What a Lovely Neighborhood
Kenny Merker exits through a wrought-iron gate in front of his grand, two-story house and heads north along NE First Avenue to a dilapidated building on the corner of 47th Street. On its east face, the street number, 4620, has been unevenly handwritten. The door hangs open as if someone just left without closing it. Merker doesn't bother to knock. He strides in and stomps up a stairwell painted with a thick orange enamel. The handrail, loosely attached to the wall, slides off one of its metal brackets with a mere touch.
"Hello!" he calls. When he reaches the second floor, he walks a few feet farther into the house before three startled black men wearing boxer shorts emerge. Merker stops only a few feet away from them; other people can be heard but not seen. Someone has nailed numbers above the doors. Seventy years ago the edifice was an elegant old house, but today it has been subdivided, the residents renting small rooms. "I'm looking for Gene Davis!" Merker cries, referring to the landlord. His voice is a bit too loud, given the men's proximity.
"Not here," someone answers. For a few seconds, Merker and the men stand silently and eye each other. Then a woman calls out from a room near Merker. Her Creole-inflected voice is at once dignified and sarcastic: "May I please give him a message?"
Merker has no intention of speaking to anyone, not even Davis. He's in the building for one reason only: to observe and document violations of Miami's building codes. The neighborhood has been designated a historic district by the city to protect its houses built in the Twenties for some of Miami's most influential early citizens. Construction regulations are especially strict.
"We've been trying to have the city close this building down; it's all sectioned off," Merker says. A vacant lot abuts the house, the grass worn from parked cars. Some splotches have been ground down to gray sand. "We can't get rid of all the abandoned cars." Two cars sit in the lot as he speaks.
Across NE 47th Street, the civic activist brazenly scales a four-foot wire fence and jumps onto a cement driveway leading from the street to the side of a one-story, hot-pink house. About eight feet to the right of the driveway, two parallel strips of concrete, a car-width apart, also lead to the house. City codes allow for only one driveway, Merker explains, so the second must have been added illegally.
In addition to the front door, the house has six other outside entrances -- two on the east side and four on the west. Officially it has only three bedrooms and is zoned for a single family. Its inhabitants are out, but Merker claims that as many as five different families have lived in it at the same time. Some left their trash behind. Strewn in the grass on either side of the house are a rusted old stove, a two-foot-high pile of plastic gallon water jugs, a stack of weathered wooden panels Merker says were once part of a chicken coop. "The inspector said there was nothing wrong with it," he growls. The inspector, Miami code enforcement inspector Jean Mimy, is his nemesis.
For the past year and a half, Merker, who is president of the Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association, has monitored Jean Mimy. He has compiled a fifteen-page packet of letters and a list showing 26 houses against which, according to Mimy's own reports, the city should have issued liens because the property owners have not complied with the law. Merker has also documented thirteen examples of Mimy's alleged failure to sanction illegal construction. He has repeatedly challenged city officials to address what he considers negligence and to investigate what he describes as "possible criminal wrongdoings of Inspector Mimy." Twice he has presented lists like this to Mimy's superiors, demanding action. "I've been working almost a second job trying to clean the neighborhood," he grumbles.
But instead of getting cooperation, he says, in the last few months he has been stonewalled. For example, this past October, when Merker demanded an investigation, an assistant city attorney told him to report Mimy to the Miami Police Department's internal affairs unit. Only after Merker submitted a complaint did he discover that internal affairs investigates just police officers.
The neighborhood association has achieved some measure of success, however. Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith, who oversees the city's code enforcement office, has met twice with homeowners, listened to their complaints, and redoubled efforts to close down the illegal apartments and clean trash from the streets. Smith himself has patrolled the neighborhood in a city vehicle and on foot, as has Fedy Vieux-Brierre, Mimy's immediate supervisor.
But those officials have returned to their desks and their busy schedules, while Mimy operates on his own -- with Merker keeping watch. He alleges that Mimy has retaliated against him by issuing him frivolous citations, such as a $250 fine for failing to hire a private garbage hauler, as the city requires, for the apartment buildings Merker owns. "I provide Inspector Mimy with a copy of my waste-hauler contract. He rolls the copy in a ball and throws it on the floor," Merker wrote in a November 11 letter to city officials. "I'm still trying to get this cleared."
