The tower was abandoned in 1985. Since then Opa-locka has paid Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer roughly $2 million a year for services. The 38,000-square-foot treatment facility sits empty, with vague plans to get it up and running. In the meantime the structure has filled with all kinds of biohazardous slime.
Last fall an exhaustive feasibility study by Florida International University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering brought the tower's sad state to the attention of city commissioners.
"Due to twenty years of idling, the water treatment plant had been trespassed by homeless people," wrote Dr. Walter Tang. "It became a major hazard for the city due to illegal dumping, illegal residence, and drug trafficking."
It could be saved, Tang explained. The state had already offered $5 million to turn it into a miraculous plant capable of turning out ten million gallons of reclaimed water a day. But the county is holding tight to the $6 million in matching funds needed to go ahead with the project.
"This is environmental injustice," Tang said by phone. "The county thinks the safety of those people is the city's problem. It is all of our problem. They need to re-invest in Opa-locka and they won't. Could it be because the town is 80 percent African-American? I can't think of any other reason."
(New Times attempted to contact City Manager Jannie Beverly, who was presented with the study in October. She has not returned multiple phone calls and was unavailable for comment at city hall on three separate occasions.)
On his way to the tower, Rojas swings by the S & D Wash House, a coin laundry at 621 Opa-locka Blvd.
"Hey, Hadley!" Rojas calls from the driver's seat. A man emerges from behind the counter, dressed like a television detective: blue-checked button-down shirt, tan pants, Timberland boots. His hair is maintained in a microscopic fade. His eyes dart to the corner across the street, where a pair of fat, scantily clad women are negotiating with a hairy drunk.
"Hey!" Hadley barks, yanking a thumb over his shoulder. The three drop their eyes in shame and scatter. Hadley sneers, turns to Rojas, and shakes his hand vigorously.
Steven Hadley describes his residence in Opa-locka with fatalistic stoicism, like an Orthodox Jewish settler in the West Bank.
"I live here; I have a vested interest here," he says, scanning the street for challengers. "I'm gonna be here until it's gone."
He was born in Overtown and moved to the outskirts of Opa-locka in the sixth grade. He can remember walking past the Brownlee house on his way to middle school.
Hadley enlisted in ROTC during his senior year of high school and left for the Army soon after graduation. "Opa-locka was always my reason for staying in the service," he said. "Every time I came back, I'd hear someone died, or went to jail, or caught AIDS."
In 1999, after retiring from the Army and taking a job as a Miami-Dade Schools detective, he and his wife purchased a home and moved to Opa-locka with their three children. Every other night, Hadley says, he can hear gunfire from his front porch.
Six months ago he purchased the S & D Wash House. He allows no drinking, no loitering, no dope smoking. He keeps watch over the place from his laptop computer, which is networked to nine closed circuit security cameras on the premises.
When Rojas mentions a trip up the block to the water tower, Hadley taps his pistol beneath his shirt, almost mechanically. "I'll come and back you up."
Rojas arrives at the torn chainlink fence marking the entrance to the tower a few minutes after Hadley, whom he hears shouting from inside the tower:"Stop, police!" Rojas darts in to find Hadley counseling a ragged veteran on where he might spend the night.
The three-story concrete mass looms behind him like the setting for a film noir shoot-out finale. It connects to a series of industrial substations by a precarious iron catwalk. To the north an entire section of fence has been torn out, providing access to the railroad tracks, which, on this particular afternoon, lay littered with sacrificial chickens and a trash bag full of goat bones.
"Too many damned veterans out here," Hadley says as the tattered man disappears along the tracks. Hadley looks around in disgust at the patchy grass. He is surrounded by piles of stolen luggage, rags, bottles, needles, crack pipes, and a carpet of empty dime bags Batman bags, ganja leaf bags, yellow ones, red ones a moldering plastic log of every hit taken in the crumbling degenerate haven.