A red berry drops from above onto the carpet of leaves. It takes 82-year-old Max Tharpe nearly half a minute to stoop and pick it up with his small, wrinkled fingers. He opens it to reveal a fig-like interior. Indians consider the tree sacred, he says, and the fruit is believed to have healing powers. But the Brenner Real Estate Group plans to bulldoze this sprawling behemoth despite the succor it offers from the South Florida sun. Brenner has big plans for the site.
Tharpe shuffles through the yard in green socks, old loafers, corduroy shorts, and a half-buttoned shirt. He rambles when he speaks, but his grin is weary and wise, not senile, and through his bifocals, his green eyes are lucid, clear. He's worried the developer will make his final days here stressful if he complains too much about the tree. "You're seeing it in its reduced stage," he says, explaining that Brenner workers trimmed branches during their surveying process. "See, that looks like a battleship there," he observes, pointing to a thick, gray trunk segment.
Tharpe's plans have changed recently. He thought he'd die in the shade of the tree, in the three-unit Victoria Park bungalow he's inhabited since 1976. But Brenner, which late last year bought Tharpe's three decaying, single-story apartments -- along with every other building on the 500 block of NE Seventh Avenue -- needs Tharpe gone. He's holding up progress. This week, after the retired photojournalist moves into a one-bedroom apartment six miles north, Brenner will clear the land for 50 townhomes, one of the largest construction projects Fort Lauderdale's Victoria Park neighborhood has seen in years.
Tharpe's three small apartments are too far gone to save anyway, what with wood rot having nearly devoured their beams and roofs. But other apartment buildings on the block are splendid examples of the applied geometrics of the curvilinear modern-deco style, with rounded cornices, projecting eaves, and old-fashioned jalousie windows. Yellow No Trespassing signs are affixed to broken panes of glass. Almost every tenant on the block is gone, and the buildings sit empty.
In 1976, Tharpe brought his ailing mother south from North Carolina, where he'd worked as a freelance photographer since leaving the Air Force in 1950. After his mother's death, Tharpe stayed in Victoria Park and maintained the property, living in one unit and renting out the others. "It's so nice to sit here and watch the sunset," he says quietly. Inside Tharpe's apartment, the plaster is filthy and cracked, the kitchen is disastrous, and louvered windows are fixed with wood, tape, and cardboard. The paint around light switches and doorknobs is coated with years of dark, oily grime. On the peeling linoleum floor, which is covered with piles of old newspapers, religious pamphlets, sepia photographs, and tattered magazines, rests The Time Life Book of Family Care and a hardback volume titled Strange Stories, Amazing Facts.
Last October, Tharpe sold his three decrepit units to Brenner for $265,000. "I could've held out for more, but I know God hates greed," he explains. "I didn't want to sell. I'm too old to uproot. It's hard to move out of here because I've got so much memorabilia." For the past month, Tharpe has been slowly rooting through the piles of papers, books, and photographs that take up much of his floor space. But moving boxes into his minivan and to his new place is slow work.
Three weeks ago, Brenner tried to force him out early, Tharpe says. All his utilities were cut off. He's had the electricity restored, but he's been living without a telephone or running water. "I keep reaching for the faucet to turn it on," he grimaces. "I'm trying to get out of here before it's too late. They'll bulldoze me out if I'm not careful."
Brenner's director of development, Brian Horowitz, claims his firm has worked to ensure that Tharpe's last weeks in his old home are comfortable. But, he adds, "[Tharpe] was supposed to be gone two months ago, and it's taken him a lot longer than we expected."
After the sale, Tharpe says, the builder gave him six months to vacate. But the next day, Brenner employees entered one of the units. "They started to evict him -- not with the cops but on their own accord," says David Tinnerman, who lives directly behind Tharpe and has tried to help his elderly neighbor prepare for the move. "He's overwhelmed. It's an atrocity what's happening to this poor little old guy."
Not so, says Horowitz. "He opened the door to let us in. We were just trying to help him out. It was a misunderstanding."
Accidentally tossed in the trash by the Brenner employees were nearly 1000 of Tharpe's oldest black-and-white photographs. Since September 11, he hasn't been sleeping well. The events of that day exacerbated his insomnia. He wants to sort through the endless piles of newspapers, magazines, and books himself to assure that nothing is thrown away if it has some value to him. A few friends from his church, the Coral Ridge Ministries, have offered to help him move, "but it's better to do it by myself," Tharpe explains.
Tharpe will be alone when he moves into his new apartment in Coral Ridge. He has no family. "I'm the last leaf on the family tree," he laughs uneasily. He has a hard time driving in crowded areas like Fort Lauderdale because of all the people and traffic. Plus, at the new apartment, he'll be much closer to church. But his three-year-old sheltie collie named Beagle won't be permitted in his new place, so Tharpe plans to give him to a no-kill shelter.
Beagle hides from the pummeling rain beneath Tharpe's cluttered carport. From this spot, nothing but the tree's monumental foliage is visible. Its sprawling roots break through the soil and dead leaves, then plunge back below ground. Twisted, anaconda-thick tendrils dangle from branches and run amok through the yard, then head for Tharpe's home. By this time next month, Horowitz says, the tree and buildings will be cleared. "It's an invasive tree," Brenner salesman Bill Macy says. "And when its branches fall, it's dangerous."
Tinnerman desperately wants the tree to stay and continue providing the shade it has lent the block for a century. He plans to collect eight signatures on a letter urging Commissioner Tim Smith and Mayor Jim Naugle to fight for the tree, but he still recognizes that the momentum is likely too great to be stopped. The tree, he concedes, is a goner. "They say it's a ficus," he spits out angrily, "and they're gonna cut the fucker down."
Dave Gennaro, chief landscape planner with the City of Fort Lauderdale, examined the tree after Brennan applied for a permit to remove it. "It's a ficus benghalensis," he states, an unprotected species. "I have to go by what the landscape ordinance allows. I can't deny them a permit to remove that tree. I can't think of anything that will save it at this point."
The ordinance also requires that Brenner plant replacements, in this case 25 ten-foot trees. That won't much help Tinnerman, who will have to gaze out from his back yard onto a two-story townhome he complains will be "peering down onto our properties. It's a gross injustice. They're going to destroy so much greenery for their greed."
These frustrations won't end soon, because the breakneck pace of Victoria Park's McMansion makeover has proven that homeowners are essentially powerless to prevent this type of change. The gated townhome project -- called the Ellington and slated to include jazzy names like the Coltrane, the Basie, and the Armstrong -- will dramatically change the density, scale, and feel of the neighborhood. Unlike the older buildings they will replace, the new homes, selling for $350,000 to $400,000, will reorient inhabitants toward air conditioning and TV rather than the street, sky, and yard.
But by the time the saws start taking bites from the intertwined trunks of the ficus and Caterpillar tank-like treads crush his old abode, Max Tharpe will be in Coral Ridge without his dog, all alone, in his new apartment. "Maybe," he sighs, "I'll be able to sleep better up there."