Annexation Vexation

The plan to bring Broward County's poor areas into the fold is full of holes

Until the 1940s the area that would become census tracts 411 and 413 was mostly cow pastures and farms. When servicemen returned from World War II, builders began constructing modest tract houses there. Many of those who chose to move into the homes were black. Some had family in the Sistrunk area, just a few miles east.

Most of the roughly 4500 buildings in the area date to the '50s and '60s. Many didn't have electricity until the mid-'60s, when the mostly white cities to the west began to develop and incorporate. Power lines were nonexistent; people lit electric lamps with car batteries or used gas lanterns. Until the late '60s, many homes still had outhouses. Long-time residents remember a foul mess overflowing into the streets when the inevitable fall rains overwhelmed the poorly built drainage system.

Crime became a problem in the area, too. Some residents remember a bustling drug trade and gunshots in the night during the '70s and '80s. Murders and violence were so common that many residents became inured to them.

County planner Cynthia Chambers has seen county residents reject ambitious annexation plans for two decades
Sherri Cohen
County planner Cynthia Chambers has seen county residents reject ambitious annexation plans for two decades
Tracy and Steven Durham's home in Washington Park has endured neighborhood decay and crime
Sherri Cohen
Tracy and Steven Durham's home in Washington Park has endured neighborhood decay and crime

The neighborhoods have improved lately. The area's fourteen murders in 1990 dropped to just one in 2000. The county is spending $100 million there to improve sidewalks, drainage, and other infrastructure, and a sprinkling of more affluent people have moved in and begun refurbishing houses.

They're a welcome sight to Yvonne Sumlin, who grew up in one of the area's first houses and moved back in 1991 after she retired from BellSouth. Now she doesn't want to live anywhere but her quiet house on NW Eighth Road in Washington Park. "I love it here," she says, smiling. She especially love the stepped-up code enforcement and police protection that have accompanied the new construction. "I will say that Broward County, in the last couple of years, has been very helpful," Sumlin says. But those improvements come at a price: On a house valued for taxes at $49,210 in 2000, she paid $1670, a third more than she forked out in 1996. And the bill is getting higher every year.

At the north end of a tiny strip mall on NW 31st Avenue, Howard's Candy Store lies behind a grating-covered door. Inside, 71-year-old Roney Howard presides over a narrow, pink-painted room that is cluttered with disused, makeshift counters and a scattering of candy, some of which has obviously aged on the shelves. On a small shelf stand jars of pickled eggs, sausage, and pigs' feet. The table by the door sports a plate full of pound cake and sweet potato pie, homemade by Howard's sister-in-law Betty.

Howard's few customers find him here six days a week but only from noon until dusk. Worried about crime, he doesn't linger in the poorly lit area when night falls. Some people in the neighborhood think he's getting rich off sales of ice cream and an occasional Blow Pop, he says. But he barely manages to stay open, a problem he says is common for the few businesses scattered along this stretch of road that separates census tracts 411 and 413. "We don't have too much to offer," Howard comments, "maybe a smiling face and a kind word."

On some days only three or four customers visit, but Howard is determined to remain in business as long as he can. Two things keep him from shuttering the three-year-old shop: financial need and the desire to set an example.

Wages from three decades of cleaning up construction sites paid for Howard's modest, green-trimmed, white stucco house on NW 33rd Terrace, which he bought in 1970 for a little less than $13,000. Over the years he and his wife, Ruth, added a carport and an extra room while raising ten children, who have now grown up and moved on.

The Howards managed to afford retirement on their combined social security income until she died five years ago. Then he was left to get by on his government check of about $570 per month. It wasn't enough. "I don't have nobody to help me... say if I get sick or something," he says.

When he decided to open a neighborhood business, Howard had more in mind than just making a living. Clutching a single crumpled dollar bill, he explains that he wanted to be a role model for the neighborhood kids growing up without dreams for the future -- or with the wrong kind of dreams. He wanted to show them that it is possible to make an honest living while staying near home.

His own childhood was cut short when he left school after the third grade to work; when his father died five years later in 1943, the young boy lost his own role model. "It's hard to talk about that stuff," he says. A tear runs down a crease in Howard's face. He was left with the responsibility of helping his mother and younger brothers by picking vegetables up and down the East Coast.

That early obligation is why he's not willing to give up now, even after taking a new mortgage on his house to open the candy store and sinking almost $8000 into the business in the last three years: $800 for a used triple sink, $300 for a used hot dog machine, $300 for a fryer, and so on. Now he doesn't use any of them. There's no reason to cook food when nobody's buying. But Howard holds out hope.

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