One Man Rallies A Neighborhood Against Pushers
Urban League head declares 70-square-block drug-free zone, bringing new hope to area. WAGING WAR ON DRUG DEALERS
T. WILLARD FAIR can't even go away for the weekend.
When he did recently, Mr. Fair, head of Miami's Urban League, returned to find that a building he was keeping an eye on had been invaded by "the drug boys."
They threw belongings out windows, piled trash in one apartment, ripped out wires and plumbing, and terrorized the few remaining occupants.
"They put holes through all the apartments so if the police come, they can run to another apartment," said Geneva Bryant. The previous night, she said, the police broke down her door looking for them.
In a neighborhood trying to rid itself of drug dealers, a weekend can be a long time.
Five years ago Fair started the Liberty City Renaissance, a public-private initiative to improve the quality of life in this struggling black neighborhood.
Part of that initiative was Operation POP (Push Out the Pushers), an effort to get drug dealers out of the neighborhood. Fair declared a 70-square-block area a drug-free zone - and put up signs to make the message clear.
First he asked the police department to make getting the drug dealers out of Liberty City a high priority.
Perry Anderson, who was police chief then, says that while the Miami police were already involved in large-scale sting operations, "this was one time that we had a community person that was solidly behind what we were doing."
"[Fair] is the kind of guy who's real strong; a risk-taker," says Mr. Anderson, now police commissioner in Cambridge, Mass., who put Fair on his citizens' advisory board in Miami. "I think we needed that catalyst to help things go along."
Fair says that after the first "sting," residents stood on their porches and cheered. "Once they find out you are sincere, and you're not going away, the bonding is built," he says.
Rebuilding trust was another matter. The police had a caller-ID system, so that when people called in with tips, the police would visit them, destroying their anonymity. Fair put out the word that people could call the Urban League office; the office would contact the police.
Now, he says, residents call all the time with tips as detailed as this: "On 62nd and 15th ... the guy with the green jacket. The drugs are behind the abandoned car, on the ground, in a beer can."
As a result, 27 crack houses have been demolished, 3,500 arrests made, code violations issued, abandoned vehicles towed, and trees trimmed (to decrease shade) in areas where drug deals are made.
The Drugmobile, a moving drug-education center available to schools and communities, is operational and a tenant drug-use tracking system makes sure tenants evicted for involvement in drugs can't rent elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Fair started this program after reading in the newspaper about a young woman who had been shot: Residents were too fearful of drug dealers to cooperate with the police. "The only people who could give a description of the car were the children," he says.
Now he and other staff members at the Urban League make the rounds of Liberty City.
While Fair is the visionary behind the process, it's far from a one-man job. It's taken the combined efforts of police, firefighters, inspectional services, the solid-waste department, the zoning commission, schools, private businesses, churches, and residents.
Signs of an improved neighborhood are evident in a stroll through the worst section of Liberty City. There are new, single-family row houses in bright Miami pastels. A park that two weeks ago was filled with litter is now clean and gated. A new park for children under 12 has grass, a playground, and palm trees.
Fair is also working on getting residents to clean up their neighborhood. He points out street corners that are particular magnets for litter.
"Now if that corner had a trash can, people would probably use it," he says, making a note to have the city put one there. One piece of trash on a corner creates a "contagion of disorder" that encourages people to add more trash, Fair says.
On 59th Street, a new management company is trying to turn around the building with the worst reputation for drug dealing. The building houses single women and their children. Painters are rolling chocolate-colored paint on the three story motel-style building. The new manager got all the cars and car parts out of the parking lot; children play there now. A new gate keeps cars out.
Jamal Servace, who's playing in the lot with other children, says "It's clean now. There's no cars."
Cindy Butler, a young resident with gold-plated teeth, is more guarded about the changes. "The new manager is cleaning it up. I feel a little safer. There's still drugs and gangs, though. But with the gate up, the police can't just drive in here like they used to. So the drug boys get away."
She starts to edge away: "I have to go to a funeral."
Despite the daunting tasks still to be done, Fair, after more than 20 years with the Urban League, says he isn't discouraged.
"It's a mission," he says. "You don't get burned out when it's a mission."