"You take checks?" Loraine Hibbert asks Kenny the Juice Man.
"Honey, we take everything," Kenny Aube, self-described juice hustler, assures the owner of Shrimp, Wings & Things.
Aube recently wandered into Hibbert's tiny Model City restaurant on a mission to sell her some juice. His pitch is simple -- he'll lend her a machine if she buys the juice (orange, lemon, cranberry, whatever she likes) to go in it. Hibbert is interested, especially since the up-front cost is low. She's always looking for a new way to get people coming into her place. "I do seafood and soul food, but I'll cook whatever you want," the 43-year-old Hibbert says pragmatically.
Hibbert's family has owned the business at 58th Street and NW 17th Avenue for almost twenty years, struggling month to month since the housing projects a few streets away were condemned and knocked down by the city in 2000. No doubt the collection of rat- and crackhead-infested Section 8 apartments (dubbed Germ City) needed to be demolished. But neighborhood businesses have battled for survival while waiting for new housing and residents to take the place of more than 2000 people who were moved out.
Model City itself is a square grid of streets bounded by I-95 on the east, NW 71st Street at the north, NW 17th Avenue to the west, and State Road 112 as its southern edge. But the heart of it is a 40-square-block area from NW 55th Street up to 62nd Street and from NW 12th Avenue to NW 17th Avenue. It is the poster child for the failure of Sixties-era public-housing programs. In particular twelve buildings owned by developer and slumlord Aristides Martinez (known as Miami Limited and Miami Limited II) became notorious for their shockingly derelict state. Meanwhile Martinez collected millions of subsidized housing dollars from the city and the county for more than fifteen years. In 1998 a large contingent of angry women tired of raising children in broken-down apartments infested with cockroaches and rats marched into Miami City Hall and demanded change. The county soon canceled its contract with Martinez. The city did so a year later. By Christmas of 1999 the residents were moved out and the buildings condemned.
That's when things began to go badly for small-business owners like Loraine Hibbert. Those apartments were within walking distance of her restaurant, which used to be called Nelson's Soul Food and have tables for sit-down service. In 2001 Hibbert, who runs the place along with several family members, had to face facts. The displaced people were not coming back anytime soon. She scaled back to take-out only, and renamed the eatery Shrimp, Wings & Things. "It can hold its own," she says with a shrug. "I complain sometime, but that's part of making a business run. It's worth it seeing people come around, 'Oh, child, you got some good food!'" She grins proudly. "But I don't depend on the city. You really can't."
The city didn't just knock down the buildings and disappear. Model City was designated by the city commission as Miami's first revitalization district (others are Allapattah, Overtown, Edison/Little River/Little Haiti, Wynwood, Little Havana, and West Coconut Grove -- all chosen because of their residents' low incomes and the scant rate of homeownership). The idea was to build 500 single-family homes or townhouses to replace the apartments, as well as fix streets and sidewalks, build small parks, and add other improvements.
In typical Magic City fashion, the city has had trouble getting its grand revitalization scheme off the shelf. In 2001 the city commission created the Model City Community Revitalization Trust to administer the project, but its board wasn't in place until almost a year later. Then-city manager Carlos Gimenez selected an assortment of prominent public servants and private businesspeople to serve on the executive board, which was given the mandate to spend $21.7 million.
The trust, under executive director Gwen Warren (former head of the city's Department of Community Development until she was demoted to the trust) spent more than five million dollars, half on consultants and other soft costs, without building anything. After Warren resigned under pressure this past April, consultant Marva Wiley was appointed director.
A young, attractive woman who embodies the bureaucratic phrase "cautiously optimistic," Wiley took over just as the trust was being threatened with the loss of federal funding because of the building delays and lax oversight of resident relocation money. Wiley and the city are working that out with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the problems did mean the city was unable to purchase about seven million dollars in properties it had under contract last year. That tedious process had to begin anew.
Faced with an amorphous, delayed plan to revitalize much of the 40 blocks, the trust was forced to retrench and focus its energy on developing just 11 blocks, from NW 12th to 17th avenues, between NW 60th and 62nd streets. The tentative plan (to be approved by the city commission this month) calls for about 400 new townhouses and single-family homes. "Initially we wanted to get everything between 58th Street and 62nd Street," Wiley says. "The planners wanted a burnt-earth approach -- to start from scratch. But reality set in."
The reality is the city cannot afford to buy all the property it wants, so the trust is concentrating on the area where it already owns the most land. Besides building new housing, the idea is to upgrade the infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, sewers, parks) and promote local businesses, especially along 17th Avenue and nearby 54th Street. Wiley confidently predicts new construction will start as early as March. Of course, this could just be one more in a long line of meaningless predictions. "It's easy to say, 'Okay, we've got land, let's build,'" she argues patiently. "But the goal is to change the character of the area, and that requires planning. Ultimately the private sector will finish it off for us."
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The private sector that Loraine Hibbert represents is barely holding on, waiting for what she calls "promises made for a fool." Herschel Haynes, president of the Hadley Park Homeowners Association in Model City, says Hibbert's cynicism is not uncommon among business owners. "It's been a struggle," he admits. "One of the things I hear all the time is there has been a distinction between the black community and the Hispanic community. People remember that when they repaired the streets in Little Havana, those businesses received assistance. They feel nothing like that is being done here in the black community."
Hibbert's family business enjoys the somewhat rare advantage of owning its building, which also houses the P&A corner convenience store one door north and Bernice's Flowers one door south. She says she applied to the city for a business grant last year but wasn't among the lucky few to receive one. She hasn't heard anything about the city's vaunted antipoverty push, such as the microloans available to businesses through ACCIN USA. "The only person I see out here trying to help the businesses is Leroy Jones," the executive director of Liberty City-based Neighbors and Neighbors Association. So Hibbert concentrates on what she does best: making meals. She serves a mean cheeseburger and fries for just $2.30. Her brother delivers orders for the lunch crowd. An old man stops in for oxtails, rice, and cornbread. A couple of girls out from school buy an order of fries. Taped to the wall next to the order window of her storefront is a long and thoughtful "Prayer for the working woman."
Divine intervention may be required. In the last year Hibbert has seen only a few new customers walk in the door, even though she distributes flyers in areas outside the neighborhood to advertise. She wishes the city would help her pay for a bigger sign and paved parking lots on vacant land near her business. Although the city did some work on the road out front, afterward the cops became more aggressive about preventing people from parking on the street. "Why I don't know," Hibbert sighs.
Marva Wiley explains that the problem resulted from the county's decision to create two lanes of traffic going each way. "We're looking at that with the trust right now, whether we can do something to address the parking issue," she says, adding that she understands the frustration of the businesses who see government stomping on them yet again. "There are a lot of moving pieces, and part of the problem has been just to get different departments talking to each other. But to the businesses, it's all seamless. To them it's just government."