Poverty's Paradise

The North New River Canal rolls out of Lake Okeechobee, travels the first 1000 yards of its 50-mile, straight-line journey to Miami, then enters South Bay, Florida. The water moves silently past a small park near the junction of U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 80 where, on this warm...
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The North New River Canal rolls out of Lake Okeechobee, travels the first 1000 yards of its 50-mile, straight-line journey to Miami, then enters South Bay, Florida. The water moves silently past a small park near the junction of U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 80 where, on this warm October day, about 500 people celebrate the town's less-than-stellar claim to fame.

"We are the crossroads," says Mayor Clarence Anthony, citing a fact not lost on organizers of the Crossroads Festival, an event designed to raise money for local children. "The crossroads is what we have, access to transportation east, west, north, and south. Jobs are what we need, and that crossroads is going to help us get them."

Festivalgoers stroll through waves of amplified Caribbean music, attracted by clouds of smoke from the chicken-and-pork grills of public-interest groups and local restaurateurs. While some children wait to mount the carousel or mini roller coaster, others dodge slow-moving adults, clamor for cotton candy and fried dough, and struggle to throw footballs through rubber tires. They take turns trying to dunk police officer Terry Moore in a water tank for $1 per throw. The money will help start a South Bay Boy Scouts troop. "You best not dunk me, girl, I know where you live, I'll come getcha," Moore calls playfully to a string bean adolescent, who breaks into laughter, tosses a ball at the target, and sinks him.

Mayor Anthony and another local kid made good, Danny Jones, ponder the scene with pleasure. "This is what's best about our town, the attitude and sense of community," exclaims Jones, who serves as both police and fire chief. "You know everybody."

Similar scenes appear in small towns across the state and the country this time of year. But South Bay is unique. Surrounded by the U.S. Sugar Corporation's 165,000-acre kingdom of cane, it is Palm Beach County's poorest town, with a median per capita income of about $10,000, Anthony says. It is also home to one of the state's first two privately run prisons.

There is something else about South Bay, population 4300, something ignored by the crowd: a steady downpour of black ash. It arrives courtesy of cane fields to the east, where columns of smoke rise from burning chaff.

Anthony, now 41 years old, has a motto, a tongue-in-cheek, "New York, New York"­ inspired refrain that he repeats to anyone who will listen: "If you can make it out of here, you can make it anywhere." Slightly overweight and perennially cheerful, with a complexion the color of dark honey, Anthony is a big man in body and heart, say his fellow citizens. He regularly dresses his six-foot, two-inch frame in shirt and tie, the uniform of the professional businessman and veteran politician. You'd never know he was once a field worker like many in the mostly black town.

After a stroll through the crowd to greet friends and supporters, Anthony recalls that he was five years old when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Before that watershed 1964 event, blacks lived on the south side of U.S. 27 in neighborhoods crisscrossed with dirt roads. They were not allowed to enter the white area after dark, recalls Virginia Walker, the town clerk.

A 30-year city hall employee, Walker's voice is laced with the distinct Southern drawl of a native Floridian. She admires Anthony because he holds no grudge. "He understands the problems we have here," she says. "He tries hard to do the best he can for everybody, not just for his heritage, but for all cultures. And I'm white; I say that exactly how I mean it."

Anthony's mother picked celery in the fields outside town, a job the mayor also took as a boy to help his family. They lived in tin-shack shanties, dwellings depicted in a famous Edward R. Murrow documentary set in the area, Harvest of Shame, Anthony says.

After graduating from South Bay schools, Anthony won a scholarship to the University of Florida, ultimately earning a master's degree in public administration. "I didn't know I was that poor until I went to [university]," he recalls. One day he discovered Murrow's documentary in the library and watched it. "I was shocked. I realized how hard it had been for my people and my mother."

Anthony decided to return to South Bay, and in 1984 at the age of 24, he ran for mayor and won. Since then voters have reelected him to office three times; he has faced opposition only twice.

In the early years of Anthony's tenure, South Bay boasted a supermarket, a hardware store, and the same problems he experienced as a boy -- workers made only a few dollars a day. Many were immigrants. Most were black. They could boost the town's economy with seasonal cash, but they remained too poor to own cars or decent housing. "It took me some years," he says, "but we got some things done." Those things included paving the streets south of U.S. 27, bringing a library to town, convincing the school board to invest more money in South Bay schools, and designating two empty pieces of land as parks.

But even Anthony's leadership couldn't conquer the endemic problems. The grocery store closed, along with several other white-owned businesses, says Walker, and many whites left town. By 1990 the U.S. Census described South Bay as about 62 percent black, 22 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, and about 3 percent Native American and Asian respectively. Neither Walker nor Anthony thinks those figures have changed much.

Things got especially hairy in the mid-1990s. A prominent local produce company, South Bay Growers, shut its doors in 1994, killing 1000 jobs. U.S. Sugar followed suit a year later, replacing 500 positions harvesting cane with machines that could do the work less expensively. Unemployment, which nowadays hovers just below 20 percent, reached 45 percent in 1996. South Bay found itself not only on the edge of Lake Okeechobee but bordering on extinction.

If there's been a turnaround -- as the mayor, the police chief, and the town clerk believe -- the key is the prison, which opened in 1997. It provides almost 400 jobs. Built with state money and operated by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, the facility houses almost 1500 inmates who have been convicted of crimes ranging from murder and rape to petty theft.

Crime has not increased, and residents' sense of comfort and stability has, Chief Jones says. He credits Anthony for the improvement. "He's an amazing person," Jones adds. "He's always positive, he just doesn't quit. We could have gone under; we needed those jobs, and he made noise about our situation."

The way Anthony tells it, "I was sitting home and [then-]Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay called and said, "I've heard about your [unemployment] situation.' He flew me up to Tallahassee, he sat me in his office, and he said, "I've got an idea.' Because of that relationship, we continue to get money."

The relationship brought more than the prison and jobs; it brought a yearly income. The state pays South Bay the equivalent of property tax on the prison grounds, about $250,000 per year. "Some people see it as housing prisoners, but we pursued this clearly from an economic perspective," Anthony says. "The stimulus is to watch our residents have jobs and careers and to stay here."

But things haven't been completely rosy. In October 1998 Dorothea Williams, a 22-year-old mother of three, burned down city hall. As part of a welfare-to-work plan, Williams took a job with the city in 1996. She wasn't prepared for the work, say those who know her. Williams fell behind on her bills and decided to steal money from a city hall safe. One night she slipped into the building and set a small fire, which she intended to serve as a diversion while she committed the crime. Days later she was hunted down by police and investigators.

Now serving a five-year term in a North Florida prison, Williams wrote a letter of apology to the town after her arrest and conviction. She begged townsfolk to forgive her.

The day after the fire, South Bay residents began working to preserve some of the lost records and equipment, Jones recalls. A new city hall was built with insurance money. It opened in June.

The mayor doesn't dwell on the event, arguably the biggest recent blow to South Bay's pride. And perhaps because of his forward-looking viewpoint, town residents consider him a star. A modest man, he seems embarrassed by their compliments. While speaking with a reporter, he does not mention that his eldest son, Reidel, is a wide receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the Crossroads Festival, he appears to have no critic.

And the mayor downplays the fact that last year he served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hosting a busload of fellow politicians from much larger cities where, he insists, "the problems are the same as ours but on a bigger scale."

Indeed Anthony, who earns $4000 per year, describes his town like any other mayor of a poor, rural community would. "We have available land, tax incentives, and a manual skill­based labor force that, I can tell you, is ready to work," he announces. "We need manufacturing. We need to tell people that this truly is a place where you can feel good about raising your kids, leaving your front door open.

"This is paradise."

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