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4/4/04 - Miami Herald

King Blvd. visionaries face area's legacy of loss

A project to revitalize Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard begins to take shape, but some in the neighborhood aren't among the believers yet.


Another plan to spruce up Martin Luther King Boulevard resurfaced this week and Liberty City grocers Reginald and Howard Thomas, whose shop has seen more than 20 years of such talk, just shook their heads.

''This used to be like a mall area,'' said Howard Thomas, 51, stacking bunches of collard greens as he recalled an era when sidewalks were packed with customers. ``Now, it's more like a ghost town.''

His father, Reginald Thomas, the 87-year-old owner of Thomas Produce Market, on Northwest 62nd Street and 14th Avenue, is particularly skeptical.

He's competing for a dwindling clientele and yet last year, he says, the city of Miami told him he could no longer display fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk in front of his store, one of the few methods he still has to lure motorists who zip through on their way to Interstate 95.

''Ain't nobody putting money over here,'' he said, more than a bit exasperated. ``Every time they put money here it goes somewhere else.''

In more than two decades, both men have heard myriad promises that government would pour millions of dollars into the area in hopes of bringing back businesses that left -- most notably after the deadly and devastating 1980 McDuffie riots. Violence broke out in mostly black areas of the city after four white county police officers were acquitted of beating a black motorcyclist to death.

Now a community development agency, along with city and county officials, is offering still another plan, this one with even higher ambitions than usual. Officials say they hope this plan will reinvigorate the downtrodden area to attract new businesses, customers -- and tourists.

The proposal, first unveiled a year ago today, is to bring a mix of shopping plazas, street improvements, park upgrades and -- for the first time -- cultural landmarks to the Liberty City and Little Haiti areas. Later this year, private developers will begin construction of a $9.3 million plaza at the site where Winn-Dixie stood for years at King Boulevard and Northwest Sixth Court, in the shadow of I-95.

Nearby, the city is planning a cultural Art Walk where national and local celebrities such as basketball star Alonzo Mourning will leave their footprints in wet cement. The design will be similar to the gold star sidewalk tributes at Domino Park in Little Havana and the handprints in front of the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.

Further along the boulevard, Internet kiosks and monuments are proposed to pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Haitian- and African-American leaders and events.

Also on the drawing board are plans for $26.8 million in upgrades to four city of Miami parks on or near the boulevard. Funding will come from a $255 million homeland defense/neighborhood improvement bond approved by Miami voters in 2001.


The city and Miami-Dade County have committed another $3 million for facade and street improvements along the boulevard, between Northwest Seventh and 37th avenues.

Another plan -- though much less developed -- calls for a transportation hub to bring a sorely needed parking garage to the area. The federal government so far has allocated $4.5 million to acquire property near Northwest 62nd Street and Seventh Avenue -- another nearby major commercial artery.

Last year, when the plan was first discussed, more than 1,400 people came out to hear King's youngest daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, implore them to rekindle the boulevard's economic and social vitality.

Tonight, the community will gather for a second ''Reclaim the Dream'' street service and candlelight vigil to remember the 36th anniversary of the assassination of King.

But it may be hard to build enthusiasm among folks like the Thomases, with their struggling grocery store, when few of the proposed changes are visible. David Chiverton, chairman of tonight's service and treasurer of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Agency, which spearheaded the drive, concedes progress has been slow. The first year, he said, was spent trying to win the confidence of area residents.

''When you talk about the black community, it sometimes drags out,'' Chiverton said. ``We've made great strides in the last year, just having money in place and having interest from developers.''

City officials keep reemphasizing that improvements, especially cultural markers, have the potential to draw tourists and their dollars to what has been an economically depressed neighborhood for about 24 years.

''We want to create a cultural destination for people. But in order for them to come, you have to give them something to see,'' explained Keith Carswell, the city's director of economic development.

For Carswell and two of the city's other principals in the project, Michelle Spence-Jones and Clarence Woods, the project is personal. All grew up in or near Liberty City. All of them have family who still live in the area, and Carswell and Spence-Jones recently purchased homes there as well.

''The difference is the level of commitment and passion behind this plan,'' Woods said. ``At the end of the day if we don't produce we have to go home and explain.''


Moselle Rackard, who has lived near 62nd Street for more than 40 years, remembers a day when grocery stores and department stores such as Shell City, Lerner, and Jackson Byrons were on or near the boulevard. And on Seventh Avenue, nightclubs were the draw, attracting blacks and whites from Miami Beach.

''The whole place was vibrant. You didn't have to leave the neighborhood for anything,'' she said.

Rackard, who is 70-something, wonders what changes are in store. Her hope: A mid-or upper-level store such as Macy's or Dillard's will locate an outlet shop near her home. ''I don't see why not. We pay taxes [and] we like good clothes,'' she said.

As for Reginald Thomas, he'll believe the changes are real once he sees something concrete -- literally. He wants to see the lot adjacent to his store finally paved for parking.

And he'd really like to display his vegetables on the sidewalk again.

''We aren't bothering anybody. We're trying to help people,'' he said. ``All I've tried to do is make a dollar and to help someone along the way.''