Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Politics comes to the nudist colony

The assignment: Cover a political debate at a nudist camp. The challenge: To keep my juvenile sense of humor in check.

Date: Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

It is great to watch the body politic put democracy in action, but maybe not so much when the body isn't wearing clothes.

That was plain to see at last week's candidate forum at the Sunsport Gardens Family Naturist Resort in Loxahatchee Groves.

The hopefuls for the Groves' first Town Council were fully dressed, mind you.

But moderator and the nudist camp's owner Morley Schloss wore only a pale beaded necklace.

And about a dozen men and women in the audience of about 100 also were clad only in the skin God gave them, plus some more picked up at the dessert table. A dozen other folk were in sarong or towel -- feeling overdressed, I imagined.

It was an unlikely meeting of potbellies and pothole politics. Private parts and public policy. News people and nude people.

Although photographers, including some from national publications, snapped away, business was conducted as if it were nothing to take questions from people dressed in nothing.

If anyone felt weird that a naked woman was signaling "time's up" when candidates rambled too long about traffic noise, police response times or unused sewer capacity, no one showed it.

"Not here in the Groves," said Bill Louda, a candidate for Seat 2.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Separate, unequal

The first idea behind this story was to profile life on Route 80, the east-west highway that connects Palm Beach County's very weathiest community to its poorest, with various degrees of urban and rural middle-class in between. The subject proved too unwieldy, so I dropped the road and kept the two extremes.


Date: Sunday, March 4, 2007
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

They're united by one road. Two towns connected by 40 miles of highway -- and separated by just about everything else.

The road, known as Southern Boulevard, State Road 80 and other names, bisects Palm Beach County from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Okeechobee; it crosses a Middle America of strip malls, box stores and burgeoning suburbia.

But at the two ends, you find the extraordinary -- two communities whose differences in wealth and status couldn't be starker.

At the ocean end, an international emblem of affluence, a place where the Gilded Age never ended. Palm Beach, described in a best-selling tell-all called The Season as "a sliver of land known throughout the world as the most wealthy, glamorous, opulent, decadent, extravagant, self-indulgent, sinful spot on Earth."

At the western reach, a poverty-haunted town immortalized by Edward R. Murrow's 1963 CBS News indictment of migrant living conditions, Harvest of Shame. Belle Glade, described in Vanity Fair in 2003 as "the saddest place in America."

The Rev. John Mericantante makes this drive at least once week. He's the resident priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Pahokee, a few miles northeast of Belle Glade and at least equally poor. His family, originally from Boston, owns an apartment in Palm Beach, and he visits every Monday to check on things.

In an hour and half, he goes from "a swimming pool and basking in the sun" to his church near Lake O. and his mostly Mexican congregants -- people "looking for a room to live in, food to eat."

"You start at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago and you end up here," he says.

"It's like going from Technicolor," he says, "to old black and white."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Things go slow

Henry Flagler would have put this plan on the fast track
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

We need Henry Flagler back.
In his day, when an industrial magnate could be king of all he surveyed, things got done in the state of Florida.
Once the right-hand man of John D. Rockefeller, Flagler moved here in the 1880s and basically built the town of St. Augustine.
Bringing civilization to the hinterlands of Florida gave Flagler a second career and a new self-image. No longer a grasping oil baron, he was now a far-seeing railroad man, conqueror of wilderness, futurist.
Heading where it was even warmer. So, he extended his railroad 200 miles south, where he envisioned virgin land becoming the luxury resort of Palm Beach and a commercial adjunct, West Palm Beach.
When his tracks reached the shores of Lake Worth, he built big hotels for the Social Register's "400" and the Palm Beach mansion for himself that's now the Flagler Museum.
When a frost hit West Palm, Flagler was persuaded to take his rail line even farther south -- to the sweltering little frontier outpost of Miami.
When he got to Biscayne Bay, he built an electric plant, water works, sewage system, churches and a golf course.
The grateful citizenry wanted to rename the town in his honor.
But he begged off, and that's why the Miami Dolphins are not the Flagler Dolphins.
Extraordinary stuff.
And what's truly astounding is how quickly Flagler did it all.
It took, for example, just two years to build that rail line from Fort Pierce to Miami.
Flagler's train line reached Fort Pierce on Jan. 29, 1894. Even with a three-month hiatus, it hit Miami by April 1896.
Now Flagler's old line, the Florida East Coast Railway, is being seriously considered for passenger travel in metro South Florida, population 5 million and counting.
This is a wonderful idea. You could board in downtown West Palm and hop off in the middle of Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami or any number of increasingly urbanized spots along Dixie Highway.
It would be a great alternative to traffic jams and a better bet than Tri-Rail, where most stops don't leave you within walking distance of anywhere.
But even the most optimistic rail buffs don't see passenger trains rolling on those FEC lines until, ahem, 2015.
That's eight years from now. Four times as long as it took Henry Flagler to build the thing in the first place.
It will take that long because the FEC's owners say they might share their tracks with passenger trains,
but only if their freight cars get priority. That means adding two or three more tracks, an expensive proposition. To get the federal money we'd need, South Florida as a region would have to apply for competitive grants, first proving we can pay our half of capital costs. Which means a new local tax.
We're talking environmental studies, local land-use decisions, and on and on.
Flagler didn't have to deal with red tape. Of course, in the 1890s he didn't have to treat workers humanely or worry about the manatee.
The state was happy to see the rich guy take control of a project and go at it.
"To build infrastructure in the state, there was no tax base. So he was a hero. They couldn't do enough for him," says Les Standiford, author of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean.
Just look at the way we've complicated our world.
The Empire State Building? It took a little more than year to build it in 1930-31, the depth of the Depression.
The Pentagon? It took 16 months during World War II.
Florida's Turnpike? Just two years to build the 110 miles from Fort Pierce to Miami.
Now, it can take two years to redo an interchange.
In an age when everything from communications to courtship is faster than in our grandparents' day, it seems that getting big things done takes longer and longer.
What's missing, maybe, is the will.
I'll bet if Flagler were still around, he'd find a way to get this baby finished.
"I guarantee, if he thought there was a dollar in putting passengers on that line, I doubt very much it would ake him until 2015 to get it done," Standiford says.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Keystone Kops? Not.

