The People's Republic of Area A

A group of neighborhood leaders prepares to declare independence and start Broward's first black-majority city

Every city likes to pretend to some kind of distinction, no matter how humble or how true. Fort Lauderdale has its picturesque waterways; Lauderdale-by-the-Sea its small beachfront hotels; Sunrise its economy-size mall; Dania Beach its antique district. Even Hallandale has a roadside Christmas light show that, though ghastly, is certainly unique.

In the central Broward County area, though, where an oblong 25-square-mile parcel of unincorporated no man's land sits wedged between Plantation and Fort Lauderdale, a different kind of distinction applies. This is -- as the area's 26,000 residents, most of whom are black, know full well -- the most undesired large section of unincorporated land in the county.

That's not mere opinion. At a time when cities across the county are battling it out for annexation rights on all other remaining unincorporated land, there's hardly a trace of competition for this chunk. Ten annexation bills have been introduced before the state delegation from Broward this year, representing every remaining major unincorporated section of the county -- except one.

"This has been the county's unwanted stepchild for years," says Jack Tobin, a retired Democratic state representative from Margate and 16-year veteran of the county's annexation wars.

It's a place without identity or status -- or even a name of which anyone would be proud. Some 75 years ago, when the Fort Lauderdale city fathers unloaded this burdensome territory, they designated it "Area A" in the legal paperwork. For some reason, the term has survived.

Folks who were born and raised here, men like Carlton Moore (who has since moved eastward and upward and is now a member of the Fort Lauderdale city commission), still can be heard to say things like, "I grew up in Area A. My mother lives in Area A."

But it's a moniker that many current residents hate. "It's always seemed sort of an insulting kind of name," says Ed Simmons, who prefers "central county" himself. So last year a small group of schoolteachers, retirees, and homeowners association presidents set out to change the name of their blighted home. "We'll have a contest," explains long-time resident Joe Major, a schoolteacher at Lauderhill Middle School. "We'll let the people name themselves."

As yet, a new name remains but a dream. Before they can name their town, they're going to have to create it. And that won't be easy. Major and his fiery band of activists are fighting to create something unprecedented in Broward County: a black-majority city. A municipality that will give them an identity, independence, and political power.

The campaign is still in its infancy. The process of incorporation is long and arduous (as residents of Weston learned when they succeeded in creating their city three years ago; the incorporation-feasibility study alone was more than an inch thick).

And the political road to cityhood will be just as arduous, if not more. Though just getting started, the campaign to incorporate Area A has already drawn criticism from two of the county's most important black political leaders, Carlton Moore and Josephus Eggelletion, each of whom (for different reasons) would rather see the parcel divided up and assigned to surrounding cities.

Despite the inherent problems, however, the campaign is moving forward. Spurred by a sense of community pride and a desire to build a lasting base of black political power, a coalition of neighborhood groups has been pushing for incorporation.

They call themselves the Broward County Civic Coalition (BCCC), and last year they pushed the county to commission an economic study from Nova Southeastern University on the viability of incorporation, which is due to be completed this month.

Meanwhile a campaign is being orchestrated with a two-pronged strategy: building door-to-door grassroots support and applying pressure to members of the Broward state delegation who have the power to make the idea happen -- or to kill it.

Being the center of controversy and political struggle is something of a novelty for Area A. For most of the past 20 years, it has served as little more than a throughway for motorists driving west to Sawgrass Mills and the suburbs or east to the business district and beach.

Bordered roughly by Davie Boulevard to the south, NW 19th Street to the north, U.S. Highway 441 to the west, and NW 24th Avenue to the east, the area consists of eight relatively small residential neighborhoods with names such as Broward Estates, Boulevard Gardens, Washington Park, and St. George.

