In the front yard of his salmon-colored, single-story house across the street from Brownsville Middle School, mechanic Lorenzo Jones, 49, slouches on a white lawn chair, holding a cup in his right hand filled with Coca-Cola and Jim Beam. Jones's bloodshot gaze is focused on the apartment buildings next door to the school. From this vantage point, Jones can make out who is going in and out of the courtyard at 4710 and 4730 NW 23rd Ct., two of six buildings on the same block that are part of Annie Coleman Gardens, a public housing project owned by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.
"This right here is the focal point of the drug activity in this area," observes Jones as he lights up a Kool, gesturing toward the apartments.
Jones is the president of the Treasure Heights Homeowners Association, a group of homeowners in Brownsville who are fed up with the drug dealing and related crime in their neighborhood, which they say comes out of the project. (Brownsville is a historically black community in unincorporated Miami-Dade County just northeast of Miami International Airport, between Miami and Hialeah.) For the past four years Jones has complained to officials, including Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, that the Miami-Dade Housing Agency has done nothing to resolve the problems at Annie Coleman. Jones claims the project's tenants are out of control -- engaging in vandalism, allowing children to run amuck at night, and harboring drug dealers. "Annie Coleman is little more than a breeding ground for American Talibans, drug dealers, and violence," Jones says. "There is no reason why Miami-Dade County's property has to serve as a sanctuary for drug dealers."
For Jones, a twenty-year county employee with the Miami-Dade Transit Agency, cleaning up Annie Coleman goes beyond trying to improve the quality of life in his community, which he moved into in 1997. By tackling the drug problem across the street from his home, he says, Jones is also confronting his own demons, trying to channel his volatile personality in a positive direction. Jones is a recovering crack cocaine addict who put down the pipe more than fifteen years ago. Seeing addicts roll up on bicycles and in cars to buy fixes in the courtyards and alleys of the Annie Coleman buildings is a constant reminder of his battle to beat addiction. "I know how drugs can destroy a person's life," Jones says emphatically. "From my perspective, the immediate thing to do is for Miami-Dade Housing to say: 'We are not going to have any drug activity at Annie Coleman.'"
Annie Coleman Gardens consists of more than a dozen apartment buildings scattered throughout a nine-block radius between NW 46th and 51st streets and NW 22nd and 27th avenues. Built in 1967, the project is named for a civic pioneer in Miami's black community during the Thirties.
According to a Miami-Dade Housing demographics study, Annie Coleman Gardens tenants have an annual household income between $3000 and $20,000. Families who qualify for public housing pay 30 percent of their annual income for rent. Of 1795 people living in Annie Coleman, 1112 are children under eighteen. Of the 683 adults living in Annie Coleman, only 216 have full-time or part-time jobs, according to the study.
Treasure Heights homeowner Blonell Johnson, 72, knows the project well. She lived in one of the apartments from 1967 to 1981. "Back then everything was calm and the neighborhood was nice," Johnson says, resting against the coral that adorns the façade of her house on NW 23rd Avenue. "I left when things started to get out of hand. Now everyone does whatever they want."
The once relatively crime-free environment began to deteriorate, Johnson says, when the Miami-Dade Housing Agency began allowing single mothers with fifteen or more children in the household to live at Annie Coleman. Guardians could barely keep tabs on their young charges, some of whom were attracted to the criminal lifestyle, she says.
Johnson moved into another housing project in 1981 before buying her home in 1986, where she raised eight children. Today, she lives with her two teenage grandsons inside the white three-bedroom, two-bathroom abode with metal bars on the windows and Carolina blue rain gutters. Johnson, like Jones, believes the housing agency has not done enough to fix the problem. Miami-Dade Housing, Johnson says, could make a difference by simply having an employee available on evenings and weekends to help curtail loitering and other delinquencies. The project's property management office is only open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. "As soon as it starts getting dark, you start seeing a lot of young men riding bicycles," Johnson says sarcastically. "And you know they ain't riding to improve their health."
