One morning in 2002, Carl Flick got up early for a walking tour with architect George Perez. Flick wanted to show Perez every historic building in downtown Northwood, a 4,500-home neighborhood in the northeast section of West Palm Beach. They started with the Northwood Hotel, on the corner of Northwood Road and Dixie. They walked past the three-story Alfie's Restaurant Equipment, a peeling hulk that revealed beamed ceilings when the two squinted through years of grime on its barred windows. "I wanted to show him that there were people who cared about the history of the area," Flick remembers. Then they paused and contemplated a couple of blocks smack in the center of downtown Northwood.
"There was a big industrial building, called Don T's, with a barrel roof, that had been used as a venue for rap concerts," Flick recalls. "It was notorious. There had been riots, drug deals, constant police activity. There was a storefront church, Iglesia del Nazareno; a convenience store, which was just a front for a drug organization. They had paraphernalia, crack pipes, literally hanging from the shelves. Food was rotting in their freezers. There was an animal charity that was no more than a glorified kennel. And a bunch of buildings that were just shells with no roofs. It looked like a bombed-out Berlin. There wasn't a single building on those blocks worth saving."
If the sight was depressing, Flick was optimistic. A historic preservationist and urban planner, he hoped that soon those blighted blocks would look different. He envisioned a thriving "Village Center" of shops selling art, clothing, and books and a real drugstore or a gourmet grocer instead of a crack den hawking pipes and rotten food. Rather than roofless buildings, there'd be affordable apartments for waitresses, students, nurses, and city workers.
It was a compelling vision. But eight years after that morning survey, those blighted blocks stand empty, a gaping hole in the center of Northwood Village inhabited only by weeds and insects.
Flick's quest to preserve Northwood Village turned personal when West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel made him her enemy. Frankel's animosity toward Flick and his grassroots development projects would eventually kill his bright plans. The good intentions of preservationists would turn neighbor against neighbor, merchant against merchant, citizen against politician.
Allegations of fraud, bribery, corruption, and even mental illness have been lobbed like bottle rockets. The battle has generated a lawsuit against the city, a grand jury investigation involving a Florida House member, and an FBI probe.
Carl Flick's first big battle in Northwood was classic David versus Goliath. In 1999, corporate giant Walgreens wanted to plunk a $4 million suburban-style drugstore on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street. Flick, who worked as a senior planner for the county until 2002, led a group of activists who passionately wanted to protect Northwood's laid-back charm from swaths of sun-baked asphalt.
A delicately built, sandy-haired man in his early 50s, Flick is a speaker who can pontificate for an hour while hardly drawing breath. He runs a commercial photography business out of his Northwood home. Even in this open-minded, arty neighborhood, he seems eccentric. On the side, he's a body painter: At events like Key West's Fantasy Fest, he decorates comely women with abstract vines, seascapes, mermaid's tails, and faux lingerie.
Flick knows his stuff when it comes to "new urbanism." When Walgreens proposed its project in 1999, Flick argued publicly that the busy building was poorly designed for urban residential streets. The City Commission debated the Walgreens proposal for more than four hours, finally siding in a unanimous vote against it.
It took people like Flick to begin to reverse nearly a century of blight in Northwood, where a series of booms and busts had stalled development. A drawing of Northwood's business district in 1925 depicts a view of Northwood Road, crowded with Model T's parked by a dry goods store. Another photo shows butchers in white aprons posed outside May's Groceries at 436 Northwood. The area had always been racially diverse, situated between historically black Pleasant City and historically white Riviera Beach. U.S. 1 ran through the business district, a mélange of black- and white-owned commerce where for years, one of the oldest African-American bookstores in Florida was squeezed into a small, crowded room filled with memorabilia.
By the 1980s, Northwood's main streets had fallen on hard times. As late as 2005, these blocks at night were scary places. Entire acres were ringed with chainlink and barbed wire.
In the 1990s, whites, many of them gay, bought Spanish-style bungalows at modest prices in the historic section of Old Northwood — snapping up two-bedroom homes for $40,000. They moved into the shady avenues east of Broadway, barricading the streets against the drug dealers and prostitutes with attractively landscaped dead-ends. They opened boutiques and antiques stores side by side with Mo' Betta Braids, Supe's Jamaican, and Golden Rule storefront church. It looked as if the neighborhood, once again, was scheduled for another boom.