By the time he sent that letter, Merker had become so steamed that, on behalf of the neighborhood association, he demanded Mimy be removed: "It was apparent that as of November 1995, Inspector Mimy had no interest in citing the illegal units, illegal construction, illegal rooming houses, and other violations that have plagued the rebirth of the Buena Vista East Historic District."
It would be difficult to find two more dissimilar characters than the 33-year-old Merker, who's so completely focused and machinelike that he will not allow any emotion to sidetrack him, and the gregarious 36-year-old Mimy, who speaks with the emotional evocation of an accomplished storyteller. Merker persists, despite obstacles. When making a point he believes to be essential, he'll belabor it, even as others try to speak. Mimy banters erratically, in bursts.
Merker works full-time as an airline ticket agent, but during his off hours, in addition to his duties as president of the neighborhood association, he serves on the city's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, which he joined in a further effort to police the neighborhood. Early in the morning and after dark, Merker marches through the neighborhood, a man on a mission. He is determined to preserve his own sizable investment in this tree-dappled neighborhood immediately north of the cluster of interior design studios and furniture and art stores known as the Design District. Buena Vista stretches north from NE 41st Street to 49th Street, between Second Avenue and Miami Avenue, encompassing 275 homes. Merker owns two houses and two apartment buildings and is embroiled in a legal dispute over two additional buildings. (Though most of the district is zoned for single-family housing, it includes several buildings that have housed legitimate apartments from the time they were built.)
By purchasing these and other properties, Merker and his former partner, real estate broker Eric Kail, helped launch a modest real estate boom three years ago. Since then some 60 refugees from South Beach and other neighborhoods happily snapped up many of the 70-year-old homes when the price tags were as low as $62,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath house. Prices have escalated: Last summer the Dacra Companies, which are helping revive the Design District, purchased an abandoned white two-story house with a bright, red-tile roof for $85,000 and then sold it the same day for $135,000.
Many of these homebuyers hope to emulate residents who have successfully revived other deteriorated neighborhoods, such as Morningside, a few blocks northeast of Buena Vista. But Buena Vista has deeper social and economic problems than its neighbor, says realtor and civic leader Norah Schaefer, whose enthusiastic promotion of Morningside was pivotal in its remarkable transformation. "Buena Vista has had a double fight," she explains. "They've had to fight with the city to get the services they deserve, and they've had to fight the people who don't want the neighborhood to get better."
Buena Vista got its start in the mid-Twenties through high-volume real estate dealing, according to local historian Paul George. The small farming community expanded west from Biscayne Bay in 1896, when the Florida East Coast Railroad put a line through to Miami and constructed a station at what is now NE 36th Street and Second Avenue.
Pineapple farmer T.V. Moore realized he could earn more from his land if he sold it for development. He and real estate agent David P. Davis created two subdivisions where, in 1925, properties changed hands as often as twice a day in a frenzy of speculation. Builders erected stately, Mediterranean- or Spanish-inspired two-story mansions. The eclectic designs included parapets decorated with barrel-shape ceramic tiles in sienna, red, or blue and inlaid plaster columns in spiral or hourglass shapes. Smaller homes of similar design, as well as one-story bungalows with coral-rock columns and wide porches, gave rise to the middle-class enclave Buena Vista remained until the Seventies.
According to historian George, real estate agents took advantage of equal housing laws and brought in black families, prompting Buena Vista's white population to flee to the suburbs. Housing prices plummeted. Speculators scooped up the homes at bargain prices. The city allowed these new landlords to rule the neighborhood and to chop up the spacious homes into boarding houses. Property values dropped so sharply that by the Eighties the poorest of the poor -- recently arrived refugees from Haiti -- began flocking to the low-rent cubbyholes that passed for living quarters. Some of those refugees, such as Dieulus Didier, worked hard, prospered, and bought their own Buena Vista properties to rent out to compatriots. Today landlords can earn as much as $3000 per month from homes that have been converted into boarding houses.