A recent study shows it has a population that's 90 percent black and 30 percent below the poverty line. It has never been a hotbed of political activity. As of last year, the Broward County supervisor of elections counted only 738 residents living in the area's ten precincts who had even registered to vote. (Those who do vote are solidly and reliably Democratic; in 1996, Clinton took 95 percent of the total count.) Maybe that's why none of the area's elected state or county representatives even live within its boundaries. For such an apolitical area, though, the politics of incorporation are becoming surprisingly complex.

In matters of annexation or incorporation, the most important players are the members of the state legislative delegation, the body that must approve any plan that involves a change of municipal boundaries. Inevitably, each member of the delegation has conflicting constituencies, loyalties, and interests. Democratic state representative Josephus Eggelletion's district, for example, includes parts of both Plantation and Area A.

That's a problem. In order to be economically viable, any future city in this area is going to have to take back the valuable commercial corridor along Highway 441 that once did belong to Area A until it was annexed by Plantation in the mid-'60s. Joe Major and his supporters say the road was artfully cherry-picked -- some just say "stolen" -- from its rightful owner, Area A, and at least one Plantation city council member shares this view. Still, no Plantation city official has offered to return the annexed land.

Politically, this leaves Eggelletion caught between two factions. "I can't just represent one part of my district," he says. "I have to represent all of it." Unhappily for him, that isn't possible here.

Not that he doesn't try. Eggelletion brags about having inserted language into delegation pronouncements specifically mentioning "the possibility of de-annexation" of the Highway 441 corridor. At first glance this would seem designed to throw a scare into Plantation.

If Eggelletion were serious about this so-called threat of de-annexation, he would be talking up the importance of the 441 corridor to a newly revitalized city to the east. Instead he goes around lamenting that such a city would never work because the property tax base would be too small -- even with 441 included. It's basically the same point Plantation mayor Frank Veltri makes in regard to giving back the corridor.

Eggelletion's own preference would be to divide Area A into at least two sections, with surrounding cities annexing as much of the area as they feel they could absorb. "Lauderdale Lakes, Plantation, Fort Lauderdale, or Lauderhill -- any one of those four could step up to the plate, I don't care," he says.

But here's where the issue really gets tangled. The two major cities involved -- Fort Lauderdale and Plantation, without which Eggelletion's plan would have a tough time working -- don't seem to want any part of it. "I just don't see how that could happen," says Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle.

Naugle goes out of his way to stress his city's high tax rate and high service fees. In fact Naugle says he'd rather see his city de-annex everything west of Interstate 95 than take on more land in that direction. He would, he says, be happy to see a newly incorporated Area A annex some of the western portions of his city.

That would suit Major just fine. In fact Major considers much of west Fort Lauderdale as a natural extension of Area A. Both areas are historically black, and both share many of the same cultural landmarks, both positive (Dillard High School) and negative (the Wingate Superfund site).

Naugle's idea would have at least two interesting effects: First, it would add to the property tax base of the new city, making it that much more economically viable. Second, it would probably take away a block of voters from Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Carlton Moore, who now enjoys a comfortable and secure seat.

In Plantation, city officials have expressed the same sort of reluctance to annex any part of Area A. Only Plantation council member Lee Hillier, whose main base of support includes far eastern Plantation, expresses unreserved support for eastward expansion. Yet, as Hillier admits, his position leaves him the renegade of Plantation politics: "None of [his colleagues] care what happens to this area."

To all this Major responds with invective aimed mostly at Moore and Eggelletion. In community meetings and interviews, Major portrays Eggelletion as a sellout willing to sacrifice a poor black constituency for the sake of a rich white one. "All Joe Eggelletion is interested in is a safe seat," he says. "Joe Eggelletion hasn't done a damn thing for black people. It takes more than black skin to make a man black."

Joe Major promises revenge when the incorporation issue comes up for a vote. "We're going to take it to the streets. We're going to take it to the people, and see what happens. We'll see who are the ones who are really out there fighting for the interests of black people and who are the ones who are out there fighting for their own interests."

