The building was in sorry shape, as was the surrounding neighborhood. A trash-strewn vacant lot across the way served as a homeless camp. Discarded furniture lay out on the sidewalks. The nearby houses were boarded up and showed signs of vandalism. Gangs of kids held rule over several of the worst blocks, and residents would peer from their windows before leaving their homes.
Yet 80 years ago, Edgewater was one of Miami's exclusive residential areas, an often dazzling enclave of stately houses and mansions. Designed and originally named after the chic Miramar district of Havana, Miami's Miramar was home to the cream of the local merchant and professional classes as the city expanded northward. But over seven decades, politics, resettlement, and issues of race and power brought decay to paradise. And by the early 1980s, the neighborhood lost the last of its fading luster and deteriorated into another tenement slum.
Still, the Rodriguezes fell in love with the building. And they say they could feel the bygone charm of the old community, where within some 40 square blocks, more than 100 early twentieth-century houses and apartment buildings stand in various states of disrepair.
Someday, Michelle told her fiancé, we'll own this building.
Joel, a real estate agent since he was nineteen years old, negotiated the seller's price down from $225,000 to $157,000. But after that promising start, the couple's problems began. Completion of the sale dragged on for months, stalled while the owner resolved confusion over an improper foreclosure in the property's recent past. When the closing date was set at last, it conflicted with their wedding and had to be moved back again.
By the end of March 1997, the day before they were finally scheduled to sign papers, Joel and Michelle did a last walk-through of the apartments. Four months had passed since they'd been inside, and they realized the small building was in much worse shape than they thought. Daylight poked through holes in the walls. Heaps of loose trash littered the courtyard. Everywhere they looked something begged for repair. Even the address on the building, written in crayon near the front door, looked as though it would wash away in the rain. Worst of all was the discovery that only two of the eight units remained occupied; the couple was counting on a full quota of tenants to help offset their mortgage payments.
The newlyweds went to the closing, ready to forfeit a $10,000 deposit and walk away from the deal. It was only at the last minute that they decided to take a chance on the building and proceed with the purchase. The next day they revisited their property to see what could be done. Eight men lived together in a studio apartment where Joel would later find plastic bags containing cocaine residue. And when the Rodriguezes asked their only other tenant to pay her rent, she produced a six-month-old receipt as proof of payment.
To prevent an outburst from his exasperated wife, Joel sent her to a nearby hardware store. While he tried to reason with the tenant, Michelle searched the aisles for locks to secure the empty apartments before vagrants took up residence. There in the shop, she burst into tears. What had they gotten themselves into?
At that moment a young woman approached to ask if she was all right. Between sobs Michelle managed to tell the story of the tenant who wouldn't pay her rent, the men she suspected were drug addicts, and the awful condition of the building they'd just gone into debt to buy.
It's nothing, don't worry, Diane Justo told her. She and her husband, a real estate agent like Joel, had bought their first building in Edgewater a few years before and had been through a similar experience.
In the end Joel and Michelle decided that rather than initiate eviction proceedings, they would offer their delinquent tenant a security deposit refund and help her move. (The Justos had taken a similar tack with some of their more difficult tenants.) Over the next eight months, they cleaned up the building and eventually filled the apartments with reliable renters.
Along the way they became good friends with Diane Justo and her husband. Alex Justo had lived just outside the neighborhood, after his family arrived from Cuba in 1967. He'd grown up, moved elsewhere, and was selling real estate in 1995 when he rediscovered his old stomping grounds; he learned Edgewater apartment buildings were selling for less than $10,000 per unit.
Today the Rodriguezes and the Justos both own several buildings in the area. Their properties are oases of fresh paint and well-tended yards in a part of town known for sidewalk prostitution; narcotics arrests; a plethora of drug rehabs, abandoned cars, strewn garbage; and dilapidated housing.
For these young Cuban Americans, Edgewater is not just an investment. The Rodriguezes also live here; they own an apartment in a 1920s-era building whose simple but elegant amenities include high ceilings, lath-and-plaster walls, and a foyer replete with fireplace and easy chairs. As members of the co-op's board (along with Alex Justo), they've begun a slow restoration of the property to its original glory. It's not the easiest route to riches, but Edgewater is where they hope to build a future.
We want to raise our children here, says Michelle.
And they may one day succeed in turning Edgewater into a safe and charming residential neighborhood. On the other hand, their efforts at gentrification could undermine those very hopes. The area has long been zoned for high-density housing, and commercial developers may figure out that Miami's last bit of waterfront acreage is the perfect setting for high-rise condominiums.
Eighty-year-old Eugenia Carriero rocks back and forth in her chair on a front porch lined on three sides by metal bars. The bars clearly aren't as old as the Spanish-style stucco house, which was built in 1927, and they give her the look of a jailed grandmother. Carriero and her husband bought the place in 1982. Since his death five years later, she has stayed on alone in half of the house; she rents out the upstairs for income.
Carriero was 36 years old when she first came to Miami from Cuba in 1956, leaving behind a husband she divorced a few years later. On the boat to Key West, she and a friend met a fellow Cuban who operated an Edgewater boarding house for students. Carriero had come with little money and open-ended plans, and the fee for a room -- a dollar a day -- seemed perfect. She thought she might stay awhile, find some work, and take a few English classes. The classes never materialized, but she took jobs caring for the elderly and flew home to Havana a few times a month. The flight took about 45 minutes; roundtrip airfare cost just $40.50.
The revolution put an end to her trips home, and Carriero never went back to Cuba. During a four-month stay in New York, she fell in love again; in 1967 she remarried and returned with her husband to Edgewater, which by then had a growing Cuban population. Now more than half her life has passed in this neighborhood, where links to her native island can be found just a few blocks to the south, beginning on NE Seventeenth Terrace.
In 1906 developer Fred H. Rand, Jr., laid out the southern edge of today's Edgewater to resemble Havana's tony Miramar suburb, renowned for its grand mansions and wide, tree-lined streets. In Miami's Miramar a main drive curved gracefully along the waterfront (where Margaret Pace Park is now located), and many of the streets carried Spanish names. Rand built an opulent estate for himself, which featured a conservatory and bird sanctuary, on NE 21st Street. (Today the house no longer exists; in its place stands Unity on the Bay church.)
Over the next decade, more great houses sprang up in Miramar as monied Northern industrialists bought up land beside the bay. The community was second only to Brickell in its concentration of Miami wealth and influence. If you had to pick an area to live in the early 1920s, that would be it, says local historian Paul George. An eclectic mix of local dignitaries, including at least one city commissioner, judges, bankers, and artists called Miramar home.
During a boom in the early 1920s, Hugh M. Anderson, another real estate mogul, extended Biscayne Boulevard further north from downtown, up to 55th Street, slicing through the Miramar district. Later developers dredged the bayfront to extend several streets, leaving small inlets here and there along the shoreline.
In the years that followed, Miami went through numerous housing booms and busts, hurricanes and Depression-era turmoil. Not until World War II, though, did the city's economy begin to take off as it had at the turn of the century. By the mid-1950s, when Carriero arrived in Miramar, the neighborhood had settled into its current borders: from 17th Street up to 37th Street, bounded by the bay to the east and the Florida East Coast Railway track to the west. In time people ceased to use the name Miramar and referred to the area as Edgewater. George notes that a nearby hotel and an apartment building both used the name; though no one seems to know for sure, perhaps that's how the change began.
Back then, Carriero says, Edgewater was enjoying the city's postwar boom. The anchor to the south was a four-story Jordan Marsh on Seventeenth Street (where the Omni shopping center awaits transformation), the most glamorous department store in Miami. She remembers the store's big picture windows filled with ornaments, dancing dolls, and elegant clothes. On the grounds were fish ponds surrounded by benches, where people could sit and enjoy the afternoons. It was so beautiful, she recalls, pausing to savor the memory. You don't have department stores like that anymore.
Carriero lived in three different houses in Edgewater, all within four blocks of one another. Her current residence backs up against the bay, and her husband loved to sit on the balcony for hours and watch the boats glide by. I never thought my husband would die and that I would stay all by myself, she says, shaking her head.
They loved the house and the waterfront location, but by 1982 they knew the neighborhood was turning rough around the edges. True, the Juan Pablo Segundo retreat for Jesuit priests stood just down the road, but she also remembers counting three drug rehab houses right across the street.
As she chats a family of ducks waddles down the sidewalk past her house. They belong to a neighbor whose menagerie also includes roosters and often spills out on to the street and stops traffic. Carriero pays them scant attention but does take note of the latest wave of immigrants in the neighborhood. Most, she explains, are from Central America, and they've brought a change to the area.
Nobody threw papers or littered, she remarks wistfully. Now they don't care.
Why did Edgewater begin to fall into decay? Many of its old-timers say the changes began when their own children grew up and moved away from the neighborhood, robbing it of continuity. Houses were sold rather than passed down within families, and over the years, absentee landlords filled the vacuum.
In the 1970s and 1980s, economics and politics dealt a one-two punch to the neighborhood. Speculators, many of them wealthy South Americans, bought millions of dollars' worth of property in the community but neglected their holdings as they waited for buyers and the next development boom. By 1983, hoping to ease the growing blight by encouraging developers to demolish old buildings and replace them with high-rises, the Miami City Commission rezoned the neighborhood from single-family homes to multifamily residences. But there was no boom, recalls James Stover, the former owner and president of Bay Realty of Florida, located in Edgewater. He began selling property in the community in 1973 and remembers that economic collapse in South America brought much of the investment to a halt.
There has been social as well as economic unrest: The 1980 Liberty City riots and the Mariel boatlift were the final straws for many Edgewater homeowners, who fled north to Broward. In their wake came a flood of newly arrived Cubans. The city commission rezoning lure backfired on the neighborhood as property owners exploited the high-density allowances to subdivide the old houses, duplexes, and buildings into tiny apartments to shelter the immigrants. Edgewater became a place to begin anew and then leave as soon as possible.
And as the community atmosphere evaporated, prostitutes, drug dealers, and vagrants also moved in. The city government, mired in corruption and inefficiency, did little to stem the tide. Neglected buildings fell into disrepair as they were abandoned or taken over by squatters.
Carriero and other residents of the neighborhood say they struggled over the years to try to reverse the decline. In 1987 she joined a homeowners organization that through the years harangued the city into razing dozens of derelict buildings that had become havens for crack addicts.
We fought very hard, and that was good, she says.
Stover, who is 88 years old and retired, sees slow signs of renewal. He sold his company to Arvida Realty but retains a financial interest and is hopeful that sales will increase. It looks like we might not come out smelling like a rose, he admits. But maybe we can break even.
Carriero, however, is tired. She's weathered all the neighborhood's ups and downs and has trouble getting around. She's not interested in waiting to see how Edgewater turns out. Her taxes are getting too high. She's had offers to sell that become more appealing as time passes.
Some of the founders of Concerned Citizens of Edgewater Area (the later incarnation of the homeowners association Carriero assisted) are sitting around a conference table in architect Juan Crespi's office, located off Biscayne Boulevard on 27th Street. In addition to Crespi, the group includes Armando Rodriguez, an assistant principal at the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School (not related to Joel Rodriguez); and Benito Diaz, a lawyer who represents the local Jesuit retreat. Crespi and his father own four properties in Edgewater but haven't lived in the area since 1970. Rodriguez used to live here, too, but has moved to Coral Gables. His family has owned property in the neighborhood since the 1960s, when his father, a Cuban exile, began to buy apartments and single-family homes. Relatives, including a brother and an aunt, still live nearby.
The three men have waged a campaign for years to rid the neighborhood of crime and encourage businesses to set up shop. Their efforts have contributed to the creation of a police ministation in the neighborhood and the installation of brighter street lights. With the help of Edgewater residents, they helped shut down a motel that doubled as a brothel. They also successfully fought off efforts to turn the neighborhood into an industrial storage zone for the Port of Miami. Their struggle hasn't been easy. It took four years, for example, to persuade the city to plant palm trees along a few of the streets, says Armando Rodriguez.
No one disputes that in the past five years Edgewater has improved steadily. The price of property per square foot has doubled since 1995, when the average cost was $26.14, and this for property located off the water or away from Biscayne Boulevard. This year the price is about $52.41 per square foot. Waterfront square footage costs about $80 and is rising. In the past twelve months, according to Joel Rodriguez, 72 properties were sold (the figure doesn't include condominium units), an increase from 48 in 1995 and 1996.
In addition, just past the southern boundary of Edgewater, a much-anticipated performing-arts center will break ground when the county approves a contractor. A little further south developers are buying up properties to create movie and music studios. The United Teachers of Dade union currently is building offices on Biscayne Boulevard. Plans for at least one waterfront residential tower are in the works. And a few blocks past the northern border, the Design District has taken off. In 1996 New Times moved into the neighborhood. (New Times owns no property in Edgewater.) Internet startups geared toward Hispanic markets also are taking up residence.
As you drive along some of Edgewater's streets these days, you'll see beautifully restored houses on manicured lawns with SUVs and expensive foreign cars parked out front. On some blocks the upscale residences seem to be getting the upper hand over nearby dilapidated homes and apartments where, at 3:00 a.m., you can still see front doors wide open and young men lounging outside like watchmen.
Joel Rodriguez says he and his wife have tried to buy one building per year since they arrived. Unfortunately, he notes, it seems they are being priced out of the market.
Despite the real estate upswing, no one seems to know what kind of a future will be best for Edgewater. While the city has developed master plans for the nearby neighborhoods -- downtown to the south and the Design District and the Upper Eastside to the north -- it has none for Edgewater. We haven't had a substantial involvement on the part of the residents or developers in the area pushing for it, says Gregory Gay, an urban community planner with the city.
Perhaps the neighborhood's biggest booster is Miami Police Lt. Mario Garcia, who grew up near Edgewater and today oversees police activity in the area. He's so well-known here that some residents have taken to calling him the mayor of Edgewater.
Garcia, age 43, makes his rounds as a social worker and evangelist for renewal, as much as a policeman. On any given day he'll check in with a number of businesses. If someone is new to the neighborhood, he'll offer a welcome. He's not shy about fundraising, either, and enlists support for a host of community-building activities, mostly for children.
When he first arrived to patrol the area in 1996, he recalls, the employees at one local business on Biscayne Boulevard would sit by their window and take bets about how many johns the sidewalk prostitutes would service in a day. The city cemetery on NE Eighteenth Street and Second Avenue, where many of Miami's early civic leaders are buried, served as a sort of hooker hotel.
Garcia acknowledges city government is to blame for the deterioration here in municipal services, such as garbage removal, street maintenance, crime prevention, and code enforcement. And he recalls the hostility he faced when he came on the job. There was a lot of mistrust and resentment, he says, much of it left over from riots in 1988, set off after a police shooting in neighboring Wynwood.
Garcia began by encouraging residents to take part in Citizens on Patrol, which lets homeowners be seen in the company of police officers and take some ownership in local law enforcement. He invites people on ride-alongs while police conduct prostitution stings. We've arrested football stars, judges, ministers, schoolteachers, even policemen, he says.
He sees an Edgewater renaissance in the increased number of real estate agents who call him to ask for neighborhood crime statistics. (In five years the crime rate has dropped 48 percent, he likes to point out.) And there have been more requests for permits to close off the streets for ongoing construction.
Most days three or four prostitutes can be seen working Edgewater's main thoroughfare. Though prostitution and drug dealing continue, they are less blatant, Garcia insists. The stings have reduced the prostitutes' presence from the free-for-all it was five years ago, and more than 40 crackhouses have been demolished. Still, he says, he needs more patrolmen. Federal funds are available, but while the city has beefed up patrols to the north and south, there's been no increase in his district. He worries that crime will move back into Edgewater as it's squeezed out of the better-patrolled areas.
He does nonetheless credit the City of Miami for introducing the Neighborhood Enhancement Teams to bring key city services, such as code enforcement and police patrols, down to the local level. But the neighborhood NET program ran into some turmoil of its own in 1999, when the branch administrator stepped down after three years on the job. Though Garcia declines to discuss personnel matters, the administrator, who owned two buildings in the district, had received about half a dozen complaints on his properties about drug activity and illegal garbage disposal.
In June 1999 Sergio Guadix took over the neighborhood NET office. [Edgewater] did need strong, constant code enforcement, Guadix says. For a long time, he adds, people looked the other way. The 40-year-old bureaucrat has worked for the city for fourteen years, mostly as a code inspector for the fire department. I don't own property here, he declares. And the only friends I have are the people who want what's best for this neighborhood.
Guadix has only three inspectors for his entire district (which includes Edgewater and Wynwood), and they check for violations ranging from zoning to sanitation. Only one works full-time for Edgewater. He knows how important community involvement is, and like Garcia, he believes residents must be encouraged to take pride in their neighborhood. When people live in an area that looks terrible, they feel terrible, he says.