Miami-Dade Police Maj. Charles Nanney, 39, commander of the Northside District, which patrols Brownsville, says Annie Coleman and its surrounding neighborhood has historically been one of the highest-crime areas in the district. According to district crime statistics, "Grid 0967," which includes Annie Coleman, has had 217 narcotics busts, 101 aggravated batteries, and 86 aggravated assaults from January 2002 through February 2004. In 2002, 23 Annie Coleman residents were arrested on narcotics-related, burglary, or aggravated robbery charges. In 2003, fifteen Annie Coleman residents were arrested on those charges.
"Annie Coleman is not your typical dope-hole where dealers set up shop inside an apartment. It's a very fluid environment," Nanney says. "You have a lot of dealers selling on bicycles and on foot. They get neighborhood children to serve as lookouts and they can run into the apartments and disappear."
The neighborhood, Nanney continues, is conducive to drug dealing because it is easily accessible from NW 22nd and 27th avenues. "A lot of the buyers can make a quick turn off either avenue, drive two blocks and can have their pick of any crack dealer," Nanney explains. "They spread the word that Annie Coleman is an easy spot to buy dope."
Last November Miami-Dade cops busted twelve members of a gang known as the "Brown Sub Boys," which operated out of Annie Coleman and brought in up to $30,000 a week in marijuana and crack cocaine sales. According to Miami-Dade police reports, undercover investigators and confidential informants purchased narcotics inside the housing complex on more than 40 different occasions. (Trial dates are upcoming.) The Brown Sub Boys, Nanney says, instilled fear in residents by brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, and 9mm semiautomatic handguns.
Even cops are nervous. In 2002 Ofcr. Daniel Fernandez was conducting a surveillance operation in the vacant lot one block east of the Dolphin Market, a convenience store on 46th Street between NW 23rd Court and 24th Avenue, which faces one of the project properties. Fernandez was injured in the crossfire of rival dope dealers.
Patrolman Nelson "Chiqui" Rodriguez, 33, works the evening shift. As Rodriguez weaves his car through the blocks, he points out the parking lot where Fernandez was shot. He then veers right onto 46th Street, traveling parallel to Lincoln Gardens, another agency-owned tenement next door to Annie Coleman that is undergoing a $3.4 million renovation. For almost a year and a half, three-quarters of the single-story apartments have been vacated and boarded up. Rodriguez says drug dealers use the empty structures to stash their wares and hide from the police. "Even though the housing agency puts up plywood to cover the openings, the dealers still break in," he says.
Rodriguez rounds the block; the patrol car passes two young men standing in front of a sparkling blue Mercury Cougar with chunky 22-inch, five-spoke alloy rims. One of the men, sporting a white elastic skullcap over his cigar-shaped dreadlocks, stares hard at Rodriguez's car. "I guarantee you those two are dealing," he says. "But these guys are not stupid. Usually the dealers work in groups of three. They stand outside and wait for the buyers to drive by. One guy takes the order. The second guy collects the money and the third individual delivers the dope. So that makes it difficult to pinpoint which one of them is the dealer."
Rodriguez knows Lorenzo Jones. He describes Jones as the guy who always calls the police about drug dealing in the neighborhood.
Jones's across-the-street neighbors have little to say about the activist, or about anything else. Nearly a dozen Annie Coleman residents refused to answer questions about drug-related crime in and around their homes. Orab Benson, a 69-year-old woman who lives on NW 23rd Court, says she and her daughter keep to themselves. "We don't like to mind other people's business," Benson whispers. Across the courtyard, on NW 24th Avenue, two women in their late twenties are having a conversation. One of them is rubbing Vaseline on a fresh tattoo: panther claws digging into the top of her breasts, à la rap and film star Eve. "I don't know nothing about anything out here," says the tattooed woman who, along with her friend, declines to give her name. "I only know what goes on inside my apartment."