That's the kind of rhetoric that could cost Eggelletion votes, and he angrily denies any political motive in opposing incorporation. "This [incorporation] would raise taxes, and it would lower quality of life." He also responds in kind, with some fiery accusations of his own targeted against Major. "I question his ethics," Eggelletion says. "He misleads people, he tells untruths.... He goes behind your back."

For all their mutual loathing, however, the two men seem fated to work together. Major needs the support of the state delegation, and Eggelletion needs the votes of the community.

A decade ago Eggelletion might have been able to muscle a proposal such as splitting up Area A through the legislative delegation, and that would have been the end of it. In those days, "you could wake up and read in the newspaper that your neighborhood had been annexed," recalls Tobin. "But those days are gone."

Now, although the delegation does technically have the power to pass a bill that would coerce a city into annexing an area it may not want -- or, conversely, to force a city to de-annex an area that it does want -- power lies with the residents of the area to be annexed. Now any proposed change in city boundaries requires a referendum to pass. If residents vote down an annexation proposal, the proposal is dead. "The ultimate power is with the people," Tobin says.

Three blocks west of the Broward Sheriff's Office headquarters on Broward Boulevard, a strange-looking building sits far back from the road in the rear of a cracked asphalt lot. In the strong midafternoon daylight, the building's hot pink and purple façade and garish sign ("Ecstasy," in letters of cursive neon) seem painfully bright.

The building used to be a Ponderosa Steak House; now it's a strip club. Two doors down is a day care center run by the Hope Outreach Community Ministry. In fact, from Ecstasy's liquor-bottle-strewn rear parking lot, one can easily see and hear about a dozen kids romping and gallivanting in Hope Ministry's back yard. All that separates the kids from the strippers is a pair of rusty chainlink fences.

Heading west one finds signs like "Available, up to 20,000 square feet" and "Blood Donors... Come on in... No appointment necessary" in between boarded-up storefronts and broken windows.

It's clear that Area A is economically challenged. Long-time residents recall the intersection of Highway 441 and Broward Boulevard as being the commercial center of Area A -- indeed, the central shopping district for much of the county. Thriving strip malls stood on every corner, including the landmark Gateway 7 Mall on the northwest corner, with shops and businesses stretching for blocks down both roads.

But over the last 20 years, this intersection has undergone a dramatic collapse, even as job-creating engines such as Sawgrass Mills Mall and the National Car Rental Center have risen in new cities out west.

Last year Thomas Gotart, a Miami-based real estate consultant, explored the option of purchasing Gateway 7 but bowed out. The venture appeared risky, he says, in part because local residents lack purchasing power. "You know something I learned," he says. "From Davie [Boulevard] to Oakland Park [Boulevard], there's not a single major-chain grocery store between 441 and the interstate. I couldn't figure out how to make the numbers work."

That's precisely the point of those who oppose incorporation. Beyond all the political problems, beyond all the personality conflicts, they say, is the simple fact that the area does not have the property tax base to sustain a city.

"I don't think people realize just how expensive it is to maintain a city, much less start one," says Carlton Moore. Last year, at the request of the BCCC, the county contracted with Nova Southeastern University to study the feasibility of the incorporation of Area A.

"Based on current taxable values, the millage rate that a proposed municipality must assess to serve the needs of the community would far exceed the community's ability to pay and would exceed the comparable rates of the adjacent cities," a near-final draft of the report concludes.

Interestingly, according to the study's criteria, the day care center is a worse blight on the area than the strip club. That's because strip clubs, though not desirable to have in neighborhoods, do pay taxes at least. In Area A, fully 43.5 percent of the total property value is untaxable because it belongs to a church, service organization, or government. "Astonishing," says Irv Rosenbaum, a former Davie city manager and the principal author of the Nova report.

