Mister Frank's Neighborhood

Frank Decker walks through the small cottage behind his house, shaking his head. Everywhere he turns, there's more disappointment - a busted fan, a dented refrigerator, broken windows. The bars to the wrought-iron gate on the back door have been pried apart. The floor inside is littered with garbage and drug paraphernalia, including a slew of little plastic bags with white residue inside. The walls are plastered with graffiti and magazine photos of naked women. On one wall, someone named Kim has scrawled her new beeper number. "Whores and pimps," Decker mumbles. "Son-of-a-bitch bastards."

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some, like Frank Decker, have always appeared destined to spend their entire lives in quiet obscurity, never catching a glimmer of the world's attention. Now suddenly, at the age of 85, Decker has found himself thrust into the current vortex of fame Miami-style - the raunchy romp that seems to have swallowed elusive County Commissioner Joe Gersten.

Decker owns the 31st Street bungalow where Gersten is alleged to have been robbed at knifepoint while wearing nothing but his socks and a shirt. Witnesses say the commissioner had come to the bungalow April 29 to consummate a sleazy, cocaine-stoked assignation with a prostitute before having his money and his Mercedes ripped off. From the French Riviera, where he'd jetted for a vacation, Gersten insisted the sex-and-drugs tale was trumped up, that his Benz had been boosted from outside his own house, and that some ne'er-do-wells had subsequently attempted extortion.

But even as the commissioner denied any impropriety and doggedly soaked up the sights and screens of the Cannes Film Festival with fiancee Rosario Kennedy, the story that had surfaced like a troublesome boil proceeded to fester. Police and FBI officials investigated, and newspaper and TV reporters interviewed everyone who had alleged anything, from the prostitute and her pals to the cab driver who said that on the evening in question, a fare who resembled Gersten had asked to be taken from the vicinity of Biscayne Boulevard and 31st Street to the Gables.

Frank Decker says he doesn't know what went on that night inside the bungalow behind his small apartment building, only that he's old, and he's tired, and his neighborhood has deteriorated to the point where he no longer has much control over what happens on his property. "There is no law here," Decker says solemnly.

It was lawlessness and fear that made Decker flee Hungary in 1930. He had seen the way his fellow Jews were being treated and was fearful that it would only get worse. A bright young man in his early twenties, Decker moved to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne to study engineering. Fluent in several languages, including Hungarian, Romanian, German, French, Spanish, and English, he was hired after graduation by the United Fruit Company to help establish processing plants throughout Central America. In 1935 he moved to Honduras, where he met and married an American fashion designer.

Frank and Cecilia Decker moved to New York in 1940. Decker says he couldn't find work there as an engineer, but with his father-in-law's help, he got a job as a butcher. For the next fifteen years, Decker worked as a meat cutter, and the couple lived in the Bronx and reared three children. Meanwhile, their neighborhood was becoming more crime-ridden and less safe, so the family moved to a small town in upstate New York.

In 1973, with their children grown and out of the house, the Deckers decided it was time to retire. He says they chose Miami because two of his brothers, who had left Hungary before World War II, were already living in South Florida. Decker also suffered from arthritis, and he wanted to move to a warmer climate.

The plan, Decker explains, was for the couple to invest their life savings in a building in which they could live and rent out apartments. That way money would always be coming in and Decker could stave off the idleness of retirement by seeing to the upkeep of the building. "I figured I'm still young," Decker says. "I didn't want to sit on a bench in the park like someone waiting to die. I bought this house so I would have something to do, to keep me busy."

Decker says he fell in love with the two-story house on 31st Street the minute he saw it. The building had a brand-new roof and a fresh coat of paint, and had been divided into four apartments, with a cottage out back. It was a scant two-block stroll to Biscayne Bay, and while the neighborhood wasn't fancy, it seemed to the Deckers that the people who lived there were hard-working. "It wasn't that bad, like today," says Decker.

Lately he's been watching the neighborhood's decline alone. Five years ago, after 48 years of marriage, Cecilia Decker died. The couple's three children live in other parts of the country; photographs of his six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren are scattered throughout Decker's one-bedroom apartment.

His two brothers are also dead, and since his wife's passing, Decker has retreated more and more into his house. Two years ago a couple of punks shoved a gun into his ribs as he tried to open his front door. They took his money, he says, and his peace of mind. The recent purchase of a gun hasn't been able to allay his fear. "I can't go anyplace at night," he confides. "I don't need this. I love this place, but the people are so damn rotten."

About six months ago, Decker rented the cottage to a man from Indonesia. "A nice guy," he says, but adds that he had begun eviction proceedings against the man for failing to pay his rent. "Then one night Immigration came and picked him up."

Within a day of the Indonesian's departure, there was a knock at Decker's apartment door. A man and a woman stood outside, saying they were friends of the deported man and that they were going to stay at his place while he was away. "They had the nerve to ask me for the keys," Decker says.

Over the years, Decker had become familiar with the neighborhood's drug dealers, pimps, and whores. They called him "Mister Frank," just like everyone else did, he says, and he was able to get along with them by adhering to a simple rule: if he didn't bother them, they probably wouldn't bother him. But after Decker refused to hand over the keys to the people standing in his doorway, they simply pried off the bungalow's security bars and moved in. That was about six weeks ago.

Decker called the police, hoping they would arrest the squatters for trespassing. "But anytime the cops came in," says the unwilling landlord, "they ran out the back and waited until they left." And as word spread of the cottage's availability, more and more people came. "There were so many people coming in here, 24 hours a day, one face uglier than the next," Decker says.

The authorities, of course, have focused on one face: Joe Gersten's. Decker, however, says he's never seen Gersten and doesn't recall seeing a Mercedes parked in front of his house. "I don't know Gershwin," he says, apparently confusing the commissioner with the composer. In Decker's estimation, Gersten is probably being set up. Why, Decker asks, would a politician bring a hooker to a crack house? "I don't think he's that stupid. Who could be that dumb?"

Even after the Gersten debacle, hookers and crackheads continued to flock to the cottage, and police recently arrested about half a dozen people there. "The police are watching now," says Decker. "I've never seen so many police before."

Although he keeps a "For Sale" sign up in his front yard, Decker realizes he is unlikely to find a buyer. He has also given up trying to rent out his vacant apartments, although a neighbor recently helped him clean up the cottage. "I don't want to bother any more," Decker says. "It's too much. I'm too old.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede