuant to an intramunicipality agreement, officers from Miami Shores and Biscayne Park will answer the two disturbance calls Gonzalez can't get to (one is a trailer-park resident attempting to kill himself). Carmelita, meanwhile, worries that she's supposed to take the bus tomorrow to one of her two jobs, but she doesn't know anybody with the money to bail her out.
"You've heard the term trailer trash," says Gonzalez. "I don't believe that. Some of the officers don't want anything to do with this place, but I prefer to patrol here. Where I grew up in New Jersey, I used to be one of those kids like the ones here; they don't have anywhere to play except out in the street."
And there may be even more of them out on the streets soon, which was the reason for this past Thursday's village hall meeting. The hall was packed for a presentation by the developers of a proposed low-income apartment complex. Even though the housing is not to be within El Portal's limits, the location -- on NE 90th Street, east of Biscayne Boulevard -- is near enough that residents are worried about the impact on traffic, crime, and property values. Just as the neighborhood is becoming a desirable upscale destination, here come 800 people who don't even make $30,000 per year, free to roam the streets of El Portal.
The 150 or so citizens in attendance at the meeting were overwhelmingly against the proposed complex. They were also overwhelmingly white in a town whose population is 62 percent black. Mayor Audrey Edmonson, an early supporter of the development, is convinced the leaders of the opposition, who are white, gay men (at least one is running for council in December), are playing the race card solely to discredit her politically. That is plausible, but even more palpable at Thursday's meeting was a prickly "poor-phobia." One of the main concerns focused on the type of security fences and gates that would surround the complex.
"I don't know why you can't develop condos on a high-end scale," complained one audience member, to applause and shouts of approval.
"This is about how you will affect our property values," said another. And ever-higher property values, of course, represent the future of El Portal. Around here, speakers made clear, low-income housing doesn't fit anymore. Miami-Dade County suffers from an extreme shortage of affordable housing, but the working poor who live in them are simply not the permissible element to loose on the prestigious El Portal. They will have to live somewhere else. Come December, Audrey Edmonson will know whether she will have to pay for thinking otherwise.
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