Michelle Coleman had her baby daughter in her arms when the men materialized out of the darkness. Coleman, a 25-year-old mother of four with a pretty, roundish face and thick, straightened hair, was walking home to the apartment in Liberty Square where she'd lived for five years, a spartan place with a faded yellow exterior.
She was just a few steps from her front door when three men jumped her, black skullcaps pulled low over their faces. One shoved the barrel of a gun against her head; as her daughter screamed, they forced Coleman into her house, demanding money. Coleman began crying, too, and pleaded that she didn't have any. The men raided her apartment, taking a TV set, Coleman's phone, and whatever else they could find.
"To this day, I don't know who they were," she says of the attack, which took place in March. "And I was terrified, because I don't do nothing — I don't go robbing; I'm not in a gang or nothing for that to happen."
But she does live in the immense public housing development better known as Pork 'n' Beans. For years, the Beans has been considered Miami's most notorious neighborhood — a hopeless, derelict, isolated 60-acre block where teenagers are more likely to get shot than go to college. It wasn't always so troubled: Among the first housing projects built in the United States, the development was for decades viewed as a model African-American neighborhood with modern facilities, low crime, and proud residents.
Now Miami-Dade County has bold plans to return Liberty Square to its illustrious roots. Led by a Hawaiian-born bureaucrat with a vision inspired by turnarounds in Harlem and Atlanta, the county intends to raze all 708 units in Pork 'n' Beans and spend $74 million to build an entirely new community on the same site.
The county says the development plan, its most ambitious in decades, will create a different kind of public housing, one centered on low-income tenants but integrated with mixed-rate renters and businesses. The new Liberty Square, leaders pledge, will be a diverse, thriving community.
"You have to create an environment that's totally different from what you have," says Michael Liu, the Miami-Dade housing executive spearheading the plan. "You've got to have kind of a Big Bang effect."
But as tired as residents like Coleman are of Pork 'n' Beans' crime and bad conditions, they're just as wary of Miami-Dade's long history of broken promises and corruption. With months to go before any groundbreaking, residents and observers are hugely skeptical of the plan — and even of the county's true intentions for a centrally located, long-blighted African-American neighborhood.
"I think it's going to displace more black people," says Freeman Wyche, the longtime pastor of the Liberty City Church of Christ on the perimeter of the housing project. "When they fix this up, half the people won't be able to come back. Where are they going to go? And what are they going to do?"
Wyche was a boy in Overtown when Liberty Square rose like a phoenix from mostly vacant farmland. For poor black kids like him growing up in the 1930s — under strict segregation laws and often in squalid conditions — the new housing development was a dream.
"A good day for me would be to come and see my uncle and cousin" who had been granted a placement, Wyche recalls. "They had electric lights and didn't have lamps. They had indoor toilets and didn't have to go outside to use the toilet. They had running water inside!"
The neighborhood was immaculate, too, with beautiful flowers and well-kept lawns. Residents left their screen doors open at night and looked after one another, offering spare eggs or flour if a neighbor asked. "To live in Liberty City was a godsend for black people," Wyche says.
But even if Liberty Square signified a landmark improvement for Miami's African-Americans, the project was driven, in large part, by outright racism.
In the early 20th Century, Miami was a new city, and its large black population — typically railroad workers and domestic servants — mainly lived in Overtown, then called "Negrotown" or "Colored Town." By 1930, more than 25,000 African-Americans populated the area.
Black Miamians lived in "one-story negro shacks," according to a contemporary account; the neighborhoods had no plumbing or garbage collection, and tuberculosis and other communicable diseases were rampant.
Wyche, the son of a day-laborer father and domestic-worker mother, grew up off the corner of NW Eighth Street and NW Fourth Avenue. His family's house was modest but always clean. "We were poor and didn't know it," he says.
But growing up in the neighborhood was difficult and sometimes terrifying. Kids had no place to play, Wyche says, because houses were stacked on top of each other like pieces in a Monopoly game; hooded Klansmen sometimes marched through the streets burning crosses. "They were doing it all over the South," Wyche says. "You didn't know what to do... You couldn't appeal to the police because they were part of the Klan."
An effort to reform the distressed area began with Father John Culmer, a black Episcopal Church and civil rights leader. In the early '30s, Culmer's work prompted an investigative series in the Miami Herald, and activists began lobbying President Franklin Roosevelt's new administration, which was developing a public works program as part of the New Deal. Outrage at Overtown's conditions, the prevailing story goes, eventually paved the way for the federally funded Liberty Square.
