Best Of :: People & Places
Perhaps nowhere in the entire state exists a better spot to bear witness to the forces of change than this small strip of land in downtown Fort Lauderdale. A hundred years ago, someone standing at this spot would have seen a single structure -- the clapboard, cracker-box Stranahan House, where the city started -- and maybe a Seminole paddling a skiff down the river. The area was surrounded by thick undergrowth and wild, vine-filled jungle. Now, Smoker Park sits in a thicket of multistory condominium towers, on top of the Federal Highway tunnel, next to a massive, noisy ventilation unit. Instead of Native American traders, the river is choked with pleasure craft and tourists. The Stranahan House (now a museum) is still there, surrounded as it is by a Cheesecake Factory and every other abomination developers could envision -- just wait for the 45-story-condo where Hyde Park Market now sits. Take a trip to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and ask to see a postcard of Smoker Park in the early 1900s, and marvel at the old wood-frame homes. Then go visit today, for a dose of future shock of the present.
This Best Of marks a New Times fall from grace for Cynthia Berman-Miller. Three years ago, in our 2003 Best Of issue, Berman-Miller, then director of the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, received a "Personal Best" nod. She talked to New Times about her love of reality TV. But after that issue, Berman-Miller became ambitious, and things went terribly wrong for the artsy lady. After taking a job with the City of Hollywood as director of the newly created Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Berman-Miller became responsible for promoting arts in Hollywood and for raising funds for the taxpayer money pit that is ArtsPark. But Berman-Miller then tried to create a taxpayer-funded golden parachute. While a city employee, Berman-Miller led the creation of a private organization called the Greater Hollywood Arts Foundation. She helped GHAF receive $480,000 in seed money from Hollywood taxpayers at the same time she expected to become a paid staff member of the organization. But it didn't stop there. Also while a city employee, Berman-Miller submitted two separate development proposals to the city. For one proposal, she partnered with state Rep. Ken Gottlieb to ask for roughly $8.2 million in development incentives. Of course, she didn't mention that she received her real estate license a month before she submitted the proposals. Conflicts of interest? Berman-Miller says everything is on the up-and-up. She says she's just working hard for a city she loves. Tsk, tsk.
Derek Hayward has a way with words. A general-assignment reporter with WSVN-TV (Channel 7) since 1991, the English-born Hayward has an uncanny ability to drop phrases that only he could get away with. Our favorite: When police were looking for a murder suspect recently, Hayward told his audience that the boys in blue were looking to have a "wee chat" with the man. An old-school, shoe-leather television reporter, Hayward is known for his casual, disarming style with sources behind the scenes and a beat-on-the-door-for-a-comment approach to on-camera journalism. He's the guy you see in front of the courthouse or police station when big news breaks. Heck, he's often one of the first reporters on the ground when big news happens. And that hard work has paid off for Hayward, who has won three Emmy Awards for journalism in South Florida and, before that, Jacksonville. But Hayward is also a regular guy. Unlike some TV reporters, Hayward hates pretension. In the off hours, it's not uncommon to happen across Hayward at a pub, his jacket and tie in the car and hand cradling a pint of beer. Sit down with Hayward, buy a pint, and have a wee chat. After all, whether he's on camera or off, Hayward is always one of the good lads of South Florida journalism.
This is no contest. In terms of local programming, WPBT kills the competition. For local politics, you've got Issues with Helen Ferré. Sure, Ferré's show is low-key, but you usually learn something when you watch the area's politicians, educators, and journalists yap about important, um, oh yeah, issues. Listening to Broward County Mayor Ben Graber talk about how he thinks the commission gets a bad rap for corruption is priceless. It's not just local politics, though. Capitol Update takes you to Tallahassee for the latest from that little cesspool of special interests. The station also has the only local newsmagazine out there. New Florida is a well-produced show that features two classy (and lovely) hosts in Debra Ball and Hunter Reno. If that's not enough, then turn to Florida Crossroads for homegrown documentaries. What's amazing about these shows is that they offer a lot more than your average -- and so often boring -- public television tripe. The shows have solid reporters who know how to tell great tales. They pull you in to the Florida that's around you -- and that's worth the price of admission right there.