"I understand that you have to revitalize those areas, but that's something that's a long way off," Eggelletion says. "It's going to take a lot of money, a lot of capital," he claims, to renovate the many vacant buildings lining major Area A throughways such as Broward Boulevard, Sunrise Boulevard, and NW 27th Avenue.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing for both Area A and surrounding communities to find a solution to the problem of Area A's unincorporated status. State and county representatives are one in saying they want the county out of the business of providing municipal services (such as water and sewer) to places like Area A. And they haven't hesitated to apply pressure to residents' wallets.

For instance, county dollars that go toward providing municipal services to unincorporated areas are required to come from taxes collected in those areas. That means, as more and more areas are annexed, taxpayers in the remaining unincorporated areas face inexorably rising burdens.

Last year households in unincorporated areas got hit with a 23 percent tax increase, which was meant as a wake-up call to residents of unincorporated areas to get busy getting annexed. Along with the stick for the unincorporated areas, the county is providing a carrot for cities to annex areas by pouring millions of dollars into infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

Area A, for example, is set to get $70 million in improved water and sewage lines, says Gary Smith, director of the county Neighborhood Improvements Program. Economic Assistance Director Sue Fejes reels off a list of programs -- for housing rehabilitation, façade improvements, commercial loan guarantees, enterprise zones -- that apply to Area A. Also, the state is currently improving and widening Highway 441 from Interstate 595 north to Sunrise Boulevard.

Yet, while the improvements are meant to make the area more attractive to cities such as Plantation and Fort Lauderdale, they are having the effect of making incorporation more feasible, too.

Speaking of the Nova report, principal author Rosenbaum says, "This report can be used to make an argument for either side. Yes, the area is about $100 million short [in property tax base] of being viable. But look, that amount represents only about half a mile of [commercial property along] University Boulevard. It's not that much, really."

The draft of the report also doesn't mention that there are at least six other existing cities in Florida that have populations and total taxable property values similar to those of Area A under the scenario described in Rosenbaum's report. Two of those cities, North Lauderdale and Lauderdale Lakes, are located in Broward County, while two others, Greenacres and Lake Worth, are in Palm Beach. The other two are Fort Walton Beach in Okaloosa County and Homestead in Miami-Dade County.

Jack Tobin has studied the issue of incorporation of a new city at length and has no stake in the matter, having left the delegation last year. Tobin believes that "it could happen, but it would not be easy."

In addition to their economic arguments, opponents of incorporation have also made use of a divide-and-conquer strategy that so far has proved effective. The tiny neighborhood of Golden Heights, for example, is likely to vote to go with Fort Lauderdale if a referendum is ever held, Major admits.

"We are a neighborhood of single-family homes," says Art Kennedy, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings and a resident of Golden Heights. "We have nothing in common with those people on welfare," he says referring to poorer areas of Area A to the south of Golden Heights.

The residents of Area A also don't seem upset about losing Golden Heights. "What are they, three blocks wide?" asks long-time Area A resident Lois Howell. "Hell, let 'em go. We don't need 'em."

When people talk about their feelings toward Joe Major, be they his allies or his enemies, they usually start off praising him.

"I admire his enthusiasm and his willingness to challenge the system," says Eggelletion.

"I think he's a decent man," says Carlton Moore.
"I have nothing against Joe Major," says Art Kennedy.
Then come the brickbats -- usually immediately after a sharply pronounced "But..."

"He doesn't understand the issue," says Moore.
"He's offensive," says Kennedy.
Six months ago Major berated Eggelletion at a Washington Park homeowners association meeting while the politician was trying to talk about one of his pet projects, an empowerment program for homeowners associations (a surefire political winner in front of that crowd).

"All of a sudden, Joe [Major] comes in, and he starts needling Joe Eggelletion for living in a white neighborhood," recalls a county staffer who was present at the meeting. "It was really bad. So that's how Joe [Major] tends to shoot himself in the foot. Here's someone whose support he's going to need to reach his goals, and he's questioning his motives -- questioning his race! -- and in public!"

