Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
A New Wave of Trailblazers Unite Communities

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000

Most Americans, even those visiting for fun in the sun, think of South Florida as a constant theater of crazy conflicts.

You do have conflict. But your culture also is growing more interesting as it gets more international. We found leaders all over the region who are adding up your assets, confronting the demons and building a better place. They are building a new culture across the lines that now seem so dividing.

Just take what's happening in the arts. Cultural tourism, drawing visitors from Toronto to Buenos Aires, has become a booming South Florida business. The overlooked story, however, is how the arts are bringing people together.

Rem Cabrerra, who attends three dozen-plus South Florida events yearly in his work with the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, sees people from every South Florida county at virtually every event. He cited an example: When a Coral Springs theater company announced a Tony-award winning play and then found out the same play would be running in Boca Raton, they dropped it, figuring people would go to Boca from all over anyway.

Michael Spring, Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs director, sees a "gigantic opportunity" from the waves of immigration. "We're learning to live with each other, how to communicate, to deal with differences. Sometimes we do a lousy job of it, but more than you think, it works," Spring claims.

For instance, rather than sit back and complain about the absence of support and space for minority artists, Jamaican-born bridge-builder Rosie Gordon-Wallace started the Diaspora Vibe Gallery. For four years now, on the last Friday of every month, she has been showcasing African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic visual and performing artists at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami. This combined experience of art, music and food is a turns out to be well-kept secret among growing numbers of South Floridians of all races and ethnicities.

In Delray Beach, the same independent spirit can be found in Chuck Ridley's relentless drive to forge a real community from the struggling areas around I-95 and Atlantic Avenue. Ridley fought the drug lords in the '90s while building 23 neighborhood associations. Now there's a special neighborhood school, the product of the community's collaboration with the Palm Beach County school district.

In this school, the principal "reports" to the community. The school is open all day and parts of weekends. "What had to change," Ridley said, "was having our kids bussed to 15 different schools and seeing 70 percent of them not graduating."

We found leaders all over the region crossing lines, creating new definitions of what community means. Laura Corry, who has a serious day-job doing outreach for the South Florida Water Management District, also serves Broward's Latin Chamber as president. She told our team about crowds at the Latin Festival in Hollywood and salsa mixed with Caribbean music at the Unity Festival. She talks the language of partnership: "Not letting anybody pit us against each other. We all go to the Martin Luther King celebrations."

It takes extraordinary vision when Richard Grosso of Nova Law School and his wife Shannon Estoúez, Everglades coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund, sacrifice what would probably be high professional incomes to struggle for clean water, greenways, bird sanctuaries and the Everglades. Such folks know how to think out of the box. Tired of crowded highways? We should try water transit, ferries, says Grosso. On another front, it's high courage, even if unheralded, when Eduardo Gamarra, at Florida International University's Latin and Caribbean Center, organizes international conferences that march right through the minefield of sensitivities about Cuba. Gamarra also aids the struggle for stability in Latin America, traveling to such nations as Bolivia to counsel on preserving and advancing fragile democratic institutions. He and associate Lisandro Perez focus their energy on the opportunities for South Florida to gain strength, not liability, from the mixed cultures. The goal of progressive South Florida leaders is to make nothing less than an international center of intellectual leadership and capital. And tough honesty. Otis Pitts has worked for decades in Miami's Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods, combining whatever public funding he can use to make real estate deals come together. He preaches self-responsibility in low-income areas, calling welfare reform "a good thing" and suggests that "a little gentrification would help these neighborhoods."

A few leaders are willing to think system-wide. Skip Johnston's Broward County Coordinating Council has virtually every top government executive and some from private business meeting regularly, figuring how to break down the "silos" dividing health care, juvenile justice, schools, health, aging services, public and nonprofit. With benchmark measures, Johnston's aiming at a "civic report card" on the system's performance.

The stereotype says people retire here and run from responsibility. But consider David Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald. Now working out of FIU, Lawrence has thrown himself into a crusade to help children. Launching a multi-media campaign for the Miami-Dade Early Childhood Initiative, he says, "We have no shortage of good, caring people and programs. We need a system on behalf of all children, to say that the same principles, quality intellectual, emotional, social and physical development, work for everybody's child."

So the region's conflicts may add up to great spectator sport. But these folks, and they're a strictly unscientific sample, are trailblazing a South Florida that works.