Good Fences, Bad Neighbors

Expect a crowd at the Miami City Commission meeting today (Thursday). At issue is the controversy that has come to be known as Stallonegate. Commissioners will face this question: Should the city allow a neighborhood of wealthy individuals to block access to their public street?

The street under consideration is an exclusive, 2000-foot stretch of Brickell Avenue just south of the Rickenbacker Causeway's toll booths. Among the prominent individuals living in the enclave are Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. Closing the gate of the eight-foot-tall iron fence would seal up a footpath through the northern end of the avenue, which is a cul-de-sac entered off South Miami Avenue at 32nd Road.

Motorists use the street to get to the city's waterfront Alice Wainwright Park; cyclists and joggers use it as a way to reach the Rickenbacker while avoiding heavy traffic on South Miami Avenue. But residents, Stallone in particular, claim the neighborhood has become such a magnet for crime that permanently closing the gate across the path is necessary to ensure their safety. "This is an area where the residents don't feel they will be safe walking with their kids," says Rosario Kennedy, the lobbyist representing Stallone and his neighbors before the commission. "To this day they are afraid to use Alice Wainwright Park. Every day they see strange faces." To bolster her argument, Kennedy points to police crime statistics showing that 79 serious infractions were committed in the "neighborhood" during 1996. The figures appear to be accurate, but the term neighborhood is wide open to debate.

The area Kennedy delineates begins just south of Mercy Hospital (nearly a mile from Stallone's home) and includes the parking lots and grounds of Vizcaya. In that neighborhood last year, nine people were robbed and four assaulted. Police also recorded 44 thefts, fourteen burglaries, and eight autos reported stolen or recovered.

Another set of statistics, prepared last week by Miami police at New Times's request, tells a very different story. According to those figures, Stallone and his neighbors live in a veritable oasis of tranquillity, in part owing to their own efforts to prevent crime by persuading the city to post signs at 32nd Road ("Local Traffic Only. For residents and park use. Enforced by police 24 hours a day."), to restrict parking near Wainwright Park, and to fence in a large hammock within the park. In addition, the neighborhood association -- the Cliff Hammocks Homeowners Association -- employs off-duty Miami police officers to patrol the area after dark, and it plans to finance and construct a guardhouse at the 32nd Road entrance. But Kennedy insists that residents deserve even more protection. "They feel that leaving the gate open defeats the purpose of the [guardhouse]," she says. "Why go to the expense of building this thing, of taxing themselves, if there is ingress and egress through the back?"

For all the concern, however, reports of crimes committed specifically along Brickell Avenue between 32nd Road and the Rickenbacker Causeway show that during the last eighteen months, only one house has been burglarized (twice, in the same month), and one family menaced by violence. No one has been mugged, robbed, raped, or beaten by strangers sneaking into the neighborhood. In fact, the only life-threatening crime reported since January 1996 occurred at Stallone's own home, when one of his security guards allegedly shot and stabbed another guard this past July.

"The stuff I'm familiar with on my own street is not there," says Joe Beasley, a Coconut Grove lawyer and marathon runner who is leading a ragtag collection of cyclists, joggers, walkers, and skaters opposed to the gate closure. "I know of a couple of home invasions on my street, a number of cars stolen. My wife was robbed at gunpoint in front of our house. We know of other people who've had the same things happen. Maybe we should put up a fence around Coconut Grove."

Beasley's anecdotal evidence is supported by official police records measuring crime in Coconut Grove as a whole -- roughly the area from U.S. 1 to Biscayne Bay between the Rickenbacker Causeway and Le Jeune Road. In the Grove during 1996, 3747 serious crimes were committed. Seven of them -- two burglaries and five thefts from vehicles -- occurred on Brickell Avenue (four of the five vehicle break-ins occurred at Wainwright Park). Four people were murdered in Coconut Grove. None on Brickell Avenue. Fourteen people were raped in the area. None on Brickell Avenue. Nearly 250 robberies took place. None on Brickell Avenue. More than 300 people were assaulted. None on Brickell Avenue. A total of 537 cars were reported stolen or recovered. None on Brickell Avenue.

Madonna's home (3029 Brickell Ave.) attracted its share of annoyances. Twice police received reports of a suspicious person or trespasser at her address during 1996. Police also responded to a report of a domestic quarrel that did not lead to violence (two more domestic quarrels have been reported in the first five months of 1997). Her home security alarm sounded twice, though police found no evidence of intruders. They did, however, respond to one report of an unspecified theft.

The only high-volume crime on the avenue is illegal parking: Miami police issued 28 citations in 1996, all of them at the park. "I don't think they should be parked illegally there," allows Joe Beasley, "but that isn't something you're solving by fencing off the street to runners. If Stallone wants to have a place where people can't come around, there's Star Island and other islands, where you've got one way in and one way out.


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