Neighborhood on the Cusp

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

Ann Sparks grabs a nightstick out of her 1995 Dodge Dakota pickup and hooks a leash to the collar of her not-very-nice-to-strangers black rottweiler/labrador mix, Tiger. She leaves her .38 at home.

The 47-year-old Orlando-born businesswoman owns a home-cleaning firm with her mother, Shirley. She is dressed in a big, short-sleeved, Hawaiian-style shirt decorated with large red flowers, a pair of white walking shorts, and sneakers. Her dove-gray hair reaches to her midback, and she has the front pulled off her face. Home for the past 17 years has been the gray two-bedroom cottage with a red front door on NW Fourth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale's South Middle River, where she raised her son, Donald, now a 29-year-old computer engineer. Sparks looks like someone you'd run into picking her way through displays of ceramics and handmade baskets at a craft fair, not like the hard-ass anticrime commando she became about five years ago.

"It got so bad that you really couldn't drive through this area without 40 people out in the street blocking your way selling drugs," she says as she walks north on Fourth with Tiger tugging at his leash. Sparks says the dealers even gave her a nickname, "Cop Caller." She laughs about it. "If you got enough guts to stand up there and sell drugs in front of me," she says, "I have enough guts to call the cops."

South Middle River (bordered by Sunrise Boulevard, NE Fourth Avenue, Powerline Road, and the City of Wilton Manors) is a neighborhood of more than 2,000 pint-sized homes, many with stucco exteriors and terrazzo floors, built in the 1950s for retirees and seasonal visitors. By the 1990s, most of the retirees were gone, and people started renting out their houses. Haitian immigrants, attracted by the low rents, moved in. So did government-subsidized low-income renters. Drug dealers found South Middle River appealing too -- the enemy in what was to become a long, bitter, rear-guard action between residents and neighborhood drug hawkers.

Now, as the city faces a financial crisis that will slash $15 million from an already austere budget, residents of South Middle River such as Sparks fear that the battle they've waged to turn around their neighborhood will be undone.

Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Bruce Roberts proposes cutting 42 sworn police positions from his 500-member force, including eight officers and two police sergeants. The community police squad would be history. Cops on horseback would be put out to pasture. And the police presence on the streets of marginal neighborhoods like South Middle River would probably diminish markedly. The cuts would slash $6.8 million from the police budget, Roberts said in a memo to Acting City Manager Alan Silva on November 7. "This will return the department to staffing levels only slightly above the 1994 levels," Roberts said, "when the city earned the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of serious crime in the nation."

Residents fear that any cuts in the police force will translate to an increase in crime, and they're not ready to go back to the bad old days when their neighborhood was a major drug marketplace. "We're not having it," Sparks says.

The South Middle River Civic Association (SMRCA), along with groups from Middle River Terrace, Lake Ridge, Poinsettia Heights, Victoria Park, and Lauderdale Manor, are gearing up for a special meeting December 3, when city commissioners vote on the budget. They'll swamp commission chambers and pressure elected officials to rethink reducing the police force, promises SMRCA President Tony Pinto. "Crime is like a cancer," he says. "The minute you stop chemotherapy or radiation, it returns."

Sparks and other crime fighters in the neighborhood got some eager allies in the late 1990s, when a wave of gay men began buying into South Middle River, swelling the ranks of the SMRCA. Members started badgering the police to arrest dealers and pressing to have trash and abandoned vehicles removed. They drummed up support from their Haitian neighbors and secured a promise from the city to pave streets that hadn't been repaved since the development was built in the late 1950s. As the drug market heated up, they led antidrug marches and confronted drug dealers. Residents talked to the police daily, providing detailed descriptions of drug buyers and sellers. Several offered their homes for police surveillance.

The weapon of last resort: secession. At various times, when the city has failed to respond to them, community members threatened to drop out of Fort Lauderdale and join a more responsive Wilton Manors.

As a result of their warrior stance, the membership in SMRCA mushroomed from about 80 residents in 1999 to more than 450. And crime dropped. In 1996, there were 863 robberies, residential and business burglaries, and vehicle thefts in South Middle River, more than in most other neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale. By 2001, that number had plummeted to 391. Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Paul Kiley says those stats are solid evidence of a dramatic improvement in the quality of life in a neighborhood; robberies and thefts are the sort of crimes committed by drug users, he explains.

Although crime rose again in South Middle River to 526 incidents in 2002, Kiley says that it has dropped again by about 15 percent so far this year. The cops made a stunning 806 drug arrests in South Middle River from July 1, 2000, through November 7, 2003.

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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