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Milton Jones's two-story, brick-and-barrel-tile home on Sunrise Key is a statement of quiet dignity. A two-car garage and circular driveway offer enough space for three Mercedes Benzes. Inside the house, rich fabrics in cream and coral hues dominate a tasteful décor. Around back there's a swimming pool, a boat dock leading to an inlet, and a Wellcraft Sun Cruiser that Milton's wife, Barbara, refers to as her husband's toy.
Every weekday morning Milton kisses Barbara before pulling away from the house in his black Mercedes sedan, which is decked out in leather upholstery, wood trim, and a large-screen stereo console. He leaves the pebble driveway behind and heads over the bridge that separates his swanky neighborhood from the mainland, then navigates winding roads to Broward Boulevard and a straight shot into the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale. On the way he passes stately homes, apartment complexes, rental buildings, and St. Anthony's Catholic Church, where Milton ushers at noon mass every Sunday. (For his work with the church, he won a Jubilee Year award from Pope John Paul II last year.)
As he approaches his destination, the scenery changes. Pretty structures give way to plain commercial buildings, decaying homes, and housing projects. At the end of the line on Sistrunk Boulevard, between a post office and railroad tracks, is an affordable-housing complex called Regal Trace that, back in the early '90s, became Milton's first foray into redeveloping the rundown neighborhoods of northwest Fort Lauderdale.
When he arrives at the 408-unit complex, which opened in 1995, Milton carefully picks up twigs and bits of garbage on his way to the management office, then carries the bundle off to a trash receptacle. Next he walks through the door and sits down; high ceilings and wood shelving rise above his desk, which is rife with large, neatly stacked piles of documents. Whether speaking with a visitor or talking on the phone, Milton continually glances at a television tuned to CNBC that provides the latest stock quotes and news flashes. In one corner, leaning against a wall, is a large piece of posterboard that depicts a 120,000-square-foot shopping center. The project, which will likely include the area's first supermarket, was approved last month by Fort Lauderdale city commissioners -- ten years after Milton first submitted his proposal.
"We're trying to bring goods and services to an area that is underserved," he says, noting the lack of retailers in the area besides a Church's Chicken, laundries, and tiny shops. But Milton and his family talk about more than a place for folks to buy the basics. They dream of upscale stores, professional offices, and fancy townhomes. His 36-year-old son and business partner, Sean, and daughter, Daphne, age 37, who also works for the family business, say they want a place for young, successful blacks to live.
Before the well-to-do can call the area home, the city and developers must figure out how to revamp it while meeting the needs of those who have lived there all their lives. It may not be easy. Some residents say they don't need upscale apartments and high-end retailers. Even if projects in low-income neighborhoods have city backing, banks often won't bankroll them. Before he tries to gussy up the community, some say, Milton Jones would do well to remember his humble beginnings in segregated Broward County.
Threatening rain, gray clouds cast a pall on the vacant lot at the corner of NW First Street and Sixth Avenue in Dania Beach. The neighborhood, with its decrepit houses, sparse lawns, and chainlink fences around every home, has a feeling best described as weary -- not rundown because it was never affluent. It's on the west side of the tracks, which has been dominated by African-Americans for as long as anyone can remember. Used to be it was the only place in town blacks could live.
A house once stood on this lot, a little wooden structure with two bedrooms and a bathroom complete with a number-five tub -- the round, metal, all-purpose kind that poor folk in movies use to bathe themselves and wash their clothes. Milton grew up in this house, which was torn down after a fire in the early 1970s.
Milton was born in 1941. His mother, Rhodie, died when little Milton was about seven years old and his brother, Albert, was a toddler. Their father, Milton Jones Sr., stuck it out with the kids during a period when many single black fathers would have turned over their youngsters to grandparents and perhaps gone to seek their fortunes in places where segregation wasn't an obstacle. Milton Sr. followed Rhodie's dying wish and devoted himself to the role of family man, which had a lasting effect on his boys. A few years after becoming widowed, he met and married Mildred Verona Kelsic, who took to the kids as if they were her own.
Mildred, who was from New Jersey, hated the segregationist ways of the time. She worked briefly as a housecleaner but didn't last very long at that job because she didn't care to be subservient to white folks. Then she helped support the family as a school cafeteria manager.