The old men who play at Domino Park still call him e l jefe — the boss. Business owners along Calle Ocho still ask him for advice to solve conflicts with their neighbors. And residents keep calling with complaints at the same number he has no plans to change.
Pablo Cantón, the face and voice of the city of Miami in Little Havana for two decades, said that he misses his old job as an administrator of city’s Neighborhood Enhancement Team. But, he assured, he’ll remain active as a volunteer in the neighborhood that welcomed his family when they came from Cuba in 1961.
In an interview with El Nuevo Herald, Cantón, 67, reflected on his experiences, his crime fighting days and his love for roosters.
El Nuevo Herald: You began working for the city in 1987 as assistant director of Community Development before running the Code Enforcement team. How did you come to head the NET office in Little Havana?
Cantón: I like to be where there’s trouble. That’s why I chose Little Havana.
When NET started in 1993, I was told that the office in Little Havana was going to be located in the police department’s South District station. So I would be working in the same building as my friends, the police officers. That convinced me, because it was the closest I could get to being a police officer.
ENH: What were the problems in the neighborhood at that time?
Cantón: It was a disaster, especially at night — criminals, drugs and a lot of homeless people. We helped everyone we could, but many were chronically homeless. They were a priority for NET, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because of economic development. They are terrible for business.
ENH: How did you deal with crime?
Cantón: I went out at night to verify complaints from neighbors who’d say there were drug dealers at such-and-such corner at 2 or 3 in the morning. Some patrol officers thought that their job was to respond to calls and that they didn’t have to be proactive. So, when I drove up and down the streets in the early hours of the morning and when I’d see the drug dealers, I called the police to report them myself. Then they had to respond. After doing that several times, officers would ask the operator who had filed the report. They knew when the calls came that they were from Pablo Cantón.
ENH: On plenty of occasions, worked directly with the police, especially with officers José de Hombre and Freddy D’Agostino. Tell me about the most interesting experiences you had together in Little Havana.
Cantón: They used rental cars for undercover narcotics operations. But you could tell right away that they were cops, because the cars were always new and had tinted windows. Then I told them that they needed a car that could blend in with Little Havana. The owners of Molina Towing donated us an old junker car that barley worked and that was the one we used.
One day we were at Southwest Third Street and Sixth Avenue, close to Riverside Park, and there was a suspicious group of kids — long, disheveled hair; pants hanging down to their feet — who looked like criminals.
We got out of the car, and the officers told them to stand against the fence with their hands up. Because I was not a police officer, I stayed to one side, just watching. But then the police officers get in the car and take off, leaving me with all those kids. When the kids see that there are no cops and I am alone, they put their hands down and start badmouthing the police, using foul language. I didn’t know what to do so I told them I was also picked up about four blocks from there and then began badmouthing the cops, too.