See any yet?"
"What do you think?"
It's about an hour before dusk on a thundery afternoon, and my escort -- an intense, voluble man in his thirties named Ore Pablos -- is trolling slowly along in the far-right lane of West Broward Boulevard. We're scanning the bombed-out buildings and boarded-up windows that line both sides of the road, but we're not having any luck finding what we're looking for.
Which is rather puzzling. We'd been promised otherwise.
"Go down Broward Boulevard right now," Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne had said just the week before. "And you will find that businesses are thriving where once they were locking their doors."
Well, here we are. But with the light fading and the fat raindrops beginning to spatter the windshield, we're having trouble relating the word thriving to the scene we're seeing through the glass. "I don't think any business in this corridor is, as you would say, thriving," says Pablos.
He should know. For 30 years the Pablos clan has owned and operated a meat-and-produce store known as Low-Keys Meats on West Broward Boulevard, half a block from the Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) headquarters. Over the years he's seen the business climate in the area wax and wane, and these are not what he would call good times.
"Where do you see a thriving economy in this area?" he asks. "I mean, whoever tells you that is just talking crazy. From 27th to 31st [avenues], it's a wreck. Just a wreck. Businesses are boarded up. Places are not open. That's just the way it is here."
As Pablos speaks the scenes of squalor flowing past the windshield provide grim documentation of his argument: sheets of plywood covering gap-toothed rows of broken windows; faded signs the ancient promises of which ("Bay Grocery," "Corner Store") have long since turned to lies; windblown trash bouncing across the cracked asphalt surfaces of empty parking lots.
Jenne wouldn't return repeated calls from New Times, so the question of whether the man actually believes his own statement will have to remain, for the moment, unanswered. (BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal declined to speculate.)
That leaves us with only the context of the statement itself to sift for clues.
The sheriff's challenge was issued in a somewhat celebratory May 13 Sun-Sentinel story announcing the latest release of crime statistics by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As the story duly noted, crime in Broward County as a whole had followed national trends over the last year, dropping by a "whopping" 16.9 percent overall. Leading the way was the BSO, in whose jurisdiction crime reportedly fell by nearly a fifth: 17.9 percent.
If those figures are accurate, Pablos and other business owners along West Broward Boulevard don't want to seem ungrateful. They appreciate the extra patrol officers BSO has assigned to the area since Jenne took over as sheriff. "You see them walking a lot more," says Randy Jesus, owner of a local eats place called Tatertown. "And they ride around in one of those three-wheeled cart things the meter readers use."
But crime statistics are notoriously receptive to manipulation; to take but one example, a BSO stat sheet for West Broward Boulevard can be interpreted to demonstrate that crime either jumped by 10 percent or dropped by 25 percent in 1998. Leljedal insists that the latter is the case and blames the confusion on a misprinted date. (Although one sheet is clearly titled "Reports Dated From 1/1/97 To 12/31/97," Leljedal says it actually covers only the period from May to December. It's the kind of detail that makes a difference.)
But it's going to take more than statistics to persuade Pablos to remove the vicious-looking coils of razor wire that top the chainlink fence surrounding his loading docks. "The sheriff could be doing a great job," he says, "But I'm telling you, it's going to take years and years to turn this neighborhood around."
Several weeks ago Pablos had to run outside to help two of his own customers who'd been assaulted in his parking lot. "You leave a bike outside and -- Boom! -- it's gone. I can't even keep my shopping carts from being stolen."
From a businessperson's point of view, the basic problem with the area is the lack of pedestrians. "Sure, there's lots of cars that go through here," Pablos says. "But I think they actually speed up when they get off the interstate. Once they get to Plantation, then they start to go the speed limit again."
Enough motorists do stop along West Broward Boulevard to allow a few well-known institutions -- Low-Keys Meats, Tatertown, the Melrose Park Citgo, to name three -- to get by.
"We're paying our bills and making a living," Pablos says. "If we weren't we'd close our doors. But the bottom line is, we're not doing the type of business that we used to be doing. My business, for example, is doing a lot worse than it was five years ago. And it's not for a lack of attention or hard work -- I work seven days a week and 13-hour days -- it's because of the perception that this place is crime-ridden."
Last October, falling sales in part prompted Watkins Paint and Wall Coverings, located one block from Low-Keys, to slash its hours of operation and convert from a retail outlet to a wholesale operation. Watkins owner Emily Rushin says she has no plans to reexpand her store hours (currently 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). "I'm delighted if the perception is improving and the neighborhood is at least attaining some respectability," she says. "But for us, nothing's going to change."
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Approaching U.S. Highway 441, Pablos pulls into the left-turn lane and prepares to head east back to his own store. He's trying to put himself in Jenne's head: "Which part of Broward Boulevard is he talking about?" It could only be this part, since this is the only stretch of Broward Boulevard over which BSO has jurisdiction. East of Interstate 95 is Fort Lauderdale; west of Highway 441 is Plantation.
"There, over there," Pablos says finally, pointing. "There's a business that's thriving." There, in the rain, is the queasily familiar sight of two golden arches.
"McDonald's. They seem to be doing just fine."
Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: