Poverty's Paradise

Staggering unemployment, city hall ablaze, ashes falling like snow -- it must be South Bay

The North New River Canal rolls out of Lake Okeechobee, travels the first 1000 yards of its 50-mile, straight-line journey to Miami, then enters South Bay, Florida. The water moves silently past a small park near the junction of U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 80 where, on this warm October day, about 500 people celebrate the town's less-than-stellar claim to fame.

"We arethe crossroads," says Mayor Clarence Anthony, citing a fact not lost on organizers of the Crossroads Festival, an event designed to raise money for local children. "The crossroads is what we have, access to transportation east, west, north, and south. Jobs are what we need, and that crossroads is going to help us get them."

Festivalgoers stroll through waves of amplified Caribbean music, attracted by clouds of smoke from the chicken-and-pork grills of public-interest groups and local restaurateurs. While some children wait to mount the carousel or mini roller coaster, others dodge slow-moving adults, clamor for cotton candy and fried dough, and struggle to throw footballs through rubber tires. They take turns trying to dunk police officer Terry Moore in a water tank for $1 per throw. The money will help start a South Bay Boy Scouts troop. "You best not dunk me, girl, I know where you live, I'll come getcha," Moore calls playfully to a string bean adolescent, who breaks into laughter, tosses a ball at the target, and sinks him.

Clarence Anthony's recipe for saving his hometown: pave the streets, add a library, toss in two parks, and welcome a prison
Maximilian Kaufman
Clarence Anthony's recipe for saving his hometown: pave the streets, add a library, toss in two parks, and welcome a prison

Mayor Anthony and another local kid made good, Danny Jones, ponder the scene with pleasure. "This is what's best about our town, the attitude and sense of community," exclaims Jones, who serves as both police and fire chief. "You know everybody."

Similar scenes appear in small towns across the state and the country this time of year. But South Bay is unique. Surrounded by the U.S. Sugar Corporation's 165,000-acre kingdom of cane, it is Palm Beach County's poorest town, with a median per capita income of about $10,000, Anthony says. It is also home to one of the state's first two privately run prisons.

There is something else about South Bay, population 4300, something ignored by the crowd: a steady downpour of black ash. It arrives courtesy of cane fields to the east, where columns of smoke rise from burning chaff.

Anthony, now 41 years old, has a motto, a tongue-in-cheek, "New York, New York"­ inspired refrain that he repeats to anyone who will listen: "If you can make it out of here, you can make it anywhere." Slightly overweight and perennially cheerful, with a complexion the color of dark honey, Anthony is a big man in body and heart, say his fellow citizens. He regularly dresses his six-foot, two-inch frame in shirt and tie, the uniform of the professional businessman and veteran politician. You'd never know he was once a field worker like many in the mostly black town.

After a stroll through the crowd to greet friends and supporters, Anthony recalls that he was five years old when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Before that watershed 1964 event, blacks lived on the south side of U.S. 27 in neighborhoods crisscrossed with dirt roads. They were not allowed to enter the white area after dark, recalls Virginia Walker, the town clerk.

A 30-year city hall employee, Walker's voice is laced with the distinct Southern drawl of a native Floridian. She admires Anthony because he holds no grudge. "He understands the problems we have here," she says. "He tries hard to do the best he can for everybody, not just for his heritage, but for all cultures. And I'm white; I say that exactly how I mean it."

Anthony's mother picked celery in the fields outside town, a job the mayor also took as a boy to help his family. They lived in tin-shack shanties, dwellings depicted in a famous Edward R. Murrow documentary set in the area, Harvest of Shame, Anthony says.

After graduating from South Bay schools, Anthony won a scholarship to the University of Florida, ultimately earning a master's degree in public administration. "I didn't know I was that poor until I went to [university]," he recalls. One day he discovered Murrow's documentary in the library and watched it. "I was shocked. I realized how hard it had been for my people and my mother."

Anthony decided to return to South Bay, and in 1984 at the age of 24, he ran for mayor and won. Since then voters have reelected him to office three times; he has faced opposition only twice.

In the early years of Anthony's tenure, South Bay boasted a supermarket, a hardware store, and the same problems he experienced as a boy -- workers made only a few dollars a day. Many were immigrants. Most were black. They could boost the town's economy with seasonal cash, but they remained too poor to own cars or decent housing. "It took me some years," he says, "but we got some things done." Those things included paving the streets south of U.S. 27, bringing a library to town, convincing the school board to invest more money in South Bay schools, and designating two empty pieces of land as parks.

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