A TALE OF TWO STARKLY DIFFERENT COMMUNITIES -- ONE OPULENT AND THE OTHER, NOT FAR DOWN THE ROAD, TRAPPED IN POVERTY
Date: Sunday, March 4, 2007
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B
Byline: HOWARD GOODMAN COMMENTARY
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."
Keeping up the conceit
The beach is white. The sea is aqua. The lifeguard stands are covered in clean canvas. The town is quiet and lazy and litter-free. The signs on the buildings bear all the names of Wall Street.
They're here to serve 10,000 residents (30,000 in season), where 87 percent have a net worth of $3.8 million or more, according to James Jenning Sheeran, publisher and editor of Palm Beach Society magazine.
"It's still a small town," says Deborah Pollack, an art-gallery owner who's lived in Palm Beach 25 years. A small town, that is, with a rarefied awareness of status and distinction. "It's not like in the '50s, when the clubs controlled your social life and there was a definite `in' and `out' crowd," Pollack says. "Now it's what you can give to people that impresses people. It's very important that you give to organizations."
An official duty of the Town Clerk's Office is to keep track of money raised at charity events held in the local mansions and ballrooms: more than $40 million in 2005.
Every urban touch is beautiful. The shrubbery, impeccable. The City Hall looks like a castle from a Moorish fairy tale.
On famed Worth Avenue the names spring from ad pages in Vogue: Saks Fifth Avenue, Nieman Marcus, Pucci, Lacoste, Tourneau, Dior, Chanel, Armani, Polo Ralph Lauren.
The restaurants run high-end and higher. But no chains, heaven forbid. Even Starbucks met with old-guard resistance when it opened last summer. Addison Mizner, the grandiose architect himself, built an exclusive bastion here called the Everglades Club. The Everglades Barber Shop keeps up the conceit.
As if any of this luxury bears resemblance to the actual, steamy Everglades.
Perfect place for prisons
Forty miles west, deep in those Everglades long ago drained for agriculture, the horizon is a perfect flatness, cane fields meeting the arching sky.
A branch courthouse announces the outskirts of Belle Glade. Empty and hill-less, this is a perfect place for a prison. More than one, actually. The West County Jail, the state Glades Correctional Institution, the state Glades Work Camp make up their own little penal suburb.
In the town proper, buildings look hurricane-stricken. Or poverty-worn. It's hard to tell the difference.
The most substantial downtown edifice is a Walgreens. It's flanked by vacant or boarded or bare-bones storefronts:
"Jackie's Market. We Take Food Stamps."
"Walker Bail Bonds ("Let Us Set You Free")."
The traditional shopping street, West Avenue A, looks like one of those crumbling urban wastelands up North that never recovered from a steel plant shutdown.
The only visible commercial life is a strip dominated by McDonald's and KFC. One of the only non-chain restaurants is the Black Gold Steak House. It's got pictures of tractors on the wall and a John Deere Burger (cheddar and bacon) on the menu.
A hefty rib-eye steak with fries costs just $6.99. "A lot of people complain it's expensive," says Nicole Miller, a waitress. "I tell 'em, try to find that on the coast."
Contrary to first impressions, there is a middle-class Belle Glade -- houses with all the shingles in place and the lawn well-kept.
"It's a wonderful small town," says Brandi Schoenfeld, in a curious echo of Palm Beach. "I wouldn't dream of living anywhere else."
At 32, she has lived in Belle Glade all her life. Married the boy across the street, a roofer.
They're raising three kids, 4 to 9, just one street over from the houses where they grew up.
Everyone knows everyone, but this isn't Opie's Mayberry. "I have to lock up my doors," Schoenfeld says. She keeps her power tools in the dining room, lest they be lifted from her back yard. "Someone stole my water hose once," she says.
Schoenfeld's dad, Michael Miller, was police chief, until he retired in 2004 -- after 32 years in the department -- during one of Belle Glade's endless political conflicts involving race. Miller is white. Belle Glade is 58 percent black.
Good feelings here tend to revolve around championship high school football. Bad ones, around race.
Census figures for 2000 draw a stark picture of inequality. Unemployment for blacks runs 15 percent in Belle Glade, compared with 2 percent rate for whites. Income for blacks averages $8,733 a year, compared with $21,211 for whites.
This town is part farm crossroads, part rural ghetto.
And with an increase in mechanization -- meaning less need for labor -- the ghetto part is becoming more entrenched. In the southwest section of town, apartment buildings are abandoned with grates on the windows -- falling apart and not getting fixed.
These apartments were once boarding houses for migrant workers. Now the surviving businesses tend to be bars and convenience stores with crooked lettering. People are always out on the street: sitting, drinking, playing dominoes, leaning on the wall.
