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Definitely in My Back Yard

Willie Thomas' morning starts at 8:30 a.m. with a jolt so powerful it shakes the foundation of his house. Sometimes it seems like it happens even earlier. But like an alarm clock, every working day, the bang awakens Thomas and his wife, Betty, with a start.

With that, the couple gets out of bed, and Betty gets ready for her job as a caretaker in the town of Palm Beach while Willie, a retired welder on disability with two bum knees, helps the four grandchildren who live with them get ready for summer camp. Amid the din and rush of morning activity, the noises followed by the sudden tremor seem to subside.

But after his family has left, Thomas, age 58, remains behind. He spends most of the day in his one-story house, and, as he eats his breakfast in the morning, he again begins to feel the house vibrate beneath him. Competing with the noise coming from the TV are the sounds of work trucks idling by the factories outside, blowing thick puffs of exhaust from their tailpipes. Sometimes, when visitors are around, Thomas stews about what his hometown, Mangonia Park, used to be like.

Thomas lives on one end of Elmwood Street, which is lined by three dozen homes. His one-story house resembles the others in size and shape, but a white facade with pink trim gives it the appearance of an oversize gingerbread house. Inside, pictures of his seven children and their children adorn the walls, and at certain times of day the lingering smell of a home-cooked meal fills the air. When he first moved into Mangonia Park 25 years ago, he looked out his kitchen window and saw palm trees and wide bands of grassy scrub.

"They had some goats over there," he said one afternoon, "and I think some cows."

But today Thomas looks out the window and sees a windowless building that looks like a giant brick. It's the home of Signing America Corporation, which uses heavy machinery to cut and inscribe metal signs like those seen on the interstate pointing out an exit.

Every so often Thomas walks over to Signing America to complain about the noise and tremors caused by the machines, but mostly he just makes do with the inconvenience.

"Every time I go back there," he grumbles, "I just get pissed off."
Thomas has a lot to be angry about. Just 200 yards beyond the sign factory, where goats once grazed, stands a three-legged, 550-foot-tall communications tower that slightly resembles the Eiffel Tower. Not far from the tower, to the north, is a cement plant, which pumps out about 1600 cinder blocks a day.

And just a hundred feet from Thomas' driveway is C-MAC, a company that manufactures computer chips. Atop the manufacturer's three-story building are two giant exhaust fans. During the winter, when it's cool enough to sleep with the windows open, the fans sometimes kick into gear and wake Thomas up in the middle of the night.

These nuisances are part of a 40-year-old trend in Mangonia Park: Sustain the town financially by bringing in factories, warehouses, industries, and commercial businesses. Of course economic development is part of any city's plans for the future. But what separates Mangonia Park from other towns and cities is a sense of proportion. Mangonia Park, population 1400, takes up only one square mile, about three-quarters of which is already populated by industrial and commercial properties, according to Darla Levy, the town administrator. The town is bisected by two major thoroughfares lined with supermarkets, gas stations, drug stores, fast-food restaurants, and other staples of urban life. Once a sleepy enclave tucked between West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach, Mangonia Park now looks like a huge industrial park with a few houses scattered throughout.

And the trend continues. Mangonia Park residents recently supported the town council's decision to allow a 31,000-square-foot detention center for girls to be built in the southeast corner of town. "Detention center," of course, is just a fancy name for jail, and jails are about as popular among homeowners as Superfund sites and strip clubs. But Mangonia Park's mostly working-class residents feel strongly that the detention center will provide them with much-needed jobs and help lessen the property tax burden.

Mangonia Park is not in dire financial straits, but the town has a history of cutting corners to sustain its existence. Should the town show any weakness, some residents claim, West Palm Beach, a city 54 times the size of Mangonia Park, is ready to scoop it up and steal the tax base. That would destroy Mangonia Park, the "small-town" feel of which is still a source of pride to its residents, many of whom have lived here for decades. Despite the busy factories, the rattling houses, and the heavy-duty industry surrounding the town's four neighborhoods, long-time residents still describe Mangonia Park as "isolated," "quiet," and "secure," which makes it a town worth hanging on to.

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Michael Freedman

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