So Long, Skid Row

The last days of a flophouse tell a tale of urban renewal's losers

The dozen shoes that protrude from beneath Clarence Kelley's bed are neatly lined up, like cars at a dealership. First there are the patent-leather ones that cover his ankles, then the gray, plastic loafers with chrome buckles, then the aging blue sneakers with yellow stripes, and so on. Across the room, on a simple wooden nightstand, rest his Bible, some papers, a box of instant stuffing, a collection of pens lying parallel to one another, a package of crackers, and a can of coffee creamer. "I try to keep it neat," Kelley says with pride, kicking some lint off the raggedy rug he sweeps daily.

There's still a month before Kelley will be turned out of the Philips Boarding House, this flophouse he shares with 21 other men. He doesn't have much to say about where he'll go except, "You know, I don't know at this juncture, at this period of time." He takes a Cowboys brand cigarette and puts it between his lips, then behind his right ear. His thoughts wander. "I like to cook, you know... spaghetti, soups, meats. I like mac and cheese."

Out in the hallway, walking toward the shared bathroom, Kelley whispers so his neighbors won't hear. "Shh," he warns. His cloudy blue eyes -- honest ones that show his slowness -- open wide with fear. "They're bad people. The way they affiliate with me is not nicely."

Colby Katz
Pilots training for World War II, some of 
the Philips Boarding House's earliest residents, had a prime view of downtown in its heyday. Clarence Kelley and a napping tenant have front-row seats for downtown's rebirth.
Colby Katz
Pilots training for World War II, some of the Philips Boarding House's earliest residents, had a prime view of downtown in its heyday. Clarence Kelley and a napping tenant have front-row seats for downtown's rebirth.

Lighted only by the orange glow of exit signs, the hallway opens onto a weed-filled courtyard and then onto Rosemary Avenue, a boulevard of contrasts. There's a convenience store specializing in 40-ounce beers and side streets that lead to the Hill, a neighborhood of historic homes split into cheap apartments and men who whisper to themselves. The Philips, at 117 Rosemary, is the area's gloomiest spot. The four buildings have been so thoroughly eaten by termites that they've begun to bow and sink, and peeling white paint reveals charcoal-colored boards rotten with age.

This shadowy stretch of Rosemary Avenue connects two of the most successful urban-renewal projects in Florida. A half-block to the north along a $3.5 million brick streetscape, Clematis Street boasts tony restaurants and martini bars. Two blocks to the south is West Palm's $550 million-and-growing defibrillator, CityPlace, where, between shops and restaurants that sport tile murals, fountains stream water 50 feet into the air in sync with classical music. Shoppers, shuttled on wood-trimmed, trolley-style buses between CityPlace and Clematis, are treated to a full view of the flophouse.

So it's not surprising that an out-of-town entrepreneur saw a fortune in the Philips. The newcomer, Miami architect and developer Willy Bermello, bought the place for a song in April. In a little more than a year, Bermello expects to complete a high-rise condominium building at 117 Rosemary that many people in Palm Beach County believe will help clean up one of the last remnants of West Palm's worst slums.

Kelley won't be living in the $160,000-and-up condos that will replace his apartment. Nor will the 21 men who paid $66 to $100 a week to live at the Philips before it closed July 15. In June, Bermello had sent out typed notices giving them about a month to clear out.

Calling these men victims of urban renewal would be too easy. Most are drug addicts or alcoholics with filthy mouths. Many are drifters who spend their days thinking of little more than their next beer. Some, though, are just guys at the lowest point in their lives, who scrape together money for rent each week. The last days of the cockroach-infested hole where they lived tell a story of simple people pushed out by gentrification. Kelley doesn't know that word, but he knows rich people are moving in.

You couldn't ask for a better spot to look up young women's skirts. In front of the flophouse on a busy Friday, the open-air trolleys pass by every few minutes, usually with some scantily clad babe on board who forgot to cross her legs. The Philips's longest-running tenant, Craig Lamprecht, a small man with a loud voice and a sailor-like red beard, takes in the view from a plastic lawn chair on the sloping front porch. The guy next to him, his gray beard stained tobacco-brown from years of smoking cigarettes down to the filter, says he rents a room down the hall from Kelley. He adds that he wants to keep his name out of the conversation; then he spots a good one. "Oh, man, would ya' look at that!"

Lamprecht has his eye on something better. "Who's that in the car across the street?" he asks, pointing his Bud Ice to a Mustang convertible.

"That's a big black hooker," the other guy says.

"I don't want no hooker," responds Lamprecht, who's lived in the dilapidated building for seven years. He takes a swig that makes a puckering sound. "Take you out somewhere and knock you over the head."

"Paying for it is the only way you'll get it," his companion says. "You've got a better shot of seeing God."

The two men taunt each other until Tom Gibson walks up. Tall and lanky with a baseball cap pulled down to his eyes, Gibson is returning from his job as a fry cook at a Clematis Street restaurant. He takes a seat on the porch that connects to his room through a door with broken windowpanes. It's the only room with a kitchen, so the guys store beers in his fridge. But mainly, Gibson serves as the butt of their jokes.

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