Yet a more sinister white self-interest was also behind the project. Miami's push for federal funding was led by a prominent white attorney and retired judge named John Grambling; as authors Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick point out in City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami, Grambling was no civil rights advocate. His interest "stemmed... from the desire to push blacks even farther away from an expanding central business district," to propagate segregation. He also had a financial stake: As an attorney, he represented the developer who owned the land surrounding the proposed Liberty Square site and likely anticipated a windfall from new development.
In their essay "Liberty Square," historian Paul George and sociology professor Thomas Petersen also argue another motivation was at play: whites' fears about contracting the diseases that ravaged their black servants. In one letter related to the project, Grambling complained of "this cesspool of disease [from which] the white people of Greater Miami draw their servants"; in an editorial from early 1934, the editors of Friday Night, a weekly newspaper, wrote, "The people who hire negroes in their homes should come forth with their protest" against allowing blacks "from bringing into their homes the disease germs that flourish in the present negro district."
The project was almost killed because of political squabbling, but after years of planning and construction, it was finally completed in late 1936 and christened Liberty Square — among the earliest housing projects opened in America. (The first, Atlanta's Techwood Homes, beat Liberty Square by only a few months.)
Racist beginnings or not, the development was a revelation: hundreds of new rectangular row houses, freshly painted and spaciously laid out — nothing like the haphazard crowding in Overtown — and all with indoor toilets and kitchens. "There is sanitation and light and air and harmony of simple architecture," the Herald wrote in an editorial around the time of completion. "There is room to expand, room for children to play, provision for elemental community life." Somewhere along the line, the project also acquired its ubiquitous nickname, though no one is sure why — one theory is because pork 'n' beans was a common meal among residents; another is that the buildings' paint job resembled the color of canned food.
When the Liberty Square Community Center was completed during the holidays that year, a church choir marked the occasion with carols. For residents, it was the sound of an idyllic new beginning. But it wouldn't last.
Throughout the Jim Crow era, when blacks were segregated by brick walls and legally prohibited from crossing east of parts of NW 12th Avenue without permission, Liberty Square remained a symbol of prosperity. Parents had decent jobs, and crime was rare. Small black-owned businesses and groceries thrived. Kids played together in front yards or at the roller-skating area on NW 63rd Street. But decades after one federal project gave life to Pork 'n' Beans, another — the interstate system — planted the seeds of its downfall.
Construction began on I-95 in Miami in the early '60s, and the expressway soon ripped the heart out of Overtown. More than 20 square blocks were sacrificed for just one exit ramp; of a community of some 40,000, more than three-quarters ultimately lost their homes. As families were split and a wave of the displaced was forced to resettle throughout Miami, the composition of Liberty Square started changing, too. Established families moved out and young single mothers moved in; the city's economic landscape also changed, as many blue-collar jobs disappeared and lower-wage positions were increasingly occupied by new immigrants. Of 71 tenants randomly sampled by George and Petersen in the '60s and '70s, 46 were single women with children. And of those 46, only seven were employed.
After a stint in the Air Force, Wyche returned to Miami in 1978 to lead the congregation at the Liberty City Church of Christ — just in time to see the neighborhood nearly burn down. In December 1979, a 33-year-old black insurance broker named Arthur McDuffie rode his motorcycle through a red light. Once police officers stopped him, as many as a dozen cops beat McDuffie into a coma, cracking his head "like an egg," as one prosecutor would say. The next spring, the four officers who had faced trial were acquitted, and black Miami — including Liberty City — lit up in protest.
Eighteen people were killed in the ensuing riots. The National Guard was called in, blockading the entrance to Liberty Square. More than $100 million in property was destroyed and looted. During the melee, Wyche stood outside his simple house next to the church, watching as a parade of young men passed by hoisting refrigerators, sofas, TV sets — anything they could get their hands on. He stood in silence — not condoning the thefts but sympathetic to the rioters' deep-seated anger. "They ain't got nothing," he explains. "They ain't got nothing to lose."
In the ensuing decades, residents would see worse. The crack epidemic sparked a wave of violence and despair, economic opportunities disappeared, housing conditions deteriorated. One fatal gas explosion exposed leaks in dozens of apartments.
And through it all, the county, in many residents' view, remained indifferent, squandering federal funds and doing little to help alleviate festering crime and poverty.
"We've seen Liberty Square go from being an idyllic place," Wyche says, "to being Dade County operating a slum."
To live in Liberty Square today is to live entirely separate from the other Miami, that glittering destination of South Beach sunsets and weekend brunches and rooftop pools. Children in the projects learn early the sound of gunfire, and to get down when they hear the pops. Funerals for high-schoolers seem almost as regular as graduations; deaths from gun violence provoke grief and outrage, from parents' lips and in Sunday church services, but they do not surprise. Not anymore.