Many members of the Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association -- teachers, artists, designers, airline workers, entrepreneurs -- consider themselves urban pioneers who are, in a sense, bringing civilization to the wilderness. That attitude, which is often expressed with missionary zeal, has provoked a sort of culture clash. "This is one of the largest sociological endeavors I've ever seen," observes Lester Bussey, a physician whose companion owns a two-story house built in 1923. The new homeowners, he says, "want to rebuild a community and they don't want to push people out. They want all these things. But they don't understand that for many of these people from Third World countries, the conditions they live in here are much better. It's the lap of luxury."
Urban economist and planner Milan Dluhy, who directs Florida International University's Institute of Government, sees in Buena Vista a potential paradigm for the City of Miami's long-term recovery from its current financial crisis. The city now holds $156.3 million in liens and fines on deteriorated properties within its boundaries, a sobering indication of the level of decay that has infected Miami. Attempting to collect on all those debts (an unrealistic prospect) may be less important than reversing the decline, Dluhy says, especially in gorgeous old neighborhoods like Buena Vista. Increased property values generate more taxes and provide a stable source of revenue for municipal services. But the initiative lies with the city. "You can take these little neighborhoods on the fringe, and by putting public investment in, you can spur development," Dluhy says. "That's certainly what South Beach did."
The Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association meets in mid-December in a conference room at Concept House, a drug-treatment center on NE 45th Street and Second Avenue. A small Christmas tree brightens the plain white room. Caterers have brought in a jug of iced tea and a coffee pot. Metal folding chairs have been set up in rows. Flyers distributed in the community announced the meeting in three languages -- English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole -- and for the first time the neighborhood association has invited a Creole translator to attend.
Kenny Merker and Sue Cheany, association secretary, sit at a bare table at the front of the room. As Merker calls the meeting to order, a Haitian man and his three young sons arrive, moving slowly so as not to attract attention. There are no more chairs in the back row, so he cautiously pulls one off a cart stacked with extras. But his movement causes all the others to tumble to the floor with a clatter. Head bowed in humiliation, he eases down next to a Haitian woman. Brenda Trigg, the Creole translator, sits nearby.
Merker and Cheany inform the group that earlier in the week Buena Vista landlord Yves Payan attended a meeting of the city's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, during which he submitted plans for a new house he wants to build on a vacant lot he owns.
But the neighborhood association had done its homework. Cheany told the board (with Merker sitting as a voting member) that Payan had failed to keep his current properties tidy and complained that the single-family house he was proposing could easily be converted to a duplex. On that basis Merker and the other board members rejected his plans. "If he gets down before that board with different plans, we have to be there," Cheany warns. "We have nothing against Mr. Payan; it's the way he treats his tenants."
Following the startling discovery of Miami's precarious finances last fall, city officials openly discussed closing the Little Haiti Neighborhood Enforcement Team (NET) office and servicing neighborhood residents and those farther north in Liberty City from a single location. At this December meeting of the neighborhood association, the office-closing proposal elicits concern, and plans are made for a letter-writing campaign to combine the Little Haiti office with the NET office on Biscayne Boulevard, which serves residents of two other historic districts.
But soon the meeting becomes a gripe session as residents vent their frustrations. "They are going to combine the two most overcrowded, overburdened, dirty, and crime-ridden parts of the city," warns homeowner Scott Arends. "Did you notice they haven't picked up the garbage, and we had that drive-by shooting? It will be worse if we end up with Liberty City. We're the prototype for revitalizing an inner-city neighborhood -- and this is how they treat the prototype!"
Those comments unleash a torrent. "Let's face it, everybody living in this neighborhood is not taking pride," a woman declares. "The other day I picked up a plate of food by my driveway -- a plate of food! I have chickens waking me up every morning."
The chickens remark prompts some chuckling. But then another woman interjects: "I don't care what nationality you are, chickens do not belong in the city." Her admonition is met with cheers.
"Everyone has a problem with a house near him," says Karen Mock, a make-up artist who moved to the community just two months earlier. "I complain because there's a casino down the street from me and a restaurant two doors down."
When Brenda Trigg tries to translate the comments into Creole for the Haitians sitting at the rear, someone pointedly shushes her. She whispers. But the complaints continue. Finally a man turns to confront her: "Could you please be quiet?"
A Haitian man, wearing a worn pink shirt, blue trousers, and a baseball cap, angrily charges to the front of the room. He introduces himself as Joseph Pierre. The 46-year-old man comes from the same town in Haiti as Jean Mimy, and in the past Merker has questioned whether Pierre has received special treatment from the inspector.