Joe LaRue has achieved renown by ingesting large quantities of food -- pancakes, corn on the cob, hamburgers, hot dogs -- better and faster than almost anyone else. He is South Florida's foremost competitive eater. To watch the six-foot-eight LaRue down Nathan's Famous at the annual hot-dog-eating contest in Coney Island (where he placed 14th last year) is a wondrous sight, a rarely viewed natural function, akin to watching a python swallow an alligator. This has absolutely nothing to do with LaRue's choice of snakes and lizards for pets (actually, living in an apartment, he couldn't have a dog or cat) or with his selection of Pet Paradise on Hiatus Road in Sunrise as his favorite mom-and-pop establishment. The friendly little pet store is where LaRue, who owns three pythons and a leopard lizard, goes to do his reptile thing. Paradise is where LaRue gets the rats to feed the pythons and the crickets and worms for the lizard. It's also where he gets knowledgeable advice from Paradise's proprietors, Robert and Patricia Kesselman. Like, what kind of heating system should you get for your python terrarium? The Kesselmans will school you. It's all for love. Reptiles can be surprisingly personable, LaRue contends. "They actually do have personalities," he says. "It's hard to find them, but they're there."
She began humbly as Tropical Depression 12, dawdled for a bit over the Bahamas, and eased over to South Florida in the last week of August. Around the time she breached our shore, she graduated from a tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane, although with sustained winds no faster than your grandma drives on I-95. But it was just enough to snuff your electricity and blunt your weekend. Candles and Jameson and Scrabble came out of the cabinets; milk and meat went into the garbage -- c'est la vie, welcome to Florida. The storm passed, FPL made its rounds, TVs awoke, news spread: Our kitten of a 'cane killed 14 people in Florida, then swelled in the balmy Gulf to a 175-mph, 902-millibar, Category 5 civilization-stopper of a storm. We then watched her go all Old Testament on Louisiana and Mississippi. It was horror. And as we gaped and grieved and beheld a thousand dead and a million homeless and $200 billion in destruction, we could feel at least a tingle of providence, knowing that for us, at least, the jazz-hating, Superdome-wrecking, family-killing cycloptic scourge that was Katrina could have been much, much worse. At least we got to say we knew her when.
Known as the "killer cop" and a "sex beast," Gerard Schaefer, a good Broward boy, passed through almost every local institution during the 1960s and 1970s while secretly indulging his extracurricular passion: abducting and killing young women. During his time as a student at BCC and FAU, a teacher at Plantation and Stranahan high schools, an FPL security guard, and a Wilton Manors cop, Schaefer allegedly abducted and murdered a string of Broward County "whores" and "sluts," ranging from 9-year-old girls to 20-year-old women. But no good local legend worth his snuff limits himself to murder: Schaefer is said to have been a childhood crossdesser and an avid Everglades marksman and to have enjoyed raping the decomposing bodies of his victims. He was eventually up for two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of 17-year-old Susan Place and 16-year-old Georgia Jessup of Fort Lauderdale, the only two women who he was ever convicted of killing and mutilating. The remains of the rest of his more than 20 alleged victims were never found, aside from their personal effects and, in one case, teeth, discovered in Schaeffer's house. Unabashed, Schaeffer wrote gruesome short stories from the Florida State Prison in Starke that described the detailed slaughters of young girls. He got his own in 1995, when he was hacked to death by a fellow inmate. But South Florida's homegrown serial killer lives on forever in local lore. An oak tree in Port St. Lucie is rumored to have held the decomposing, hanging remains of his mutilated victims.
From, let's say, the turnpike, South Florida doesn't look all that picturesque -- it's just shopping plazas, billboards, and traffic. And more traffic. But from the deck of a sailboat, you'll understand why people call this place paradise. Now, the tough thing about going sailing is that there's not really anything to do on a boat. Then again, the wonderful thing about going sailing is that there's not really anything to do on a boat. Seriously, when was the last time you completely and thoroughly relaxed? At Tropical Sailing, the captain and crew do all the work. They raise the sail (which is silk-screened with a colorful fish print) on the 50-foot catamaran, The Spirit of Lauderdale. They point out some of the mansions, and, most importantly, they've already chilled the drinks! While the company does morning trips and midday sails (with a stop at John U. Lloyd Park), it's the daily sunset champagne cruise that's a must-do for tourists and locals alike. You can sip champagne (or beer or wine or soda) and chill with your babe or party with friends -- for just $30 a head. As the suns plops magnificently behind the city skyline and the bubbly goes to your head, try not to be so overwhelmed with that warm, fuzzy feeling that you turn and propose to the person sitting next to you -- unless, of course, that's why you came.
