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The heavyset woman at the microphone is telling a sob story in a halting Hispanic accent. It's the story of how her laundromat is being lost. When she took over the business at NE 7th Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard just over a year ago, Cindy Salamy says, it had been dormant for ten months.
"I pick it up from scratch," she says to the packed audience of about 70 people at Bennett Elementary School in northeast Fort Lauderdale. "I build up customers. Then suddenly they drop 50 percent."
The exodus of customers, Salamy maintains, is because of street barricades. In early February a flexible barricade went up across NE 7th Avenue at NE 11th Street, blocking it off to all but police and emergency vehicles. Fifteen such barricades were installed at the time, cutting off residents to the north from reaching her store, Holiday Park Laundromat.
"They cannot get to the laundry," Salamy tells the audience.
The crowd at the monthly meeting of the Lake Ridge Civic Association, which pushed for the barricades in an effort to curtail crime, is shedding no tears. A mustachioed man near the front of the room rises with a question for Salamy.
"Is your business for sale, ma'am?" he asks angrily.
Salamy answers in the affirmative.
"How long has your business been up for sale?" he continues.
"Since I bought it," she replies.
The room erupts in derisive laughter. "We live here," the mustachioed man huffs. "You're temporary. Why should we listen to you or accommodate you in any way?"
The room breaks out in applause.
The standoff between owners of businesses along the north side of East Sunrise Boulevard and residents of Lake Ridge has been festering since the street closings began. Lake Ridge is sandwiched between the thoroughfares of Sunrise Boulevard and NE 13th Street to the south and north, and Federal Highway and Flagler Drive to the east and west. In the first week of February, the city began sealing off 15 of the 36 roads into Lake Ridge, including all but two of the streets leading in from Sunrise Boulevard. The barriers were approved by the Fort Lauderdale City Commission for one year but will be reviewed by commissioners every three months.
The effect is a quasi-gated community in the heart of Fort Lauderdale. The hope is to choke off the prostitutes and drug dealers who filter in from Sunrise Boulevard, ravaging a would-be middle-class neighborhood of about 2000 residents comprised of modest homes and rental apartments. The barricades are the culmination of years of neighborhood anticrime efforts in Lake Ridge that have included marching with bullhorns and flashlights, photographing prostitutes, and removing pay phones to discourage drug dealers.
Larry Harvey, a Lake Ridge resident, says he became active in the anticrime efforts about a year and a half ago, after arriving home to find a dozen drug dealers in front of his house. "They were all over the place," he says. Crime has dropped steadily in Lake Ridge over the last few years: The number of automobile thefts dropped from 107 in 1996 to 76 last year, and resident burglaries went from 95 to 80 during the same time period.
The street closings have brought even better news, according to Lake Ridge residents. They point to crime statistics -- only one month's worth at this point -- to back them up. In January there were three robberies in Lake Ridge; in February there were none. Eleven automobiles were stolen the first month of the year, compared to just four the next month. (The Fort Lauderdale police say that it's too early to tell if the barricades have had an impact on crime and that these statistics could very well be an anomaly. Statistics for March were not available at press time.)
"The change in our neighborhood is tremendous," says Bill Rettinger, president of the Lake Ridge Civic Association. "You could shoot cannons down these streets now at ten o'clock at night and not hit anybody."
Unfortunately, business owners along East Sunrise Boulevard feel similarly: You could shoot cannons down the aisles of their stores and not hit any customers.
Standing in the middle of the Holiday Park Laundromat on a recent weekday afternoon, co-owner George Infante says, laughing, that the store has become a "ghost town." There is not a customer in the place. Infante says that he and Salamy have done everything possible to make their laundromat profitable: raffling off a TV set, selling Cokes for 25 cents each, offering tuna fish and potato chips to customers.
"We was giving so much to build our customers -- a personal relationship with the ladies and the gentlemen -- and then they do this to me," says Salamy, standing by a sign at the store that reads "We Like U. Just the Way U. R. Just B. Friendly." On a recent Saturday, the laundry did just $27 in business, down from an average of $190 prior to the street closings, the owners say.
Other businesses tell similar horror stories. The owner of the Amoco gas station at the corner of NE 18th Avenue says that business has been chopped in half since the barricades went up. Thunder Cycle Designs, at the corner of NE 7th Avenue, claims that customer traffic has dropped 25 to 30 percent. The motorcycle shop is now looking to relocate. Neptune's Bar & Grill, in the Gateway Shops, near NE 18th Avenue, says that its daytime business immediately plummeted from $700 to $300 daily after the barricades went up, and continues to be about a third below normal. Several business owners say they are contemplating suing the City of Fort Lauderdale.