Now Eggelletion says of incorporation, "It's just not going to happen. I will not support any attempt to make that area into a city." No wonder.

Yet if Major is his own worst enemy, he also knows how to push exactly the right buttons in a community that has often been on the raw end of the deal over the years -- especially when the deal involves Area A's more prosperous eastern and western neighbors. "Hell, Fort Lauderdale de-annexed us to begin with," he says. "Why would we want to return to a city that got rid of us way back when black folk first started moving into this area?"

But if Fort Lauderdale is bad, Plantation is worse, say Area A residents with long memories. Plantation's sins date to 1963, when the city annexed both sides of Highway 441 all the way from Davie Boulevard to Sunrise Boulevard. Carefully avoiding any of the surrounding residential neighborhoods to the east, the city picked off everything that seemed to offer the chance of building a tax base.

"It was the worst kind of cherry-picking," says Hillier, of his own city. "There's no question about it. It was disrespectful and just flat wrong."

But that was just the start. If the intervening years of neglect weren't bad enough, the city fathers in 1989 decided to add gratuitous insult to previous injury. That was the year of the infamous "wall." Under pressure from business owners along the 441 corridor, the city presented something called the "Safe Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan For Gateway District 7." That jargonistic title pretty well reflected the plan's content, which was filled with such suggestions as "thematic areas" and "pedestrian environments" and special lanes "to facilitate vehicular access."

It also suggested building an "eight-foot wall" between the businesses along the east side of 441 and the unincorporated area to the east. The reason? "Merchants along this eastern edge, from operators of restaurants to auto dealerships and produce stores, tell graphic stories about teenagers who live east of them running out with their cash registers, pilfering cases of beer from food stores on a daily basis," according to a redevelopment plan for the area. For good measure the plan also suggested building an additional wall on the west side of 441, to pacify "residents [who] talk about teenagers from the unincorporated area prowling their streets, looking for some place to break into."

For many residents of the unincorporated areas, the coup de gráce was a map that pictured a big black spot over the neighborhood north of Broward Boulevard and east of 441. Above the spot were emblazoned the words "Habitats of Criminals Victimizing the Commercial Portion of the District."

Clarence Wright, vice president of the St. George Homeowners Association, lives in a house that didn't show on the Gateway 7 plan map: Its location was blotted out by the capital C in the word Criminals. Still, when Wright first heard about the wall, he was all for it. "You know, they were talking about closing streets, and I had no problems with that. That's the same thing they do in gated communities. Cuts down on crime."

But then he attended one of the meetings at which the plan was being discussed and heard them "talking as if they'd never set foot in this neighborhood -- and never intended to, either." It put him off.

Has anything in the Plantation attitude toward Area A changed? Apparently not. "They just steal, you know," says a Plantation restaurant owner who didn't want his name used. He's referring to the residents of Area A. "That's why you can't run a business over there [along 441]. You get ripped off."

That attitude is news to Celesson Ertilus, a baker. He doesn't disagree that it's hard to run a business along 441, but it's not because of thieves running wild. It's because "the city of Plantation treats you as if they don't want you to succeed."

Today, the mall where Ertilus' bakery stands is largely empty. On a recent Saturday midafternoon, fewer than a dozen cars were parked in the enormous parking lot for the Westgate Shopping Center on the northwest corner of the intersection. Except for a few small offbeat shops -- Shirley's Salon, Basket Fiesta, Inter-Caribbean Freight, among them -- the lots were empty.

What is the city of Plantation doing to encourage investment in the area? Not much, says Hillier, who two weeks ago organized a march along with several other candidates for the Plantation city commission. (The election will be held next month.) The march, the route of which led along the Highway 441 corridor, was designed to call attention to what Hillier called the city's long-standing neglect of its eastern border.

Did it have an impact? Seemingly not. "Look at this turnout," sighed a city commission candidate at one point. "Pathetic, isn't it?"

The residents of Area A have only one option for maximizing their political power, says Major. Sticking together. The theme of his campaign is unity, and his ability to maintain it will determine his chances of success.

With incorporation having such strong opponents as Eggelletion and Moore, only by demonstrating a strong and consistent grassroots stand will the campaign have a chance of succeeding.

But any new city in the heart of Area A is going to have to take back not only the 441 corridor but probably parts of Fort Lauderdale west of the interstate as well. Although much of the 441 corridor is vacant, it's far from empty. From Davie Boulevard to Sunrise Boulevard, there are 328 businesses facing Highway 441, says Hillier.

Plus, the road is currently being widened and improved with state money, providing what Rosenbaum calls a "tremendous opportunity" for future growth. "Look at this traffic," he says, driving south on 441. It's about 3 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and the road is backed up with traffic. "None of these roads -- Sunrise, Broward Boulevard, 441 -- have ever stopped being important vehicular corridors. The problem is, people don't stop along here. Well, with the right incentives, you could start getting people to stop, and then you've gone a long way to turning this area around."

Recognizing that their eastern border may be at risk, Plantation city officials several years ago proposed the creation of a community renewal account (CRA) for its Highway 441 corridor. In a CRA the sale of bonds finances economic revitalization for a defined area, and the increase in tax revenues in the revitalized area is used to service the debt. Perhaps coincidentally, a CRA would also have had the effect of locking up future increases in the corridor's tax-generating value, thus making the corridor useless to a new city in need of tax revenue.

If Plantation serves as a convenient bogeyman for Major and company, they also have a positive example in the city of Eatonville, a small town near Orlando the very name of which resonates strongly in the black community.

In 1897, Eatonville became the first black-majority town in Florida when a group of freed slaves formed it on a small parcel of donated land. Today the town is still small -- population 2500 -- and it's still dealing with many of the problems that opponents fear await Area A should it ever incorporate.

"The major challenge for us is the fact that the cost of operating a town continues to escalate," says J. William Andrews, special assistant to the Eatonville mayor. "Police and fire services are very expensive."

Art Kennedy, a resident of Golden Heights who favors annexation by Fort Lauderdale, cites Eatonville as an example not worth following: "We don't want to end up like Eatonville." Eggelletion agrees: "I don't see any businesses running to the city of Eatonville saying let me relocate there."

It may seem somewhat strange, therefore, that Lois Howell is planning to organize bus trips to Eatonville to drum up support for incorporation. She also promises to arrange for Eatonville mayor Anthony Grant to come and stump for her cause.

But there's really no mystery, she says. What her opponents don't realize is that even with all its difficulties and challenges, the city of Eatonville -- a town founded by former slaves that struggles yet still survives -- touches something deeper in her spirit than talk of taxes and services.

Andrews knows what she means. "Of course it's a challenge," he says. "There are upsides and there are downsides. Of course. But we've managed to get along for about a hundred years now. And I think we'll continue to get along for another hundred years."

Two years ago Eugene Franklin signed onto the Broward County Civic Coalition as a representative of one of the poorest neighborhoods, Washington Park. Last year he nearly dropped out after quarreling with Major over strategy. At the time, he told friends that he didn't think the coalition would ever manage to stay together with Major in charge. Last week Franklin sat down with Joe Major and about a dozen other leaders in the sanctuary of the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on NW 27th Avenue and started planning strategy.

They talked about getting out the vote. They talked about canvassing. They talked about hinging their support for single-member districts for county commissioners (a pet issue for black elected officials) to a reciprocal support for incorporation.

Franklin, once a pessimist, has changed his mind. "If I had to wager my bets right now, I'd say we'll end up doing it," he predicts. "We have the land, we have the population, all we need to do is work out the economics. But if we collectively take our neighborhoods and say, 'This is what we want,' I don't see how anyone could stop us."

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address:
Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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