A few minutes later, a young man draped in a white Sean John T-shirt that flaps against the bottom of his baggy jeans shorts finishes rolling a blunt in the parking lot in front of 4710 NW 23rd Ct. The man, who will only identify himself as James, sports a camouflage baseball cap over his nappy dreadlocks, which shade his marijuana-glazed eyes. "Partner, ain't no one gonna talk about the dope-hole up in here," James says. "It just ain't happening."
Close to dusk on a recent Saturday, Jones is fiddling with the gate to his chainlink fence. He looks at a visitor and motions him toward the gate. "Go in first," Jones offers. "Don't worry, he ain't gonna bite ya."
"He" happens to be Jones's 185-pound German shepherd, Spike. Two years ago, Jones recalls, Spike jumped the fence and took a bite out of crime: The big dog tackled a car theft suspect who was running from the cops. "I was at work and I got a call from the police telling me my dog had just assisted in the apprehension of a thug," Jones gloats.
More than twenty years ago, Jones admits, he was on his way to becoming a thug himself.
According to Miami-Dade criminal court records, Jones was arrested three times between 1978 and 1983 for allegedly committing petty larceny, breaching the peace, and resisting a police officer with violence. He served two days in the county jail on the two latter charges. In 1991 he was arrested on a felony for allegedly committing burglary and a misdemeanor for resisting arrest without violence. Both counts were dismissed. "I was an angry young man and I did some stupid shit," Jones says.
In 1984 Jones landed a job as a bus mechanic for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency. "Things were looking up," Jones recalls. That's when crack cocaine entered his life. "It started out as a sex thing," Jones says. "I was meeting pretty women who smoked a lot of rock. I was having unprotected sex, never thinking I could get AIDS or get addicted on crack."
Jones's addiction began to affect his work. Between 1984 and 1991 he was frequently reprimanded or suspended from the transit agency because he was habitually tardy and absent, according to his personnel file. In 1985 alone he racked up fifteen unauthorized absences. One infraction in 1989 netted Jones a ten-day suspension without pay; his supervisors learned that he lied about having to go to jury duty so he could miss thirteen days of work. When he was at work, Jones says, he was surly and combative with his fellow mechanics and supervisors. The agency never caught on to Jones's drug problem.
"I was in bad shape," Jones reveals. "For about five or six years, I was hooked. I bottomed out. I started to look in the mirror and say to myself, 'I'm going to beat you,'" he says, referring to his drug habit.
A drug-free lifestyle didn't seem to keep Jones out of trouble with his employer. On October 25, 2001, former County Manager Steve Shiver suspended Jones for five days for insubordination and conduct unbecoming a county employee. Jones was accused by his then-supervisor William Lewis of attacking him and disobeying orders. An independent arbitrator, however, determined that most of the allegations against the transit mechanic could not be substantiated. The day after his suspension ended, Jones was transferred to another position: MetroMover technician. According to his 2002 and 2003 employee evaluations, Jones has excelled in his new job.
Jones, from his homestead stoop, attributes his good behavior at work and new outlook on life to his decision to boot drug dealers from the neighborhood. Today the targets of his wrath are the Annie Coleman tenants and the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. "Miami-Dade Housing has come up with nothing but excuses," Jones gripes. "They want to play both sides of the fence. On one hand, they say we need to put a stop to this. But on the other hand, they say where are these people going to go? Well, I say pack the tenants up and move them to the Everglades."
When asked why he doesn't support giving Annie Coleman tenants a second chance considering his own past, Jones snaps. "I beg to differ," he hisses. "I'm not paying property taxes to have people selling drugs in front of my home."
