Violence-Plagued Pork 'n' Bean Projects to Be Razed, but Will It Help Residents?

Christmas Eve was a night like too many others for 24-year-old Phillip Arthur and his family in their Liberty Square apartment: maddeningly noisy and cramped. When Arthur confronted his next-door neighbor about his loud music, though, he found another constant of life in the projects: deadly violence. Arthur's neighbor stabbed him in the heart, leaving him to die surrounded by his sobbing family.

That 2012 crime was brutal even by Liberty Square's tragic standards, but there's no question violence has plagued the notorious housing project for decades. That's a main reason why county leaders announced plans last night to raze the projects and build new housing on the spot.

But will it actually help residents? Past experiments with housing project improvement in Dade County suggest Liberty Square's residents shouldn't hold their breath for quick improvements in their lives.

See also: Liberty Square Christmas Eve murder

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez tells the Miami Herald he's pulling together an initial $74 million in an eventual $200 million overhaul of the crumbling projects, which date from the era of FDR's New Deal. Gimenez's spokesman tells the daily that the deal will bring jobs and business to the area.

"The work is also necessary to address high rates of poverty and crime," Michael Hernandez tells the Herald.

Both certainly abound in Liberty Square. Here's a brief history New Times reported two years ago in an in-depth piece about Arthur's Christmas Eve murder:

Liberty Square hasn't always been a synonym for hopelessness and violence. When civic leaders petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 for federal funds, the project was hailed as a utopian solution to black poverty. At the time, most of Miami's blacks lived in a plumbing- and electricity-free ghetto near Overtown. When the first 200 units -- neatly whitewashed and lined with palms -- opened in 1937, chief backer John Gramling predicted they would "be one of the greatest blessings Miami ever had," according to a history of the units by local historian Paul George.

The dream had become a nightmare by the mid-'70s, when middle-class tenants were pushed out to make room for more needy newcomers. Soon a new nickname stuck for the houses: Pork 'n' Beans. (Disputes remain about the name's origin, which likely referred to either a common meal for residents or an orange paint job.) In 1980, the nation learned about the project's deterioration when vicious riots broke out following Arthur McDuffie's killing by Miami-Dade cops.

Recent decades haven't been much better. Just two years ago, then-Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones begged for help in stemming a gang conflict that threatened to tear the projects apart.

But the question is whether the county's plan will do much to help the hundreds of families that call Liberty Square home. Past evidence suggests reason for healthy skepticism.

Along with Liberty Square, the nearby Scott Homes were once Miami's worst public housing complex. (Scott was the subject of one of New Times most famous feature stories, "The Canyon," author Steve Almond's compelling tale of life in the projects.)

In 2000, the county razed Scott and pledged that the 1,000-plus residents would be eligible to move back into the new homes to be built with federal money. Fourteen years later, some Scott residents are still trying to find permanent housing. Cost overruns, contractor disputes, and red tape sent hundreds of families scrambling for years for a place to live.

Why wouldn't the same happen in Liberty City? "We're going to build first before we demolish anything," County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson tells the Herald. "That's the only way I approved this whole thing."

For Arthur's surviving family and everyone else trying to get by in Liberty Square, let's hope Edmonson's word is gold.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink