Down on the Plantation

Fred Harper

The boys ride to my driveway on mad killer bees. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! The sound emanates from small gas-powered motors, which are attached to little steel scooters called Go-Peds. They come for the basketball hoop, and I let them play, though the near-daily thumping of the ball on the blacktop and the occasional crash into my garage door sometimes make me wonder why I do it.

But they're good kids, overall. On the blacktop, hoop dreams literally join Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream: Of about ten regular players, half are white and half are black or of mixed races. The youngest is 12, the oldest 17, and while they're aware of racial issues, the subject really doesn't seem to matter much to them. They've grown up in a mixing ground. The neighborhood, which lies south of Broward Boulevard and west of the Florida Turnpike, is where the slow-but-sure inland migration of blacks meets the mostly white west.

Plantation Park, with homes generally valued at $180,000 to $300,000, is well-integrated and happily so, though not without an occasional moment of racial tension, like the one a few weeks ago when Larry and Jared buzzed over to play 21.

Larry, a 13-year-old with tousled blond hair, told me that police had pulled over Jared, who is black, on his Go-Ped.

"I can go anywhere I want to on my Go-Ped and they never bother me," Larry said. "But they pull him over and give him a warning. It's racist."

Later I asked Jared, who happens to be one of the more responsible kids on the block, why he thought they pulled him over. He pointed at the skin on his arm. Larry told me: "If I had a gun and was waving it around on the street and Jared was riding his Go-Ped, the police would pull over Jared. They wouldn't even notice me."

The idea that police officers would single out black Go-Ped riders seemed perfectly plausible to me. I live in a city called Plantation, after all. The boys' complaint triggered memories. Coaching my son's tee-ball team at the Plantation Athletic League and seeing, out of hundreds of little players, maybe three black kids. Visiting the neighborhood bar, where the owner went out of his way to make racist remarks. Hearing that the city council ran a black nightclub out of town.

I decided to do some investigating, beginning with a visit to the police department, where I met with accreditation officer Robin Massey. In the lobby, I noticed that an all-white collection of Plantation cops was pictured in the high-profile traffic division publicity photo. On the wall in Massey's office was a framed photograph, put up by her office partner, of Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush the First.

Massey gave me the numbers: Of about 194 sworn officers, only ten, or 5 percent, are black. However, 13.5 percent of Plantation's 83,000 residents are black. Just three years ago, only four black cops worked in Plantation, or 2 percent of the force. It wasn't until 2000 that a black officer, Al Butler, was promoted to sergeant. He's still the only one.

"We know we are lacking, there is no doubt about that," Massey said. "To make amends, we are reaching out to minorities, sending fliers to minority colleges and recruiting at job fairs."

I was taken aback, not by the information but by the candor. Amends? Massey was actually telling the truth, a rarity among Plantation officials when it comes to matters of race. Talk to almost any local black elected official in Broward County and they'll tell you that the city has a serious race problem. Accusations of prejudice have long dogged the city. Back in March, a headline in the Sun-Sentinel offered, "Racism Charges Baffle Officials." The accompanying story asked, "Is Plantation a Racist City?" The article dealt narrowly with only one issue, annexation. It was well-balanced -- and largely useless, since it failed to answer its own question.

The answer, of course, is yes. The police department is just one indicator. After meeting with Massey, I made inquiries at the volunteer fire department and learned that none of the 27 supervisors is black. I went to City Hall, a white-columned, brick mansion built in the style of an antebellum plantation house. Again, no black department heads. Never have been. And, needless to say, a person of color has never been elected to the council, even though a total of 33 percent of the population is minority.

The issue goes far deeper than minority hiring and equal representation. The truth is that Plantation has been in a kind of war against blacks since the day it was incorporated in 1953. The battle has been fought over property, over who lives and works where, and it comes complete with border squabbles, retreats, fortifications, political spats, and courtroom fights. It's happening in communities everywhere across the United States, of course, but Plantation has been a particularly regressive party in that war, the civic equivalent of "I've got mine." Its motto is, "The grass is greener," but its real pride is that its people are whiter. Or at least, the people who matter are.  

Plantation, like so many suburbs, was built by white flight from Fort Lauderdale. And its name sent a not-so-subtle signal to blacks that they weren't welcome. It worked. "People would laugh at the idea of moving to a place called Plantation," Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Carlton Moore, who is black, told me.

In the late 1960s, Plantation's eastern boundary, State Road 7, served as the unofficial border between whites and blacks. Plantation annexed the businesses along the road but refused to take in any of the black residential areas. Black neighborhoods lined the eastern side, while the western side was almost exclusively white.

In the '70s, State Road 7's fortunes fell as University Boulevard was developed. Blacks, many of them of Caribbean descent, began moving in large numbers into Park East, a Plantation neighborhood between State Road 7 and the Florida Turnpike overpass. Whites beat a retreat, and the turnpike has been the new railroad tracks ever since, the front line in the war.

In 1975, Frank Veltri became massa... er, mayor. Veltri served in that position until 1999, wielding dictator-like power. And, while I can't say that the man is racist, he does keep a Confederate flag license plate hanging in his garage and, for good measure, employs a black servant.

Whatever his personal views, the retired Tennessee-born banker neglected the eastern side of the city, for years doing next to nothing to try to save State Road 7 from blight. He had absolutely no rapport with blacks in his city; his social circle consisted of developers and lobbyists -- all white, of course.

Perhaps his worst sin was refusing to obtain federal Community Development Block Grants that are designed to help struggling minority areas. During the 1990s alone, he turned down about $10 million in grants because, as he put it, he wanted "flexibility." From what? Well, the CDBG program demands that cities follow minority-hiring rules and file an affirmative-action plan. On Veltri's Plantation, you didn't go around hiring minorities or taking orders from the feds. Goodbye, $10 million.

By about 1990, Veltri finally started giving at least some lip service to the complaints from the east side, and the city began developing a plan to renovate State Road 7. One city map masterfully captured City Hall's attitude toward black neighborhoods: The minority area north of Broward Boulevard and east of State Road 7 was blotted out black under the words, "Habitats of Criminals Victimizing the Commercial Portion of the District."

The basic rationale behind the refusal to annex black areas is that it would drain the city's finances. But that's backward thinking: Creating an inclusive city ultimately would increase commerce. The city's motto should be "Do the Wrong Thing." But Plantation is far from unique. The same pattern has been played out in communities across the country and Broward County. Pembroke Pines, Davie, and Coral Springs all have basically behaved the same way. Plantation was just first and best at it.

The city's exclusiveness isn't based totally on racism, of course -- greed is also at the heart of it. In many ways, the city is simply practicing classic conservative government. But it's often impossible to separate greed and racism. Veltri, in the end, is just another in a long line of great white generals in the race war, men like Nathan Bedford Forrest, George Wallace, and a couple of those men on the wall of the police department.

But hey, the (mostly white) people kept voting him into office. They got theirs, after all.

To be fair, the current mayor, Rae Carol Armstrong, is a bit more responsive to Park East and State Road 7 than Veltri, but she's still lacking. The east side still has a dearth of park space and city facilities, while the central and west sides are awash in recreational amenities. The mostly wealthy and white west side of Plantation, which has about the same population as the east, boasts about 110 acres of park space. Park East has, oh, about eight.

Activists, led by former councilman Lee Hillier (who, like all Plantation elected officials, is white), long crusaded for the city to build a promised community center and gymnasium in Park East, but under Armstrong's watch, the council roundly rejected it. In March 2000, the council agreed only to a community center and a small athletic park. Don't want to spoil them, you know.  

Angry residents hired an attorney, Jeffrey Blaker, who threatened in a letter to sue the city for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "Plantation cannot seriously argue that the disparate distribution of the City's parks, recreational facilities and related expenditures is legitimate," Blaker wrote in a letter to Armstrong.

Armstrong, in a written response on January 9, 2001, called the accusation irresponsible. The lawsuit was never filed, and another battle was quietly lost.

The current council has all the social conscience of a pack of half-starved hyenas. Armstrong is an old member of the Plantation elite whose firm RCA Construction has engaged in politically dubious work. She's long been a key member of Veltri's power club. I left her a few phone messages, but she didn't call me back. This fits her pattern of speaking with me only when she thinks it will suit her.

As for the five council members, they're worse. The ultraconservative Jerry Fadgen thumps the Bible, rails against abortion rights, touts the Boy Scouts at every turn, and counts Veltri as his political mentor. Ralph Merritt is a bolo-tie-wearing wannabe cowboy who for years has done little more than support lobbyists and developers and follow the Veltri line. Ron Jacobs is a wealthy elitist twit, the beneficiary of a huge inheritance. Bruce Edwards, sadly, may be the most progressive member of the bunch, and he's basically a Chamber of Commerce lackey/business profiteer.

Hillier, despised by Veltri's power clique, was ousted last year. Elected in his place was Diane Bendekovic, who usually goes by Diane Veltri Bendekovic. She's the former mayor's daughter, the belle of the Plantation, and she kept alive the city's streak of all-white elected representatives, beating out both Hillier and the only black council candidate in Plantation's history, Eric Hammond.

Minorities face long odds of ever being represented on the council, since all members are elected citywide. The east side will get fair representation only if the city is split into single-member districts. And that will take either a lawsuit or a referendum, since the council hates the idea. No wonder, since at least three of the current dais-sitters -- all from central and west Plantation -- would lose their jobs and the corrupt political machine would start to break down.

It's all enough to drive someone to drink. But Plantation's nightlife, and I use that term loosely, offers little respite from racism. It is, in fact, a major battleground in the war.

Next week: Clubbing while black. Plantation outlawed it.

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