Interviews with roughly a dozen Pork 'n' Beans residents over the past month suggest a neighborhood where, despite many residents' abundant kindness and camaraderie, opportunities are few and options are bleak: soldier on, hoping the violence stays away and jobs appear, or try to leave. "Everybody's ready for the change," Alexandra Benton says. "Everybody's ready for these to be knocked down."
Benton, a 24-year-old mother of two young girls, Dasia and Akeyla, grew up in Pork 'n' Beans. As a kid, she says, she was aware of the violence but mostly unconcerned; now that she's a mother herself, she's absolutely terrified. "You can be walking to the corner store, to get your baby some milk, and boom-boom-boom!" she says.
Once, while walking near her apartment, Benton saw a boy get shot in the head. So did Dasia, who was just a year old at the time. Now 4, Dasia speaks up whenever she senses something is not right. "She's like, 'Come on, Mommy, before they start shooting'... She's so used to it now." Benton says she's desperate to take her children somewhere else. "I'm not going to stay around here," she says, "like we're living to die."
Irene Williams, who moved to Pork 'n' Beans in 1955 and raised ten kids in a large apartment on NW 63rd Street — across the street from what's now a fenced-in preschool playground — remembers when everyone used to leave their doors open on warm evenings. Now she insists she's not afraid to sit on her porch at night despite the frequent shootings, including one that left a hole in her bedroom wall. "I don't think about it," she says. "If it's for you, you going to get it."
Waltermae Martin, another elderly resident, lives under a sort of self-imposed house arrest in her immaculately kept apartment, only occasionally venturing out for medicine or food, because she's too afraid to go outside. Quinton Flowers, an amicable 25-year-old with an athletic build, is astounded at the number of former classmates and football teammates who have ended up incarcerated or dead. Earlier this year, Flowers adds, he was walking along NW 15th Avenue, on the western perimeter of Liberty Square, when he saw Hot Dog, a skinny teenager he knew, sprinting as bullets flew behind him. Hot Dog was hit in the leg and stumbled to the ground. "I gave him my shirt," Flowers says. "He was losing so much blood."
More than a decade ago, Sara Smith, the president of the Liberty Square Resident Council, was sitting on her front porch chatting with friends when her thigh was shredded by a stray bullet. The next day, 400 residents and community members turned out for a volunteer day, planting a new garden and painting houses.
It was a high point: Smith also remembers dashing out her front door to see a teenager a few doors down splayed on the ground, blood pouring from his head, after not quite making it home to his mother. For several minutes, the young man lay clinging to life on the concrete, while his mom begged him to keep his eyes open and someone clipped pliers to his hands to try to keep him conscious. He didn't make it.
"I couldn't sleep for a very long time," Smith, a tall, middle-aged grandmother who wears long eyelashes and exudes inner strength, says. "It seemed like I would never, ever stop hearing the way his mama screamed. That was some kind of scream — that went through you."
Eric Thompson, an affable, dreadlocked longtime organizer at the community center, estimates he's attended more than 50 funerals of Liberty Square residents under the age of 18, and more than a dozen in the past few years, when shootings have spiked. "You get numb," he says. Thompson attributes the increasingly brazen nature of the violence partly to the younger ages of its perpetrators: Instead of 25- or even 22-year-olds running minor drug deals and sparking turf wars, he says, it's become 15- and 16-year-olds who don't respect even the most basic code — like not shooting at or near innocent bystanders.
Underlying Pork 'n' Beans' trouble, of course, is a devastating lack of economic opportunity and disconnectedness. Around Christmas a couple of years ago, Thompson says, a former Miami Dolphins player made a donation to Liberty Square's children. After a portion went toward buying gift cards and presents, the money was used to provide a unique experience for Liberty Square's top 15 middle-schoolers, with the lucky kids told to meet at the community center one Saturday afternoon. After a few minutes, a stretch limousine pulled up, and the kids piled inside. The limo toured the neighborhood, then drove its young VIPs just three miles or so east, out of the projects and across I-95, then through Little Haiti. It stopped at Andiamo!, a popular pizza restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 54th Street.
But once the kids stepped outside, many were overwhelmed. Some had rarely left Liberty City, and the chic outdoor tables and fashionable furnishings seemed as foreign as another country. Most loved it, but a few burst into tears. One particularly sensitive student, Covell, screamed for minutes.
"I want to go home!" he yelled.
"You are home!" Thompson replied, trying to reassure him. "You're in Miami!"
"No, I'm not!"
The man charged with transforming Pork 'n' Beans is a newcomer with a lifetime of public housing experience.
Now in his early 60s, Michael Liu, who has tired eyes and a gentle, dignified demeanor, was born in Hawaii but grew up partially in the Midwest, including a four-year stint in Cleveland's public housing system. The grandson of working-class Chinese immigrants, he attended Stanford and the University of Hawaii's law school; after a few years working as a private attorney, he was elected to serve in the Hawaii Legislature, where he represented a lower-middle-income Honolulu neighborhood and served as the ranking member on housing committees.
Between terms, Liu took a leave to work on rural housing as a deputy with the USDA in Washington. In a position with Bank of America, he also financed affordable housing for Native Hawaiians, and for most of George W. Bush's first term served as the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, overseeing billions in loans and development capital. "As my career evolved," Liu says, "affordable housing and community development issues had become part of my DNA."
His extensive experience has also cemented a core belief — that low-income government housing can be a real community asset that helps residents out of poverty instead of miring them in it. "Obviously I'm an optimist," he says. "You have to be if you're going to do this."
In August 2014, the Washington veteran accepted Mayor Carlos Gimenez's offer to run the Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development Department, the nation's sixth largest — and historically one of its most troubled.
The prior decade had been a disaster for the department: As the Herald exposed in a 2006 Pulitzer-winning investigation, corrupt housing bureaucrats had spent years funneling millions to friendly developers who built nothing; tens of millions in grants meant to improve lives in Liberty Square and other black communities had been wasted or outright stolen. Federal auditors ordered the Miami-Dade public housing agency to repay $3.6 million, and three prominent developers were indicted for grand theft. The federal government even seized control of the county agency in 2008.
The housing scandal manifested through many failed projects, but none was more consequential than a redevelopment located just a few blocks from Liberty Square: the Scott-Carver projects. The homes were built in the 1950s, but by the new millennium had become riddled with crime, infested with vermin, and contaminated by lead paint. In 1999, the county received a $35 million federal grant, and soon announced a plan to raze the apartments and build a village-style mixed-income community.
The plan quickly snowballed into a disaster. By 2006, $20 million had been squandered and barely anything had been built. Worse, hundreds of former residents had been displaced. "We were scattered all over, some people as far as Georgia,'' Yvette Norton told the Herald in 2006. "Some people were homeless and living in their cars. But the county had no answers for us.''
By 2014, Liu's predecessor, who left for a similar job in New Orleans, had helped lead the department out of its tailspin, but the agency's legacy of failure has remained — and so have the problems plaguing Miami's oldest public housing project.
Before Liu even set up his office, he began surveying community leaders to get an idea of where he should focus attention. Every single response, he says, was the same: Liberty Square.
Liu underwrote various analyses and last winter met with members of the Liberty Square Resident Council, who reiterated how bad conditions had become: Some homes were infested with roaches and rodents, others with mushrooms growing from the ceiling; sweltering units with no working air-conditioning; rampant gun violence.
Liu says studies soon made it clear that even comprehensive repairs to the existing units wouldn't be enough: It would be cheaper and more effective to raze and rebuild.
On February 2, less than six months after Liu assumed his new job, he and Gimenez, both wearing suits, stood at a wooden podium inside the small Pork 'n' Beans auditorium, in front of a brightly colored mural of the late Liberty City civil rights leader Athalie Range. As TV cameras rolled, they unveiled a plan to knock down Pork 'n' Beans and build anew. The project would be called Liberty Square Rising.
"For the first time since the New Deal era," the mayor boasted, "Liberty Square will undergo a monumental revitalization and redevelopment process that will forever transform not only Liberty Square but also Liberty City as a whole."
Liu and his boss promised a grand project: $48 million for the new development itself — modern mixed-income apartments, security cameras, recreation facilities, computer labs — and $26 million aimed at spurring neighborhood economic revitalization. The development would generate nearly $300 million in economic benefit, the county projected, and more than 2,000 directly related jobs, most of which would be reserved for locals. Echoes of the failed Scott-Carver promises were impossible to miss. But Liu insists the county has learned from its mistakes. Instead of demolishing the 708 Pork 'n' Beans units all at once, the housing project will be knocked down and rebuilt in phases. Before any wrecking ball comes in, new apartments will be built on a vacant site at Lincoln Gardens, two miles away, to house the first batch of Pork 'n' Beans residents; only once new on-site homes are built will other residents move. "We're not displacing anybody," Liu promises. "All residents in good standing will have a unit to return to."
After the announcement, Liu embarked on a goodwill tour throughout Liberty City, canvassing door-to-door and organizing numerous meetings. He secured the support of key constituents, such as the Resident Council and Brownsville Civic Neighborhood Association. "He listened to our concerns," Smith says, "and he tried to make something happen out of it."
But not everyone was sold. T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, has said Liberty Square Rising amounts to a "rape" of Liberty City. Others have questioned why it's necessary to move residents at all when there are vacant units in Pork 'n' Beans; if the funding will come through; if construction jobs will really go to local residents. Some have raised the specter of new violence from the Lincoln Gardens construction because of a longstanding rivalry between residents of nearby Brownsville and Pork 'n' Beans.
Mostly, though, people are worried Liberty Square Rising will end up displacing more poor black Miamians. Daniela Saczek, an organizer with the Miami Workers Center, says she's troubled by the county's refusal to commit to a new unit for every one that's knocked down. (The county has promised to provide enough new units to accommodate all current residents but has not specified exactly how many will be built.) She's also concerned that residents with minor criminal records or other blemishes will be frozen out by the "good standing" reentry policy: The housing authority "didn't do their job previously" with the screenings, she says. "Why is it that now is when they're getting stricter?"
Even some who are in favor of the project aren't convinced all current residents will really have a place in the new Liberty Square. "I think it's pretty good," says Dorothy Edmonds, a longtime resident who serves on the five-member Liberty Square Resident Council. "But the part is, are they going to let the people come back? I think a lot of people they're going to push out. They ain't going to let the people come back. They're going to do them just like they did Scotts."
Earlier this spring, Smith and members of the Liberty Square Resident Council traveled by bus to Atlanta on a trip organized by Miami-Dade County to visit several redeveloped public housing communities. Two decades ago, that city was considered America's worst public housing disaster, with the highest number of occupants and among the worst conditions. But after demolishing the projects — including the Techwood Homes — and erecting new housing, Atlanta is now a model of reform.
The Miami group toured several developments, including one called East Lake Meadows. Formerly nicknamed "Little Vietnam" because it was so wracked with violence, the development has become a thriving subdivision with more than 500 townhouses and apartments, rolling lawns, a pool, an expansive garden, and a charter school. New businesses have appeared nearby, and low-income residents are indistinguishable from middle-class renters paying market rate. The visitors from Miami were floored.
"It was beautiful," Smith says. "I mean beautiful!"
The takeaway, too, was clear: If a transformation has worked so well in Atlanta, why not Miami?
Liu has continued emphasizing, every chance he can, that Liberty Square Rising is not Scott-Carver. Residents are "not going to be scattered to the four winds"; the county's building and planning process will be completely transparent throughout, with all drafts of plans and bids available to the public; community feedback is being incorporated into the plans, including a Resident Council vote toward the choice of a developer.
A majority of Liberty Square residents really do want a transformation, Liu insists.
"Every single meeting I've been to, I always ask, 'How many of you want to stay here in these 80-year-old units?'?'' he says. "Nobody raises their hand. 'How many of you would like to live in new, modern buildings with regular amenities?'?" At that, he says, every hand rises.
The county is now in the process of reviewing bids from six developers. After one is selected, groundbreaking on the Lincoln Gardens transitional apartments — the first phase of the project — is expected in the second or third quarter of 2016, Liu says. Those apartments should be finished in early 2017, enabling the phased rebuilding of Liberty Square. The entire project is slated to finish by the end of 2019. In theory, it’s a realistic timeline, but for many residents and observers, it’s still hard — after so many broken promises — to have faith in Liberty Square Rising. "You do hope for it," Wyche says. "But my feeling is it's going to be the same thing."
Besides, many residents don't plan on sticking around long enough to see a resurrection — including Coleman, the young mother robbed in March.
Soon after the crime, Coleman put in an application for a housing transfer, she says. In June, the day after a 10-year-old boy was shot while riding his bike at the basketball courts — practically within eyesight of Coleman's place — she applied again. This time, the transfer was approved.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"So I'm leaving," she says. "I'm going over to Victory Homes," another nearby project.
But others intend to stay, and they say the transformation can't come soon enough. "I want it to be somewhere where the children can be able to grow up and be kids for once," Smith says on a sunny October afternoon.
The Resident Council president is sitting at her desk inside a simple office at the community center, a building itself long in need of upgrades. She motions to a poster, hanging on a nearby wall, of multicolored hands joined in harmony, and allows herself to dream out loud of a new Liberty Square: It will be diverse, she says, and safe, and prosperous.
"It's going to be beautiful," Smith says. "It's going to be beautiful."