The heavyset woman at the microphone is telling a sob story in a halting Hispanic accent. It's the story of how her laundromat is being lost. When she took over the business at NE 7th Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard just over a year ago, Cindy Salamy says, it had been dormant for ten months.
"I pick it up from scratch," she says to the packed audience of about 70 people at Bennett Elementary School in northeast Fort Lauderdale. "I build up customers. Then suddenly they drop 50 percent."
The exodus of customers, Salamy maintains, is because of street barricades. In early February a flexible barricade went up across NE 7th Avenue at NE 11th Street, blocking it off to all but police and emergency vehicles. Fifteen such barricades were installed at the time, cutting off residents to the north from reaching her store, Holiday Park Laundromat.
"They cannot get to the laundry," Salamy tells the audience.
The crowd at the monthly meeting of the Lake Ridge Civic Association, which pushed for the barricades in an effort to curtail crime, is shedding no tears. A mustachioed man near the front of the room rises with a question for Salamy.
"Is your business for sale, ma'am?" he asks angrily.
Salamy answers in the affirmative.
"How long has your business been up for sale?" he continues.
"Since I bought it," she replies.
The room erupts in derisive laughter. "We live here," the mustachioed man huffs. "You're temporary. Why should we listen to you or accommodate you in any way?"
The room breaks out in applause.
The standoff between owners of businesses along the north side of East Sunrise Boulevard and residents of Lake Ridge has been festering since the street closings began. Lake Ridge is sandwiched between the thoroughfares of Sunrise Boulevard and NE 13th Street to the south and north, and Federal Highway and Flagler Drive to the east and west. In the first week of February, the city began sealing off 15 of the 36 roads into Lake Ridge, including all but two of the streets leading in from Sunrise Boulevard. The barriers were approved by the Fort Lauderdale City Commission for one year but will be reviewed by commissioners every three months.
The effect is a quasi-gated community in the heart of Fort Lauderdale. The hope is to choke off the prostitutes and drug dealers who filter in from Sunrise Boulevard, ravaging a would-be middle-class neighborhood of about 2000 residents comprised of modest homes and rental apartments. The barricades are the culmination of years of neighborhood anticrime efforts in Lake Ridge that have included marching with bullhorns and flashlights, photographing prostitutes, and removing pay phones to discourage drug dealers.
Larry Harvey, a Lake Ridge resident, says he became active in the anticrime efforts about a year and a half ago, after arriving home to find a dozen drug dealers in front of his house. "They were all over the place," he says. Crime has dropped steadily in Lake Ridge over the last few years: The number of automobile thefts dropped from 107 in 1996 to 76 last year, and resident burglaries went from 95 to 80 during the same time period.
The street closings have brought even better news, according to Lake Ridge residents. They point to crime statistics -- only one month's worth at this point -- to back them up. In January there were three robberies in Lake Ridge; in February there were none. Eleven automobiles were stolen the first month of the year, compared to just four the next month. (The Fort Lauderdale police say that it's too early to tell if the barricades have had an impact on crime and that these statistics could very well be an anomaly. Statistics for March were not available at press time.)
"The change in our neighborhood is tremendous," says Bill Rettinger, president of the Lake Ridge Civic Association. "You could shoot cannons down these streets now at ten o'clock at night and not hit anybody."
Unfortunately, business owners along East Sunrise Boulevard feel similarly: You could shoot cannons down the aisles of their stores and not hit any customers.
Standing in the middle of the Holiday Park Laundromat on a recent weekday afternoon, co-owner George Infante says, laughing, that the store has become a "ghost town." There is not a customer in the place. Infante says that he and Salamy have done everything possible to make their laundromat profitable: raffling off a TV set, selling Cokes for 25 cents each, offering tuna fish and potato chips to customers.
"We was giving so much to build our customers -- a personal relationship with the ladies and the gentlemen -- and then they do this to me," says Salamy, standing by a sign at the store that reads "We Like U. Just the Way U. R. Just B. Friendly." On a recent Saturday, the laundry did just $27 in business, down from an average of $190 prior to the street closings, the owners say.
Other businesses tell similar horror stories. The owner of the Amoco gas station at the corner of NE 18th Avenue says that business has been chopped in half since the barricades went up. Thunder Cycle Designs, at the corner of NE 7th Avenue, claims that customer traffic has dropped 25 to 30 percent. The motorcycle shop is now looking to relocate. Neptune's Bar & Grill, in the Gateway Shops, near NE 18th Avenue, says that its daytime business immediately plummeted from $700 to $300 daily after the barricades went up, and continues to be about a third below normal. Several business owners say they are contemplating suing the City of Fort Lauderdale.
Brett Tannenbaum, who owns about 260 apartments in Lake Ridge, notes that 27 of his units are now empty compared to five or six vacancies normally. "Eighty percent of my business is drive-by business," he says from his office on NE 17th Way. "I'm now on an empty, dead-end street." Tannenbaum believes that the motivation for closing the streets is not crime, but to keep out car traffic and bolster property values. "They want to have a gated community, like Weston or Cooper City," says Tannenbaum. "If that's what they want, they should move out there."
The street closings have also infuriated residents of Poinsettia Heights, directly north of Lake Ridge, and, to a lesser degree, those of Victoria Park, to the south of Sunrise Boulevard. Many of the residents used the now-sequestered streets to reach businesses along Sunrise Boulevard. The barricades are forcing them to travel on traffic-packed Federal Highway to use the bank machine at NationsBank, to post a letter at Mail Boxes Etc., or to pick up a six pack of beer at Blackstone Liquors. "I either have to go north or west to get south or east," says David Spangler, a resident of NE 18th Avenue in Poinsettia Heights. "It's dangerous. It's like living in a labyrinth."
Spangler is one of 62 people who'd called the city commission as of last week to complain about the road closings. Commissioner Tim Smith, who represents Lake Ridge, has dealt with the brunt of the anger. "I like him," says Spangler of Smith. "I just think he got bamboozled by a neighborhood that was overreacting."
Smith shepherded the street closings through the commission despite concerns raised by city engineers and other commissioners about the effect on traffic and commerce. The District 1 commissioner -- who's drawn much political capital from being perceived as an ardent crime fighter -- fought for similar barricades in other Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods, such as Flagler Heights and Middle River Terrace. "They're really changing the whole picture of these middle-class, blue-collar neighborhoods that were under siege from criminals," Smith says of the barricades.
Lake Ridge is an extreme example of the trend, both in the sheer number of street closings and the fact that the roads were shut down along a thriving commercial strip. "The scale in Lake Ridge is different from anything that has gone before," says Peter Partington, the city engineering design manager, who oversees traffic planning. Partington says the city has yet to conduct a study to determine the impact on traffic, but he has seen a slight change. "While I do believe you can notice more traffic, it doesn't seem to be causing unacceptable traffic congestion," he says.
Rettinger and other residents of Lake Ridge express little sympathy for the business owners and Poinsettia Heights residents. In proposing the road closings, Rettinger points out, the Lake Ridge Civic Association held meetings on every street in the neighborhood to get input. Flyers were handed out to let people know about the meetings, signs were posted, and many businesses were visited in person to inform them of the possible closings.
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"Plans could have potentially been changed, but people didn't show up," Rettinger says. "Do you then have the right to bitch about it?" Evidently not. The Lake Ridge Civic Association has voted to cut off any discussion with business owners about modifications to the closings until the commission's first three-month assessment is completed.
Sitting in the courtyard of his house, next to a small swimming pool, Rettinger recalls what Lake Ridge was like even four years ago when he moved in. "These were dumps," he says, gesturing beyond his fenced-in yard. "This property was a dump. It was one of the worst in the neighborhood. A lot of hard work and a lot of money later it's not so bad."
Rettinger is not naive enough to believe that the drug pushers and prostitutes who preyed on Lake Ridge will now morph into model citizens, but he doesn't particularly care where they ply their trades. "Hopefully they went to the Everglades," he says. "Hopefully they went over to Naples or back down to Miami. As long as they're not here, I don't care."
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com