It's not easy to admit error. So I thought it was important to salute the police said they had the wrong men.

Boynton police acted properly in the deadly mall shooting case
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

A lot of people probably think the Keystone Kops are alive and well in Boynton Beach.
The town's police do seem prone to pratfalls:
Two men are arrested in the shooting death of a suspected gang member at the Boynton Beach Mall crowded with last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve. It's one of the most public murders in recent memory.
After a couple of days they release one of the men, a purported accomplice, saying he had no hand in the killing of Berno Charlemond, 24, though he was involved in a fight with him moments before the fatal shots were fired.
And on Wednesday, they release the second man, the supposed shooter, saying they no longer believe he pulled the trigger.
Investigators were spending the rest of the week looking for a third man. The new prime suspect.
Yes, it would be easy to poke fun at the cops.
But I'm not going to do it.
Instead, I give them credit. They've gone to the trouble of making sure they've got the right guys -- even at the risk of embarrassment by owning up to a flub.
As a reporter in Philadelphia in the 1990s, I saw more than one case in which men were serving long prison terms on convictions that looked plenty dubious, if not flat-out wrong, with the benefit of 10 or 20 years' hindsight.
When you pieced the facts together, you'd see that detectives apparently had latched onto a suspect early in their investigation, and then cherry-picked evidence and coerced witnesses to prove their early pick was right.
That's not happening here. And while it's frustrating to watch suspected gang members sprung back to the streets, it's good to see that the Boynton police are more interested in seeking out and charging the guilty, rather than just clearing the case.
The Boynton police aren't giving out many details about their change of mind. But I'm guessing it wasn't made lightly.
After all, a probable-cause affidavit written the day after the shooting, presents a pretty persuasive scenario for arresting 21-year-old Jesse Cesar on a charge of first-degree murder.
It mentions an unnamed "off-duty firefighter who pointed out the defendant as being an active shooter" and who "has given a sworn taped statement and chosen Cesar out of a six-person photo lineup."
"Several other officers," the affidavit states, "have given sworn taped statements that Cesar was seen firing a firearm in there [sic] immediate direction with knowledge that police were on the scene."
Sounds pretty tight.
But if we've learned anything from countless re-runs of Law & Order, or from the Japanese film masterpiece Rashomon, it's that different witnesses or participants will recount vastly different versions of the same event. What we think of as shared reality can be a splintered thing.
According to Boynton police spokeswoman Suzanne Gitto, the ongoing investigation brought up new facts. She wouldn't say what those were. But they must have soundly contradicted the initial reports.
Once the lead investigator, Chris Crawford, realized that the facts no longer supported the grounds for Cesar's arrest, he had an ethical and legal obligation to reveal that to the court.
Michael Edmondson, spokesman for State Attorney Barry Krischer, said this kind of reconsideration goes on all the time in law enforcement. But it's usually behind the scenes. The highly public nature of the mall shooting made the process visible this time, he said.
"We surely are not surprised by the outcome," he said. "Quite often we see this in the development of a case."
It does seem awry that a suspect in a high-profile shooting is either held for murder or let go, with no apparent middle ground. That's why it's good to see that, at Sheriff Ric Bradshaw's invitation, the feds are joining the local fight against gang activity. With anti-racketeering statutes, more secrecy in investigations and better guarantees for protecting witnesses under the federal system, there's a far better chance of nailing bad guys around general circumstances involving murder, drugs and use of guns.
The Boynton police might look like they're fumbling. But they're trying to get the right result. That's more important than worrying about how smooth they look.