This is what a city looks like when 33 percent of residents live under the poverty line, according to the 2000 census. Forty-four percent, if you're just looking at the black population.
Richer and richer
If anything, the gap is widening.
In 1991, the average adjusted gross income in Palm Beach was nine times higher than in Belle Glade, according to federal tax return data. By 2001, Palm Beach incomes had grown to 15 times those in Belle Glade.
This is how it's going in America, the super-rich growing richer still.
The average incomes of the top 1 percent of American households jumped almost 17 percent between 2003 and 2004, according to census data studied by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.
The average incomes of the other 99 percent, meantime, grew by less than 3 percent.
Poverty, meantime, is on the rise.
Between 2004 and 2005, the poverty rate rose in Palm Beach and Broward Counties from 10.3 percent to 11.1 percent, the Census Bureau said. Almost 12,000 more people in Palm Beach County were living in poverty from the year before.
When Belle Glade officials talk about economic development, they point proudly to a new clean-water plant, a decent hospital. Projects that will bring basic needs up to modern standards.
In Palm Beach, meanwhile, the town would like to bury all the power lines. It's not clear how many millions this would cost, Town Manager Peter Elwell said. But after repeated hurricanes and outages, "there's tremendous support for it."
Police well funded
Officer Joseph Guelli, 43, a heavily muscled 6-footer, started out as a cop in Belle Glade before joining the Palm Beach force.
In Belle Glade it was "call after call, nonstop," he says. Domestic battery, rape, murder. He remembers one killing that occurred because one guy took another guy's seat while they were watching a championship fight on TV.
Guelli's Palm Beach squad car comes equipped with a laptop computer with wi-fi to make instant license-plate checks, a video camera to record traffic stops, two radar guns, a night-vision scope and a GPS device so the dispatcher always knows where the car is.
The Police Department is as well endowed as a trust-fund baby. The public safety budget was $27 million in 2005. A town can work wonders when it can collect tax on properties assessed at $9 billion.
Seventy-eight sworn officers wear the Palm Beach badge -- far more than usual for a town this size. Almost all college-educated, they're the best paid in the county.
With so much wealth, Palm Beach is a "target rich" environment, says Chief Michael Reiter. The biggest crime is high-end residential burglary. Detectives assiduously track down stolen goods.
The success rate is such, he says, that residents almost take it for granted. "We have people tell us, `We have to go to a party on Friday, will we get our jewelry back by then?'" he said.
Every call is supposed to be answered within 31/2 minutes. Every case gets assigned a detective. Compare that to big cities where a stolen car doesn't even get a raised eyebrow.
The police are trained to be tactful and polite. Even to shake hands with citizens, usually a cop taboo.
The public is supportive. People wave when they see the police. They bring out drinks when an officer is directing traffic.
For several hours, Guelli's shift is uneventful. Then, an adrenaline kick.
Guelli sees an oncoming car doing 65 in a 35-mph zone on South Ocean Boulevard, does a U-turn and speeds after him. He catches him, pulls him over.
It's the most beautiful spot in the world for a traffic stop. The ocean is just beyond a wall on the right-hand side. Across the road is a $16 million mansion.
Guelli is polite and professional. "You were 30 miles over the speed limit," he tells the guy.
"There's not much I can do."
The guy accepts the ticket. It's $308. And he says thanks.
Strapped for resources
People don't exactly wave when they see the police coming in Belle Glade. One guy, standing on a corner by himself, says his name is Henry Gaines. He's 30 but looks older, with a mouth of gold-capped teeth. He's wearing a cap reading "Muck City," Belle Glade's self-deprecating nickname.
He's in front of a sad-looking storefront in an old section of town. Lots of idle men are hanging around the sidewalks, doing not much. Police in pairs patrol the sidewalk.
"All they do is walk around here and tell you, `You got to go home,'" Gaines says. He sounds resentful that the cops make a general presumption of criminality among the citizenry. Hurting his own argument, Gaines then says he just got out of jail: 10 months for marijuana possession.
Two police officers walk by. Gaines pretends not to see them.
Belle Glade's police force, strapped for resources with only about 30 officers, could barely keep up with live calls, let alone solve lingering cases. It has since been replaced by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.
Judge Nelson Bailey's docket listed more than 2,400 felonies and misdemeanors in 2005. Comes with the territory, Bailey says: "Crime always goes with poverty."
Many incidents involve violence, he said -- a lot of it outside bars on a Friday or Saturday night.
"Compared to the rest of Palm Beach County, this is a Third World country," Bailey says. "That's not a metaphor. That's a fact."
Sun-Sentinel photos: Scott Fisher