willie-logan_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

OPA-LOCKA — With some restoration projects completed and others under way or soon in the making, civic leaders are using phrases such as “turning the corner” and “renaissance” to describe long-awaited revitalization that is taking place in one of Miami-Dade County’s oldest predominantly black cities.

“We are excited about what’s going on in Magnolia North,” said Mayor Myra Taylor of Opa-locka, referring to the area that became known as “The Triangle.” The nine-block neighborhood bounded by Northwest 22nd and 17th avenues and Northwest 151st Street and State Road 9 attracted national and international attention during the ’80s because of rampant deadly shootings and other criminal activity mostly related to drug-trafficking. It was considered the drug capital of Miami-Dade.

In an effort to stem the crime wave, the city erected metal barriers to block off nearly all of the streets leading into the city. The only way in and out was on Ali Baba Avenue. As a result, the neighborhood  known as Magnolia North took on the shape of a triangle, which became its unofficial name, said Willie Logan, founder and chief executive officer of the Opa-locka Community Development Agency. The CDC is finding money, workers and community partners to rebuild and replace old properties “It got worse instead of better,” said John Riley, Opa-locka’s mayor from 1984 to 1986. Criminals recruited look-outs in the community to alert them when police were coming, he said.

The name, like the dilapidated buildings that dot the area, has to go, city leaders say. The city cannot remake itself by hanging on to its negative past, they argue.

Fortified with a $20 million federal grant through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2, Logan, assisted by county officials, Habitat for Humanity and other partners, plans to tackle rundown areas and revitalize 83 homes in Magnolia North, as well as Bunche Park and Rainbow Park in neighboring Miami Gardens. The city should be well on its way to revitalization by 2013, Logan said.

Logan, who grew up on Northwest 152nd Street, was Opa-locka’s mayor from 1980 to 1982 – the youngest person to hold the position – and a state legislator from 1982 to 2000. He is optimistic about the revitalization plan and does not dwell on how the area, dotted with scores of vacant lots and rundown homes, looks now.

Around 50 percent of the properties slated for revitalization in Magnolia North are vacant or abandoned, Logan said. The neighborhood also has witnessed a dramatic drop in population, from about 1,000 residents to 200 now, he said.

Logan sees that as a plus for revitalization. “This provides an opportunity for a developer to acquire and redevelop,” he said.

The CDC’s initiatives include placing public art at each of the five barriers that remain in Magnolia North. The agency received a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for that project.

Those plans also call for an art park, playgrounds and landscaping that will provide more shade to the area.

Riley, often a strong critic of municipal activities, is pleased. “Opa-locka is on its way to becoming the positive city it was meant to be from the inception,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to join together with city officials and the CDC. It all depends on the follow-up to ensure that those who are fortunate enough can get those homes and maintain them.”

The CDC’s exhaustive to-do list already has some items that have been checked off.

The group has renovated four houses in Magnolia North. Habitat for Humanity, which has begun clearing land, will build 26 single-family homes.

Besides homes needed to ensure the success of the revitalization, residents need employable skills so that they can contribute economically to their community, Logan said. 

In July, 39 residents in the Opa-locka area completed a three-week training program to become construction workers. Now the residents will be able to work on the projects.

They received the training under the Builders Pilot Construction and Weatherization Program through Jamii Builders, a subsidiary of the CDC that takes its name from a Swahili word meaning “Community.”

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor recently awarded a $2.6 million grant to a team of partner organizations in Miami to provide training for in-demand “green” jobs. 

Each year, at least 40 people will get training through this Green Jobs Innovation grant program. Training will consist of two sessions per year for three years in the South Florida region.

Meanwhile, others in the community are encouraging youth to excel.  In March, five students received scholarships at the first Opa-locka Scholarship and Humanitarian Awards banquet. The city raised $21,000 from local donors to fund the scholarships. The event is expected to become an annual affair, said City Clerk Deborah Irby. Also in the “done” category is the renovation of Veronica Askew’s home in the Magnolia Gardens community.

“The roof was gone, the plumbing was bad, the floors were bad, the kitchen cabinets were rotted out,” said Askew, who has owned the three-bedroom two-bath home since 1989.

“I’ll tell you how bad it was. I had hired a guy to fix the plumbing in my bathroom. He went up on the roof and fell through. I had been doing patch repairs here or there but I could not afford to do anything major,” said Askew, an office clerk with Miami Dade County Public Schools.

“Even though you have a job, by the time you pay [for] the bare necessities, it is difficult to spread the rest of the money around,” said the divorced mother of three.

Askew qualified for the Opa-locka Rehabilitation program through the CDC, said Tommie Frison, a housing specialist with the agency. Applicants must be city residents and the house for which they are seeking repairs must be their primary residence. Taxes and mortgage payments also must be up-to-date, Frison said.

Repairs costing $29,000 on Askew’s house lasted between 45 and 50 days, Frison said. Askew, whose children are grown, is taking care of her 82-year-old mother in her renovated home which has a new roof, cabinets, kitchen floors, plumbing and hurricane-resistant windows throughout. Originally, she qualified for a loan to make the repairs but, because she is a diabetic, she is considered disabled and the loan has been forgiven, Frison said.

Askew praises the assistance she received from the CDC and can’t say enough about the special attention she said Frison provided. Looking around her new surroundings, she proclaimed, “This is nothing but [the work of] God. Do you see how I am blessed?”

Photo: Willie Logan