Pierre is fully aware of Merker's suspicions, and as he speaks to the association, his resentment is apparent. "I have lived here for twenty years," he says crossly. "I have heard people angry about the way Kenny and other people treat them. They are trying to push us out."
Some residents giggle nervously, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs; others whisper.
Pierre continues, his voice rising with indignation. "We Haitian people, we don't get federal benefits. We aren't going to be sleeping under a bridge. We don't want people to come here from California and Boston or wherever and try to push us out."
Scott Arends tries to appease him but patronizes him instead: "Joseph, that's why we don't want to be part of the Liberty City NET office, because we want to build a neighborhood of different races."
Long-time resident Jane Hererra amplifies: "Joseph, I'm happy you're here tonight. I've lived here for twenty years. No one is trying to push you out."
Finished with his harangue, Pierre shuffles to a seat.
A homeowner mentions another landlord, who remains unnamed throughout the discussion. But others at the meeting don't even need to ask; they know the landlord's identity and the condition of his apartments. "I just moved here, and I was told there were people living in the building next door in subhuman conditions," says the man. "In the apartments next to me, someone [from the city] came in there and the owner had to straighten up. He had to put in new floors. He had to go into each of those apartments and improve them."
Merker interrupts: "But it's against the law. He can only have a single-family house."
"That man has money, so he feels he can do whatever he wants to do," Hererra adds.
"What kills me is that people like Fedy [Vieux-Brierre] and our code enforcement officers allow him to do that," Merker sputters.
At the Little Haiti NET office, six people -- inspectors and police officers -- crowd into a small room attached to station nine of the Miami Fire Department on NE 62nd Street. On a south wall, a poster shows a bright yellow map of Haiti; on the poster's border, a voluptuous woman holds fruit over her head, Carmen Miranda style. A U.S. flag adorns an old metal file cabinet.
The NET administrator, Fedy Vieux-Brierre, is on the telephone, his voice soft and friendly. He is fashionably dressed in black cowboy boots, slightly weathered blue jeans, and a white shirt, a red scarf at his neck. Vieux-Brierre started work at the NET office when it opened in 1992, as the city attempted to bring code inspectors and police officers closer to the communities they served. "My goal for this area was to prevent it from becoming a full-fledged ghetto," he recalls. "We surveyed and found that there was not a sign of government intervention -- code enforcement or police."
His office covers not only Buena Vista but all of Little Haiti, which stretches east from I-95 to the Florida East Coast railroad tracks just west of Biscayne Boulevard, and north from 41st Street to approximately 84th Street. It encompasses 40,000 people who live in 2500 homes, according to official estimates. Vieux-Brierre, however, believes the real population figure is closer to 55,000. Two inspectors divide the territory, with Jean Mimy taking the southern end.
The administrator says code enforcement became his first priority in 1992 when a Haitian man fell through a floor that collapsed in a subdivided Buena Vista house. But the area, Vieux-Brierre says, has suffered twenty years of neglect, and it takes time to reverse the process. Still, he boasts, his inspectors had cited homeowners for 2640 violations by September 1996, more than any other NET office.
While the statistic may seem impressive, it is primarily the result of constant complaints by residents. For two years Renee Menzel, along with her husband Christian, led the way. Her block along NE 44th Street had been among the most crowded, noisy, and chaotic. Men played dominoes and gambled across the street; junk and garbage had been dumped and scooped up so frequently in the grass patches between the sidewalks and curbs that wide depressions had formed. She planted trees in them.
In 1993 the couple sought assistance from Norah Schaefer, who not only had experience in improving one neighborhood but also loved the old houses in Buena Vista and wanted to preserve them. Schaefer, a thirty-year Morningside resident, became a real estate broker fifteen years ago. She often showed off her own house -- with its stone fireplace, oak floors, and wrought-iron banister -- to encourage prospective homebuyers to move to Morningside.
After talking to Schaefer, the Menzels decided they too would try to attract people who would invest in Buena Vista's historic properties. They placed a classified advertisement in New Times, inviting prospective homebuyers to a neighborhood meeting. At the meeting they boasted of Buena Vista's advantages: its proximity to downtown Miami and the airport, the low housing prices, and the inherent value of the homes.
