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Down on the Plantation III

Fred Harper

Editor's note: This is the last of a three-part series. The first column described Plantation's racist history and showed that blacks are severely underrepresented in the police department and in supervisory positions throughout the city. The second told of City Hall's unequal treatment of black and white nightclubs.

Emelio Davis utters the words with a child-like conviction that makes it sound true: "I'm a wide receiver."

Sitting on his shiny BMX bicycle outside the Jim Ward Community Center in east Plantation, the lean 13-year-old points at his smaller friend, 11-year-old Nicholas Bromfield.

"Ask him," Emelio says. "I'm good."

Nicholas, who likes to ride on the handlebars of Emelio's bike, is preoccupied with his own dreams: "I'm a running back."

Outside of an occasional sandlot game, though, Nicholas is not a running back and Emelio is not a wide receiver. Neither can play in the Plantation Athletic League (PAL), the nonprofit corporation that monopolizes youth sports in the city. The boys can't get steady rides to practice or games, and the PAL fields -- located on the city's west side -- are too far away to ride bikes.

"I tried to play one year, but it was at 6, and my mom was late for work every day," Nicholas explains. "She couldn't take me anymore, so I had to quit."

Emelio points at the community center and says, "Go in there and tell the owner to make a football team. Because then all I got to do is walk across the street to play."

Nicholas climbs onto the handlebars, and Emelio peddles away, but their predicament hangs in the air like a broken promise. The boys' problem, unfortunately, is common among the many black children who live in their neighborhood, Park East. It's a shameful but open secret that PAL is largely segregated. Not by policy (PAL, of course, allows children of all races to play) but by circumstance, distance, and the league's failure to promote on the east side.

On a recent Saturday at Plantation's expansive Central Park, where most PAL sports are played, at least 70 boys ages 7 and 8 were competing in four soccer games. Only three of the children were black. It's the same in T-ball and not much better in basketball. Black participation is decent, thought still not high, in tackle football. The disparity starts at the top -- all nine PAL commissioners are white, as are all its listed corporate officers.

One cause for the lack of participation is that the two main PAL parks, Central and Sunset, are located across town, five and eight miles away, respectively, from Park East. But still, the numbers are so low that I thought there had to be another cause -- and to find it, all I had to do was follow the signs.

I'm talking about PAL signs, which are posted at major intersections to remind parents of registration dates. They are PAL's chief promotional tool; busy parents with hectic schedules rely on them. If you miss the signs, your kids will probably miss the opportunity to play ball.

During a recent drive around the city, I saw numerous PAL signs cluttering the roads of western and central Plantation, where parents living in predominantly white neighborhoods like Plantation Isles, Plantation Golf Estates, and Jacaranda Lakes would surely see them.

But there are no PAL signs east of the turnpike, where Emelio, Nicholas, and most of Plantation's black population live. Not on busy NW 46th Avenue, where the community center and Plantation Elementary School are located. Not on Broward Boulevard east of the turnpike or on State Road 7 on the city's eastern flank. None anywhere. Zero.

So I figure somebody must have made a conscious -- if not conscientious -- decision to keep the east side outside of the PAL loop. City officials should answer for the problem, since PAL controls several public parks and facilities subsidized by tax dollars. I asked Phil Goodrich, Plantation's park superintendent, who has worked extensively with PAL, about black representation in PAL and the lack of signs on the east side. "That would be your personal opinion that there is a problem," he told me. "I don't know that there is a problem."

Ah, denial, the crucial ingredient in the perpetuation of injustice. I called PAL Vice President Bill Bzdek, who conceded that all 11 permanent PAL signs in the city are west of the turnpike. He also admitted that blacks are underrepresented in PAL but insisted that sign placement has nothing to do with it.

"That's just where the signs have been traditionally," he explained. "And I think everyone sees those signs. People on the east side and people on the west side drive all over the city. People see them."  

Traditionally. Well, traditionally the Plantation Athletic League was all white, at least until the mid-1970s, when the first black players trickled in. It's time for PAL to change.

One PAL commissioner, Rico Petrocelli, who oversees the basketball leagues, spoke frankly about the problem. He said neither the city nor PAL seems to care about the east side of Plantation. He should know -- he's a former city parks and recreation official himself.

"The council is rich and white, and they don't seem to care about the east side of the city," said Petrocelli, a well-respected coach in Plantation for the past three decades. "The city's diversity is not reflected in the council, and in the council's mind, the city starts west of the turnpike."

Petrocelli, who is the nephew of the famous Boston Red Sox player of the same name, says the PAL basketball program is no different from baseball or soccer. "We should have a slew [of black players] in basketball, but we don't," he says. "How many kids are missing out on being the star soccer player because they didn't get the training at 6, 7, or 8? And the only reason is because they live on the east side of the city. We teach the basics, and we make it fun, and you can't really replace that. Do you realize how many potential stars are being lost?"

When I asked him whether he'd noticed anything peculiar about the placement of PAL signs, he laughed knowingly. "They stop at the turnpike," he stated.

Petrocelli laughed louder when asked the reason. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe they ran out of paper. And it's sad, because the bright and white moms and dads who drive on University Drive see the freakin' signs, and Mom and Dad on the east side don't even know about it.

"There is not a lack of interest on the east side -- they just don't know about it."

While posting signs on the east side would almost surely increase minority participation, it wouldn't solve the problem faced by Emelio and Nicholas: lack of transportation. Petrocelli would like to see a city bus service for Park East children. "The city has empty trams," he said. "Why not use them?"

Bringing Park East to PAL would be a great start, but the city really needs to bring PAL to Park East. All attempts at organized athletic activities on the east side have failed in the past. There isn't so much as a regulation-sized baseball diamond in Plantation east of the turnpike. A proposed basketball gym that was promised as part of a $14.5 million bond issue in 1993 was recently scuttled. Community groups in the area asked the city to build a first-class activity center with a three-court gym -- which would have been the city's premiere basketball facility -- on a piece of land near Plantation Elementary. The council refused and instead funded the barely serviceable Jim Ward Community Center, with three no-frills, unlighted, outdoor basketball courts at a location residents didn't like -- on a busy stretch of NW 46th Avenue.

The disparity between east and west isn't just in parks. Although predominantly white neighborhoods in central and western Plantation are almost all shaded by publicly planted trees, Park East has but a few. And the city is years behind in providing neighborhood improvements and maintenance. Priscilla Hawk, who lives in the east-side Country Club Estates and is co-president of the neighborhood association, noticed that the city even plays Scrooge on Christmas; the lights on the north side of Broward Boulevard stop dead at the turnpike.

"I am African-American and have protested for parks," Hawk says. "We tried to get a gym, but we did not get the gym. There is a definite disparity. For years, [former Mayor Frank] Veltri referred to us only as 'those people.' And today, there are quite a few kids in my area, and they are out on the street playing because there is nowhere else to go."

Frank Cumberbatch, a long-time Plantation resident originally from Jamaica, referees PAL basketball games. "The money is there, so why would the city not want to build a gym [in Park East]?" Cumberbatch asks. "It is political -- we need to have someone step up. The east side needs to get some representation."

Both are holding out hope that current Mayor Rae Carol Armstrong, who refused to comment for this series, will help bring more park space and a gymnasium to the east side. "I'm going to give her some more time," Hawk says. "But if nothing happens soon, we will file a federal lawsuit. We have hit our limit. We are being disenfranchised, and we are not getting our fair share of tax dollars."  

I don't hold out hope that the city will move very quickly, though. After nearly five decades of neglect, history isn't on Park East's side. The federal courts may be the only viable recourse. It's high time that the kids in east Plantation got a level playing field.


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