But in Edgewater, owner-occupied buildings account for only about twenty percent of the properties, and it's hard, he also knows, to instill pride and a sense of responsibility for the community when most of the landlords don't live in the area. I can't force them to feel another way, he says of the neighborhood's absentee owners. In Edgewater we have some resistance, but mostly people understand that [legally maintaining their property is] for their own benefit.
Among the problems plaguing the neighborhood, he cites rehab facilities clustered too closely together in violation of zoning ordinances and overcrowded units. [A landlord] may buy a duplex and subdivide it for three or four families, he explains. Unfortunately if the landlord complies with building codes and provides enough parking spaces, he can maintain as many apartments on a property as he wants. Why? Guadix says it's because of the zoning regulations that permit maximum-density housing.
And Lieutenant Garcia acknowledges that landlords have a financial incentive not to invest in their properties. If I'm a slumlord living off low rents [and then the neighborhood improves], I can't buy low, he notes.
Raymond Navarro, one of Edgewater's landlords, is no fan of the NET office. He owns 27 properties in Edgewater and Wynwood, buildings that usually are easy to identify. Most have the same color scheme: beige walls with dark-green trim. Navarro says he saw the colors -- which his paint supplier calls Navajo White and Mown Green -- on a firehouse in South Miami-Dade and thought they looked stylish.
There are two other ways to identify a Navarro building. Because the landlord doesn't provide window shades, the tenants supply their own, often bed sheets or other makeshift coverings. The second clue: There's usually a pay phone out front. Navarro has ordered the installation of a number of the phones (he says he does it for the benefit of his tenants who can't afford their own phones); though there's nothing illegal about that, Garcia and others in the neighborhood are concerned that pay phones are magnets for drug dealers. Some homeowners living next to his buildings say the pay phones are the least of the problem. They claim his buildings are regularly rented by prostitutes and drug dealers.
Navarro, who first purchased property in the neighborhood three years ago, dismisses the allegations and says they can be traced to jealous competitors who want to buy his buildings. When he acquires a property, he insists, he makes it better. I buy them with problems and bring them into compliance, he says. I don't condone criminal elements, and I keep the buildings clean. He also is eager to defend his tenants, who he says are unfairly stigmatized because they're poor. Ninety percent are working class with legitimate jobs, he claims. Besides, he adds, This area is undesirable. [It] will never be South Beach. It's got about another twenty percent growth, and then it will plateau.
Navarro has a partner in three of his properties: Ofcr. Carlos Mendez, a patrolman with the City of Miami Police Department, who is attached to the local NET office. They own one building in Edgewater and two in Wynwood. Mendez worked as a neighborhood resource officer in Edgewater until this past February, when Garcia transferred him back to patrol duty. Mendez claims he's been unfairly singled out by Garcia, in part because of his association with Navarro. There is intense scrutiny of everything we do, he asserts. But in terms of upkeep, he maintains their housing isn't out of character with the surrounding neighborhood. And though he acknowledges there have been arrests on some of Navarro's properties, he notes that since he and his partner bought their building off Biscayne Boulevard in March, only one arrest has been made at the site -- and he made it. This is a high-crime, low-income area, he says. And unfortunately our tenants, no matter how much we control them, reflect the area.
Navarro and Mendez say they do the best they can with old buildings. Although Navarro's buildings have been cited -- a lot, according to Guadix -- for unsafe structure, illegal trash disposal, permit violations, and abandoned vehicles left near the property, he says he takes care of the issues promptly. He complains that he never receives warnings about problems in his buildings.
Police and code compliance have failed to communicate with landlords, he maintains, adding that he's had other paperwork problems with the NET office, too. He wishes the office would just go away. They have no professional knowledge of what is going on, he says.
The Edgewater Economic Development Corporation is yet another agency claiming a stake in the neighborhood's future. The nonprofit was founded in 1992 by a group that includes assistant Belen Jesuit Preparatory School principal Armando Rodriguez and architect Juan Crespi, the same men who created Concerned Citizens of Edgewater. Until last year Rodriguez served as president. Politicians told the men that if they wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood, they should concentrate on commercial revitalization.
To this end the corporation has three missions: It provides small grants -- about $1400 each -- to repaint commercial exteriors; it hosts an annual fundraising golf tournament, underwritten by the Bacardi company, which has headquarters in Edgewater; and it builds low-income housing.
From July 1998 to September 1999, the organization helped some twenty local businesses paint their shutters, signs, and awnings, for a total of about $28,000. (The corporation receives funds though city and federal block grants.) In that same fourteen-month period, $80,000 of a roughly $155,000 budget went to two full-time staff salaries, for executive director Juan Jane and a secretary. (It appears that most of the rest of the budget went to administrative costs, such as rent and insurance.)
The low-income housing hasn't happened yet, though Jane says the corporation has spent five years trying to begin to build two single-family homes in the neighborhood. (They broke ground on both at the end of June.) It took several years simply to buy the property, he explains, and the city has rejected three building permit applications. I tell you, it has been a hell of an experience, he concludes. I have learned a lot.
Armando Rodriguez and his family, like Navarro, own a number of shabby buildings in Edgewater, some of them redesigned to squeeze in extra apartments. The façade of one of his eight-unit properties is chipped and the building number looks painted on. The entrance is marked by one rusted, askew handrail leading to a battered metal door. A foul-smelling open Dumpster stands close to the entrance. No curtains cover the grimy windows. Inside the hallway floors are bare plywood. Out back the yard consists of a layer of poured concrete.
Next door real estate agent Alex Justo also owns an eight-unit apartment building. While both structures are identical architecturally, Justo has devoted considerable labor and money into fixing his up. A filigree ceramic street address is attached to the front wall. A black security fence encloses the property, and two large royal palm trees bracket the front. The entrance is marked by a wood-frame glass door with a wreath hanging over it, and the new windows are decorated with lace curtains. The building has a fresh coat of paint, hardwood floors, and spotless halls. Everything in there is brand new, except the bathtubs, he says, and I had them restored. Out back a graveled courtyard offers a gardenlike retreat. Justo charges tenants an additional $100 to rent his apartments, and he fears that the Rodriguez building is dragging down property values and keeping out the kinds of tenants he hopes to attract.
Like Navarro, Rodriguez defends the condition of his building and insists everyone doesn't move at the same pace. I have tenants who have lived there for ten years, he says. I do things little by little. There is a difference between being clean and being all bon vivant. And while his tenants are poor, he insists he won't tolerate criminals. Some people confuse poverty with delinquency, he notes.
Crespi is sympathetic to both positions. He believes the extensive subdividing of old homes and apartment buildings is the legacy of the neighborhood's past as a dumping ground. When it was run-down, in order to meet your expenses, you had to be creative and build more apartments, he says. As the neighborhood improves, better rents will be available, and things will return to normal.
Last month Concerned Citizens of Edgewater hosted a community meeting attended by about 75 residents and property owners who piled into a second-floor conference room at the Juan Pablo Segundo Jesuit retreat to discuss problems in the community. Among those present were Joel and Michelle Rodriguez, and Alex and Diane Justo. Officer Mendez showed up, off-duty. Cofounders Armando Rodriguez and Juan Crespi turned out an impressive array of city staff, including recently elected City Commissioner Johnny Winton, new City Manager Carlos Gimenez, and new Police Chief Raul Martinez, to answer questions and take complaints.
Residents continue to protest bitterly about crime and trash, and that night the city officials promised to redouble efforts to clean up the area. Commissioner Winton promised that the city would begin foreclosures against landlords of derelict properties who refuse to comply with city codes. But then came a surprise announcement: plans to build a 180-apartment building for low-income and Section 8, or welfare-recipient, tenants.
Alarm in the crowd was evident. It was as if the city didn't yet grasp what these residents were trying to do. A development like this can wipe out years of progress, bemoaned one homeowner. Some people still view this as a blighted area. Why, he wanted to know, hasn't the city produced a master plan for Edgewater?
Joel Rodriguez confesses he's torn about the future of Edgewater. As a real estate agent, he believes land must be put to its greatest value. It's a shame that real estate so close to the water is a slum, he believes. At the same time, he remembers the love and work that went into his buildings. Ideally the city will find a way to be creative while preserving the old properties and character of Edgewater. That's what attracted us to the neighborhood, he says.