He isn't impressed by what local community leaders are doing, either. On January 12 Jones and several of his neighbors attended a press conference convened by Barbara Carey-Shuler at the Merline Matthews Center in Brownsville, announcing a plan to tackle the drug and other criminal activity in the neighborhood. This came just after the death of Jarobe Brooks, a ten-year-old boy who on January 3 was hit in the head by an errant bullet from a botched robbery. Brooks had been sitting on a stoop at 2602 NW 48th St., an apartment building next door to one of the Annie Coleman properties.
At the podium, Carey-Shuler was flanked by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade Housing Agency executive director Rene Rodriguez (who has since resigned), and a half-dozen local ministers. "When you have a little boy sitting on a porch shot and killed, it's time to say we are mad as hell," Carey-Shuler pontificated to the media.
Jones left underwhelmed by the politically motivated spectacle. For all her bluster, Jones says, Carey-Shuler did not present a plan that would immediately get crack dealers out of Annie Coleman. He accused the county commissioner, Fernandez Rundle, and the ministers of political grandstanding. "Everyone wants to be part of a rally when a kid gets killed," Jones growls through a plume of menthol cigarette smoke.
He scoffs at the suggestion made at the press conference that concerned residents should report tenants suspected of being involved in the crack game to the housing agency. "I have personally gone to Annie Coleman property manager Leshia Elie, who works for Miami-Dade Housing, to complain about tenants whom I know are actively engaged in selling drugs," Jones says. "The next day, a representative from said household comes by my place asking me what the hell I'm complaining about. Two plus two is four, so it wasn't hard to figure out that Elie sold me out."
Carey-Shuler, who has taken a two-month leave from the commission due to personal reasons, could not be reached for comment. Through Sherra McLeod, the housing agency's spokeswoman, Rodriguez and Elie declined to comment on Jones's allegations. In an e-mailed response to New Times questions, however, McLeod defended the agency's management of Annie Coleman.
McLeod says the agency works with the Miami-Dade County Police Department to weed out criminals. For instance, she explains, the agency provides the cops with a list of Annie Coleman residents so officers can determine who actually lives in the projects and who is just loitering. When cops ask people for identification, they can refer to that list, McLeod says. She adds that Miami-Dade Housing routinely fixes the perimeter fences along Annie Coleman buildings, repairs streetlights, and installs vandal-resistant boxes at electrical meter locations.
Yet the housing agency has evicted only two tenants, Charlesa Pitts and Shanay Hall, for alleged drug-related activity in their apartments in 2001 and 2002, respectively. (Pitts and Hall could not be located for comment.) In her e-mail, McLeod concedes that the housing agency defers criminal matters to the county police. The agency, she says, has not conducted its own investigations to determine which tenants might be involved in selling drugs and other crime. In fact the agency has not even determined whether any of the Brown Sub Boys who were arrested this past November are currently living at Annie Coleman.
Back at the Jones place, there is a momentary distraction in the form of a visit by his ex-wife. "There goes my son's mom," Jones grumbles. "She gets on my last nerve." After exchanging mild pleasantries with Margaret Lester, the former Mrs. Jones, and sending her on her way, Jones turns his attention back to Annie Coleman.
"I guarantee you that I would go to jail and they would seize my house if I was selling drugs out of my house," Jones huffs. "But Miami-Dade Housing gets a free ride as far as enforcing the rules."
Next door, Jones's neighbor Gisela Dieudonne is loading belongings into a truck. Dieudonne, her husband, and their daughter are moving out of NW 23rd Court to a new home in south Miami-Dade. After living in Brownsville for eight years, the Dieudonnes decided to leave when their dog, Chico, was shot this past December. Chico survived, but the Dieudonnes have had enough. "The situation is very bad out here," says Gisela Dieudonne, a 39-year-old Colombian. "People have come in the middle of the night, knocking on our door, looking for drugs. You hear gunshots all the time. We can't take it anymore."
Jones, on the other hand, is staying put. "I'm not afraid, but I do have a sense of heightened concern," Jones says. "Nevertheless, I am not going to sit here like Mary Poppins and let some hooligans run game in front of my house."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.