If you live by the water or you live near a swamp (and who down here doesn't?), you know exactly what we're talking about. There aren't many places in the contiguous 48 states where parrots and iguanas breed with impunity -- come to think of it, most of the country isn't known for an abundance of bright-green wildlife at all. From a downtown Fort Lauderdale riverfront cottage, we watched raccoons and red foxes foraging, shiny silver smelt and mullet spawning, and a variety of colorful lizards leaping, including the basilisk (or "Jesus lizard"), plus snakes like black racers. A nest of burrowing owls and their babies in the backyard. Of course, not all members of our prodigious critter kingdom are welcome, hellacious bugs in particular. But especially for transplants from colder climes, the sight of screaming, dive-bombing streaks of monk parrots or the sight of a four-foot iguana sunning itself on a deck while chomping on hibiscus flowers is a surreal reality.
Just as the giant Chili Cookoff inspires food with the impact of a reactor-core meltdown, the Jerk Festival usually ignites taste buds in a big way. Scotch bonnet peppers, the fiery ingredient in jerk sauce, appears to greater and lesser degrees in the authentic Jamaican cuisine offered by vendors and competitors. Having outgrown a smaller spot in Pembroke Pines, the festival settled into the big fields of Markham Park last year, where the food and music lasts until 9 p.m. (last call used to come at 5:30 in the old location). And there's more jerk chicken, fish, and pork than ever before, with a $500 prize and the Dutch Pot Trophy waiting for whoever can curry the judges' favor without burning their tongues. Instead of the country anthems that blare at the redneckian Chili Cookoff, these jerk fans get off on reggae, ska, dancehall, soca, and mento. The red, gold, and green banner of the World's Loudest Island replaces the Stars & Bars. Caribbean-made and themed wares, naturally, are aplenty. If you simply must make an ass of yourself, the opportunity awaits at the jerk-pork-eating competition. Just don't call it a jerk-off.
The sign of a successful protest isn't the number of people marching; it's how seriously the rest of the world takes those who do. By that measure, the demonstrations during the June 2005 meeting of the Organization of American States General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale were a triumph. Hundreds marched along Federal Highway, then down SW 17th Avenue to the Convention Center, where they rallied against the proposed enactment of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. An army of police from across South Florida, decked out in Darth Vader-like riot gear, lined the march route. The cops, seemingly outnumbering the protesters, surrounded the rally, which was held in a heavily fortified "protest pit" designed so that police could sweep down and crush any nascent violence. But there wasn't any fighting, only the loud voices of those remonstrating against the decisions of a body politic they didn't elect and to which they had no direct access -- not unlike similar gatherings in the 1770s.
We already knew about John Rodstrom's muscle-flexing ways. A former investment banker, the county commissioner raised ethical concerns a couple of years ago when Citibank paid him more than 400 large to help broker a bond issue for Miami International Airport while he opposed expansion of its competitor, FLL. But if there were any questions about Charlotte Rodstrom's own power hunger, she answered them right after her election to the Fort Lauderdale City Council in March. Her first act was to boot nonemployees out of City Hall, a move transparently aimed at unpaid volunteer coordinator Genia Ellis, a one-time Citizen of the Year. Ellis had done fine work in helping the city crawl out of its fiscal crisis, but she had also (oops) supported Rodstrom's opponent in the municipal election. Not long after that aggressive move, Charlotte helped bounce fellow City Commissioner Carlton Moore's hopes of narrowing Sistrunk Boulevard from four lanes to two in a revitalization project. It just so happened her husband at the county was of the same opinion about the project. Clearly, this is a power couple locals are going to have to keep their eyes on.