Most were built from cement block and Dade County pine, which turned rock-hard over the years and became impervious to termites. Interior walls were constructed of thin planks of wood mortared with a resilient mixture of horsehair and plaster, then painted.
To protect these houses, pioneering property owners like Menzel would have to be watchful. She made her first call to report the nuisances one evening in 1993 when the noise, the crowds, and the garbage overwhelmed her. "It would get so bad," she says, describing conditions at the house directly across from her. "They sold food, they sold liquor, and one night they had a loudspeaker, and I said, 'That's it. I'm calling the police.'"
After that incident she took detailed notes on each house, studying the tax cards (which describe all permitted construction) and making phone calls to the city's solid waste inspectors, code enforcement officers, and their bosses to report violations.
Menzel, a tall, svelte, 46-year-old black flight attendant, says she developed a strong sense of individual responsibility in the mostly Jewish Englewood, New Jersey, neighborhood where she grew up. Her 34-year-old husband Christian exhibits his abstract artwork in Paris, London, and New York. A native of DYsseldorf, Germany, he has joined his wife in only a few of her beautification projects, preferring his studio and the lush garden they've planted to the noisy neighborhood. But he's irate that she's had to do the city's work herself. "In Europe they have neighborhood associations," he notes, but the government provides the services Menzel is struggling for. "Generally they get together if an airport is going to be built, or a nuclear power plant, not for garbage pickup or rooming houses. Those are not issues."
Menzel worked so diligently in the neighborhood that other homeowners looked to her to solve their problems, and they would frequently telephone her, even at night. She tried to respond to each call, but it exhausted her because she worked alone, sometimes in the face of hostility from her neighbors.
Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith came to her aid last December after she broke down in tears when speaking on the phone to him. "I was frantically crying and he came here fifteen, twenty minutes later," she recalls. Smith continued to assist for a few months.
"Many times we saw him driving through the neighborhood by himself, and on one instance I saw him walking -- and he was on vacation," Menzel recounts. "In the beginning, if you were going to give out grades for effort, he and Fedy would get an A plus. I don't know what happened, other than the fact of what I see -- people don't listen, they don't take the fines seriously or the law seriously. They dress up in the worst clothes and they go down to the code enforcement board and they plead poor and they are given another extension, another extension."
At a meeting in March 1996, the neighborhood association again demanded that the city shut down the illegal apartments. But by then, on her husband's advice, Menzel had withdrawn from her civic activities.
Now Kenny Merker is trying to complete the work she started. But in a year and a half he's already lost patience with Jean Mimy and the city. "I'm so burned out now I don't know what to do any more," Merker says wearily.
For one thing, among those 2640 citations that Fedy Vieux-Brierre brags about, a whopping 44.4 percent remain outstanding, meaning that the violators have not been brought before the board and forced to correct problems. That rate of outstanding citations is higher than in any other city NET office except that of Wynwood/Edgewater.
Despite the failure to bring owners into compliance, Vieux-Brierre says he's reluctant to admonish his inspectors. "Mimy is an extremely hard worker," he says. "Whatever mistakes are made, he has worked hard." Among the possible mistakes, Vieux-Brierre concedes, is the fact that Mimy has begun to see himself as a defender of those Haitians who might be tossed out of their apartments as a result of more diligent code enforcement.
Furthermore, Vieux-Brierre blames himself for allowing the disagreements between Mimy and Merker to escalate. "What I didn't realize is that the conflict was not resolving itself, it was getting bigger," he admits. "I allowed it to focus, if you will, on two individuals -- the president and Mimy."
Mimy arrives at the NET office dressed in the city's uniform: blue short-sleeve overalls with gold lettering. Around his neck and wrist he wears loose-link gold chains. The amiable inspector stands five feet six inches and has the square, padded shape of a stuffed teddy bear. His curly black hair is cropped close, and his prominent cheekbones resemble dark hills on his round face.
A fifteen-year city employee, Mimy has been a code enforcement officer for only the last two; he was assigned to work in Little Haiti because so few tenants there speak English. As he drives through Buena Vista in a white city-issue pick-up truck waving at passersby, it's obvious the Haitian residents look up to him. He stops in front of a two-story apartment building where two elderly men sit in rusty folding chairs. A woman strolling along the sidewalk beckons to him; she has a question. Mimy gets out and gives her a hug. "I'm a very popular code enforcement inspector," he brags as he returns. "As a public servant, my job is to be friendly to people and work with them."
On a neighborhood tour, Mimy makes nine more stops at single-family homes where he believes his efforts have helped improve the neighborhood's appearance. At one residence a man had to remove his carport because it was the site of domino games that ran late into the night, the tiles slapped down loudly on a table. Three other homeowners had converted their garages into apartments and were forced to change them back. At two other locations, however, where Mimy says he forced the owners to reinstate original garages, neighbors insist they remain as apartments.
The success stories Mimy recounts concern houses that have been cited in the last six months, after his supervisors policed the neighborhood themselves and put pressure on him to keep track of violations. Mimy defends himself by saying he hasn't been in the neighborhood long enough -- just two years -- to make a difference until now.
He stops at a white house at 101 NE 48th St. "When I started, this house was complete junk," he says. "They had junk cars parked in the back; they had trash in the yard; they were doing mechanic repair; the house was divided, and inside was a duplex. She was ordered to comply."
Today the two-story house looks neat and freshly painted, with a red-tile path leading to the front porch and a yard nearly clear of litter and debris. Beside the house a massive garbage bin full of broken drywall reveals the amount of work that's been completed. Mimy comments that the garbage should be removed.
When he stops in front Yves Payan's cream-color house, Mimy admits it is still not in compliance, but he tries to deflect criticism. "I don't see how I can be blamed for this," he insists. "My job is to initiate the case. If in the time frame the violation is not corrected, my job is to take him before the board. My job is not to lien or evict or foreclose."
The inspector then parks in front of the hot-pink one-story house on 47th Street that Kenny Merker had earlier pointed out as having seven exterior doors and a second, unauthorized driveway. "This was reported as an illegal rooming house," Mimy recalls. "I went inside it myself. This lady who owned the house said she lives there with her daughter. There's three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen." With a wave of his hand he dismisses questions about the trash around the house, the seven outside doors, the second driveway.
Finally he drives to a bright blue house at the corner of Miami Avenue and NE 46th Street, where tables are set up under an awning that runs from the house to a cottage in back, shading a cement patio. A construction worker enters through the gate; two people are eating at one of the tables. Neighbors complain that the owner is operating a restaurant. The owner denies it, and so does Mimy. "As far as I'm concerned they used to have a restaurant there. That was back in '84, '85, something like that," he says. "She was cited by an inspector, before the NET opened. That awning? She obtained a permit for it."
When told that other residents are sure the restaurant is still open for business, Mimy becomes visibly agitated, moving his arms up and down to emphasize each angry word: "If they can prove it's a restaurant, I'd be happy to work on it."
His irritation builds as he discusses his conflict with Merker. Recently he cited the association president for working inside his house without a permit. Merker denies doing anything wrong and claims that Mimy is retaliating for his numerous complaints. Indeed, Mimy has never provided any specifics about the work Merker has supposedly performed. But that doesn't matter. "I know for a fact that Mr. Kenny has done some work inside his house without a permit," he protests. "If he's going after people for violations, why is he doing work without a permit?"
Mimy is aware that Merker and other neighbors don't trust him. "The homeowners have accused me of taking kickbacks. That's not true!" he shouts. "I don't take a penny. Why would I endanger my job for $20, $50? These people assume I'm taking kickbacks, but they cannot prove it."
Yves Payan's mission-style home on NE 48th Street was built in 1927 and was considered one of the outstanding examples of Buena Vista's eclectic housing designs. When Payan talks about it, he exhibits pride. Lean and immaculately dressed in gray slacks, blue blazer, white shirt, and brown tie, the physical therapist has a story of his own to tell, one he illustrates with photographs of his neighbors' houses.
The city has unfairly singled him out and issued violations, he claims. He's been cited for abandoned cars parked on his grass, yet across the street a banged-up Lincoln has been sitting on the grass for seven years. The city has ordered Payan to paint his house, yet the white paint on a neighbor's home is clearly peeling. He doesn't blame Mimy for issuing the citations; he blames his neighbors: "When people in the neighborhood complain and try to get some feedback, when they keep complaining about one person, the code enforcement officer has to respond to that."
