Poor Miami: Enough Whining

After several long weeks immersed in the depressing subject of Miami's world-class poverty, I found some relief in the final article of New Times's two-part series "We're Number One!" (September 26 and October 3). Titled "A Few Good Ideas" and compiled by staff writers Rebecca Wakefield and Tristram Korten, the article provided a forum for an assortment of thoughtful people to propose solutions that might end Miami's shameful reign as America's poorest city.We ended up with ten individuals, though given enough time and space, we could have included many more. The question we put to them: If you were master of the universe, with no obstacles in your path, what specifically would you do to help revitalize Miami? The responses were inspired. Some examples:

Florida International University psychology professor Marvin Dunn would put the brakes on technological innovations that eliminate low-skill jobs in a city that desperately needs jobs. "Instead of getting more [city sanitation] trucks that replace workers," he offered, "bring back more people, bring back more drivers."

Dunn's FIU colleague, labor researcher Bruce Nissen, would dump the state's regressive sales tax and establish a progressive income tax that would generate enough revenue to fund a first-class educational system. He'd also have Miami adopt a "living-wage" ordinance requiring all private contractors doing business with the city to pay their employees decent salaries.

Robert McCabe, former president of Miami-Dade Community College, wanted to upend Gov. Jeb Bush's system for grading and funding public schools: Failing schools would receive help, not punishment.

Renowned architect and town planner Andrés Duany, cheerfully acknowledging the fact that Miami will never be Greenwich, Connecticut, would "ride the energy" of his frisky city. "I would suggest creating certain areas of a few acres that are code-free zones.... All the small contractors would go there and build [homes] for themselves and others for a fraction of the cost. It would be a place where lots of young architects would go. It would be the coolest place in Miami."

Now there's a creative solution to one of the city's most pressing problems -- a severe lack of affordable housing. And it makes a point larger than Duany's clever idea: With a little encouragement, lots of people could be persuaded to contribute clever ideas, some of which just might work.

Bernardo Benes hardly needed encouragement. A long-time civic activist and controversial figure among Cuban exiles for his role in negotiating the release of 3600 Cuban political prisoners (see "Twice Exiled," November 12, 1998), the irrepressible Benes wasted no time in promoting one of his own ideas for alleviating poverty in Miami. "In my community work, I have always thought academia in this area does not contribute enough to solving our local problems," Benes wrote to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and his staff after reading "We're Number One!"

He went on to estimate that 100,000 students attend colleges and universities in Miami-Dade County. Mayor Diaz, he suggested, should induce the schools to form a brigade of volunteers to aid Miami's most impoverished citizens. Instructors could be involved as coordinators; the students could receive class credits for their time. "It is a crime that our students are not taught public service," Benes asserted. He listed a number of possible activities, from sprucing up poor neighborhoods to assisting the elderly poor, of which there are at least 18,000 in Miami. "This massive mobilization -- a local Peace Corps -- might work if done properly, and it will give Miami a soul it badly needs. In addition the students involved will be better citizens in the years to come."

I share Benes's frustration with local colleges and universities that have isolated themselves from the communities around them, and I applaud his worthy idea. Here's hoping it doesn't die the slow and painful death of bureaucratic neglect. The City of Miami can't afford to disregard any good idea that might be useful in fighting the plague of poverty.

In an effort to avoid that pitfall, and in the belief that certain things are simply too important to leave to politicians, I invite all interested readers to submit their clever ideas directly to me. Give thought to answering the same question we asked earlier: If you were master of the universe, what would you do to help revitalize Miami?

I'll collect the proposals over the next couple of weeks, then publish the best. I'll also see if I can't get a few of those politicos to respond to them. Who knows? It's possible we'll come up with some truly original ideas, a few of which just might work.

So I don't mistake your message for spam or junk mail, please label it "solutions." By fax: 305-571-7678. By e-mail: [email protected]. By post: 2800 Biscayne Blvd., #100, Miami 33137.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin