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Swimming Against the Tide

Monday afternoon. Mid-April. And it's already blazing hot. In these brief hours of freedom between the last school bell and suppertime, black children in northwest Hallandale Beach hop on bikes, chase one another, throw on skates, and glide down neighborhood sidewalks. Some make the mile-long trek across busy, six-lane Hallandale Beach Boulevard to Peter Bluesten Park to jump in the city's public pool and cool off.

That's the place some old-timers still refer to as the "white pool." They remember when the city maintained two facilities -- the Dixie Pool for blacks, at 1002 NW Eighth Ave., and the City Pool for whites in Bluesten Park, at 501 SE First Ave. Both opened in the late 1950s, when Hallandale, like most of the South, was segregated.

For more than 30 years, black children learned to swim, high school teams competed, and everybody took a dip on broiling hot days at the Dixie Pool, recalls lifelong resident Angie Glass, who is 65 years old. But in 1992, the city closed the facility. And several years later, it was filled in; the former whites-only pool became the only one in Hallandale Beach. "It hurts. It still hurts," Glass complains. "There are a lot of adults here that grew up with that swimming pool."

To some, it seems that the black enclave in northwest Hallandale Beach is always on the losing end. A white majority dominates politics in this tiny city of 34,300, set between Hollywood and the Miami-Dade County line, I-95 and the Atlantic Ocean. The latest setback occurred April 11, when U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno dismissed a lawsuit meant to provide black residents with a greater voice at City Hall.

The suit had been filed anonymously against the city by two African-American residents on behalf of all black residents of Hallandale Beach. It claimed the at-large voting system by which commissioners are elected violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The suit claimed that the system "dilutes, minimizes, and cancels out the voting strength of African Americans," who are a minority of the population.

When Hallandale was settled in the early 1900s, two of the original twelve families were black. As the community grew, blacks were relegated to a segregated area in the northwest. But there was an economic interdependence between the races. Many African-Americans worked on white farms. People knew each other. That changed in the 1970s, when the first housing developments arose in what 0had been a mangrove swamp on the eastern edge of the city and condos began to replace farms. A voting bloc of white retirees, many from the northeastern United States, was born.

The result: Only one black has sat on the City Commission in the past 30 years. John Saunders served two terms, from 1971 to 1979. Today, none of the four commissioners or Mayor Dorothy Ross is from the northwest area, although about 16 percent of the city's 34,300 residents are black. "Day in and day out, the concerns of African-Americans are not on the minds of those who run things in Hallandale," explains attorney Mikel Jones, who's representing black Hallandalites.

Single-member voting districts have long been talked about in northwest Hallandale Beach. Frustration over the voting system came to a head after an October 2001 special election. Black candidate Rev. Josh Brown got 345 of 395 votes cast in the northwest area but garnered only 99 other votes in the rest of the city. "It's taxation without representation," Brown complains.

In January, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, sued the city after a group of northwest residents approached him about the issue. Jones, an aide to Hastings, says the plaintiffs didn't use their names because they feared reprisal -- code-enforcement citations, traffic stops, and other harassment. But the anonymous filing worked in the city's favor when the case was moved to federal court. Moreno dismissed it for a technicality: Jones hadn't petitioned to file anonymously. Now, the Hastings aide says he will refile.

But the real issue to many people, like Angie Glass, is that Hallandale Beach is fighting to defend its discriminatory voting system. In recent years, numerous other governments in the region have switched to district elections to bring a diversity of voices into the mix. The Miami-Dade commission, the Broward School Board, and the Fort Lauderdale commission, as well as the cities of Davie, Hollywood, Deerfield Beach, Tamarac, North Lauderdale, and Pompano Beach, have all done away with at-large voting.

In Hallandale Beach, though, city attorney Michael Goldstein argues, the commission is responsive to all of its citizenry. He says district representation would lead to fiefdoms where commissioners concern themselves only with the needs of the voters in their districts. "I think their lawsuit is without merit," Goldstein says. To bolster his point, Goldstein notes the city hired a land-use specialist to evaluate the northwest area and another consultant to suggest ways to reduce crime there. The city is also spending more than $1 million on improvements to Foster Road, the neighborhood's commercial spine.

But Jones and some residents claim those actions don't mean that the northwest community has representation. The lawyer representing African-Americans also speculates that the recent spate of activity is in response to the court action. "If this lawsuit goes away, the pressure goes away and it's back to the status quo," he says. "They would rather preserve the status quo than do what is right."

Although the black Dixie Pool has been closed for ten years, its memory remains a prime symbol of the racial discontent simmering below the surface of this placid community. After closing the facility for repairs in 1992, the city hired a consultant to prepare a study of the condition of both the Dixie and the city pools. Both were in deplorable shape. Each required about $300,000 in repairs. Glass says the city had neglected the black pool for years. She suspects it was allowed to fall into disrepair because the city wanted to close it. When the city made the inevitable decision to repair only the white pool, a group of black residents, including Glass, tried to raise money to save their facility. But they failed to collect enough.

In 1997, after a survey, the city spent a more economical $143,000 to build a 141-foot-long, 85-foot-wide outdoor skating rink and a quarter-mile fitness trail on the site. "At the time, the city went to residents [to ask what should replace the pool]," recreation director Jeffrey Maftal explains. "There was no consensus on anything, so the city decided a skating area would be good."

The rink opened with a lot of hoopla, and ten pairs of skates were raffled off to area youngsters. Since then, though, the rink has not been popular. On a recent Monday afternoon, it was padlocked. It's now open only two days a week. In September 2000, Maftal again asked residents what they would like at the site. Although it wasn't an option, 166 of the 262 who responded wrote "swimming pool" onto the survey as their number one choice.

Part of the problem, says the Rev. Joe Johnson of Ebenezer Baptist Church, is that, in residents' minds, the skating rink was done for the northwest; the idea didn't arise there. That's what happens, he believes, when you have a city commission that doesn't live in your community or share your history. "I don't argue with the pool being closed down. It may have been the right thing," Johnson says. "But the problem is, like with the skating rink, [city commissioners] make decisions about what they think people want rather than what people actually want." Community meetings to solicit ideas, he says, aren't enough. "You can't just drive through or come to a meeting and know what a community wants, know what's best for it. You have to live with people, know the people, and be in fellowship with them."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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