Five blocks away 44-year-old Dieulus Didier steers his freshly polished 1997 Chevrolet pickup into his driveway on NE 44th Street. For six years he has run his own company, Best Appliance, selling and repairing washers, dryers, and other household goods. His prosperity has allowed him to live in a bungalow with his wife, two children, two nephews, and mother and to keep an apartment for his mother-in-law behind the house. He also owns three other properties on the block, including the empty, roofless shell of a house next door.
He began repair work next door in February 1995 and eventually gutted the house. But in May 1996, Carlos Smith stopped all activity because Didier's permit did not cover the breadth of construction he had already performed. The work continued anyway. Kenny Merker campaigned for five months to stop the construction; he believed it unsafe -- metal pipes were protruding from the outside walls. Merker made at least ten visits and phone calls to city officials asking them to force Mimy to take action; Didier finally stopped work in September 1996. After having spent what he claims is $25,000, Didier now angrily says that all he has left is a pile of Dade County pine.
He's turned his wrath on his neighbors, challenging them on any and every transgression of the city's building codes he notices -- or thinks he notices. Already he's called Mimy to complain about Merker, who is slowly redoing a one-story house on Didier's block. Earlier this year the association president replaced the home's fuses with circuit breakers. He had obtained a permit, but Didier reported him anyway.
Didier says he believes that Merker and other association members have an agenda: "They want to get rid of the black men and have white men in the neighborhood. If you want to buy my house, okay, I'll put it on the market. But no pressure. I'm not going to give it free."
Lately the appliance seller has taken to prying into the activities of his neighbors Renee and Christian Menzel, who live behind him. They are fixing up their house to rent out and are making repairs to the back-yard cottage. "The other day they were changing windows in the big house," Didier says triumphantly. "I stopped them. I stood on the roof [of his own cottage] to see what they were doing -- and stopped them."
Didier and Merker aren't the only ones informing on their neighbors. The association's monthly newsletter, the Buena Vista News, features a column called "The RAT," or Realistic Awareness of Things. "Why at this stage in the game are we afraid to 'RAT' on our neighbors?" the unnamed columnist asks rhetorically. "Are your neighbors gambling? Are they selling booze or carrying on illegal activities? If they are doing anything like the above, we do not want them in our neighborhood."
his hostile atmosphere helped drive Renee Menzel out of the neighborhood association and will soon drive her out of Buena Vista altogether. She believes that Didier and a crony, former neighbor Bill Ortiz, helped stir the animosity that now exists between Haitians and their American neighbors. And she rejects Didier's analysis that the newcomers want to push out the black Haitians. "Everyone likes to play the race card," she complains, "but they can't play it with me and Christian because I'm black and he's white."
About a year ago Christian Menzel heard the electric bell on his gate ring, but he didn't feel like answering. According to court documents later filed as part of a legal complaint brought by the Menzels, the person ringing the bell was Bill Ortiz, one of the landlords the Menzels and others had been nagging to improve his properties. When no one answered, Ortiz allegedly ripped apart the doorbell, unearthing wires that had been buried in an underground plastic pipe, according to court documents. Renee Menzel said that twice she passed Ortiz while he talked with a group of Haitian neighbors. He would point at her and yell criticisms. So in December 1995 the Menzels obtained an order from a judge forbidding Ortiz any contact with them. Ortiz has since sold his house and moved from the neighborhood.
Now the woman who campaigned to bring new homeowners to Buena Vista is eager to escape it. She and Christian have spent most of the last few weeks fixing up a new house in a different part of Miami. "I want to move to a neighborhood where people care and work hard," Menzel says with weary determination.
"Where the city cares," her husband adds.
"That's the kind of neighborhood I grew up in," Menzel continues.
For realtor Norah Schaefer, the blame lies squarely with the city, which failed to provide basic services, forcing people like the Menzels to work to their breaking point, and undermining Merker's attempts to make Mimy and the NET office accountable for their work. "It's a tragedy to think that the city doesn't back up people who are doing their best to improve the neighborhood," she says. "If Buena Vista doesn't make it, we've lost an enormous part of our history.
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