Neighborhood on the Cusp

Residents of South Middle River fear that budget cuts might send them spiraling back to crime and crack

One of the most dramatic drug busts happened in October 2000. Because of information gleaned from citizen complaints, a joint investigation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's street narcotics unit led to the arrest of 11 adults and three juveniles selling crack cocaine in the area of NW Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. Undercover agents had made 26 buys of crack cocaine totaling 127 grams. In a home on NW Fifth Avenue, police confiscated an additional 65 grams of cocaine and 109 grams of marijuana.

As new residents fixed up houses, property values rose. Today, amid boarded-up houses with weed-clogged lawns sit little gems painted Mediterranean colors and ensconced in tropical foliage. The house Sparks paid $47,900 for in 1986 was valued by the Broward County Property Appraiser at $68,230 in 2002 and at $83,000 this year. A real estate agent recently told Sparks she could probably sell the house, which has its original flooring and kitchen cabinets, for about $150,000.

Even if the City Commission cuts the police force, Pinto believes that South Middle River will never let the neighborhood degrade to the way things were in the late 1990s. "I don't think the homeowners would put up with it," he says.

Sparks isn't so sure. "I'm scared to death about it," she says. "It means that we, as a community, are going to have to do our own policing, and that is unsafe for us. We don't mind helping, but we also need code enforcement, we need the raiders [the city's street-level narcotics unit], and we need the police." In the past, things got ugly when neighbors took on the drug dealers directly. Vandals threw concrete blocks through the windows of former SMRCA President Doug Blevins' SUV. Sparks was verbally threatened, she says, but never assaulted. She thanks Tiger for that. The .38? She keeps that in a drawer -- just in case extreme measures are called for.

On this golden late Sunday afternoon, NW Fourth Avenue is quiet. A couple of guys hoist a portable basketball hoop to the edge of their lawn so they can dribble a ball in the street and shoot hoops. A man lies underneath a car up on jacks in the right of way in front of his mother-in-law's home.

Giving a visitor a tour of her neighborhood, Sparks chirps happily about the $240,000 swale program she is overseeing for the association. Using storm-water fees, the city is burrowing out the rights of way in the neighborhood and planting them with grass and palm trees. Sparks' job is to convince neighbors to sign up for the project, which will help improve drainage during storms.

While looking straight ahead, Sparks points out an apartment complex a few doors down from her home. "I just had one of my officer friends tell me that's one of our main problems," she says. A young man, his face screwed into a scowl, stands on the edge of the property, glaring at Sparks. "How ya' doing?" she asks in a bright cheery tone. The man says nothing in response.

"Usually they are out there 24/7," she says. "I guess they're tired from last night."

When Sparks stops to talk swales to the man fixing his car, a woman leaning up against the fence beside him walks over to Sparks and whispers conspiratorially about the dealing at the complex Sparks just pointed out. "Oh my God," the woman says. "They are going back and forth all the time. Ohhhh. It's crazy."

"We're working on it," Sparks says.

She leaves the couple and turns west on 16th Street, with Tiger sniffing the weeds and trees on the side of the road. "This is where we need sidewalks," Sparks says. "If you come down here when the kids have to walk to school, especially when it rains, they are walking in the street. I actually can't believe someone hasn't been killed here."

As evening settles over South Middle River, it seems that the danger tonight will come not from the crack crowd but from canine rowdies. After an ice cream truck twinkles by, Sparks spots trouble. "Uh oh, loose doggie," she says. A large black mixed breed stands near the right of way at 13th Street. "Maybe he'll have enough sense to stay there," she says.

As Sparks eyes the dog warily, two caramel-colored pit bulls slink toward Tiger. The dogs approach with their heads down, growling. Tiger barks, and Sparks thrashes the nightstick at the dogs. "Back! Back!" she yells, swinging the club. "Get back. Get back." The dogs retreat toward the right of way, away from Tiger. "That's why I carry this," she says, proudly holding up the nightstick.

Jim Howell, a resident of the block, steps out of his pickup and approaches her. He owns a Jack Russell terrier that he's afraid to walk in the street because the pit bulls are always loose, he says. "I'm calling the pound," Sparks says. She then suggests Howell call animal control as well. "And you know, if they pick up a pit," she says, "they are never going to get the dog back."

Back from her walk at around 8 p.m., Sparks sits in her front yard at a glass-topped iron table she has painted red to match her front door. She sips a melon-flavored wine cooler, taking in the cool night air. As she talks, three boys on bicycles pedal past her house. "Those are the little drug boys going to that house down the street to pick up their drugs," she says. "You just watch. In a few minutes, they'll be riding back out." When the boys ride past again, Sparks says that she would usually call the police. If the police can nab the dealers before they stash their drugs, they can make an arrest. "I'd call them with a description down to the color of the shoes they're wearing," she boasts.

For now, though, Sparks is enjoying a mellow moment, one of the benefits of having carved a little island of safety in a tough urban world, and she coolly watches the boys disappear down the block.

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