When Steve Losner’s great-grandparents emigrated from Hungary to start a new life in America , they came to Florida, hoping to be pioneers.
Max Losner, then 17 years old, sold neckties in New York to earn enough money to marry his wife, Lizzie, and bring her stateside. A week after they were married he brought his new bride to Tampa because she had family there. And then, when Losner decided he wanted to open his own business, he thought it was best to make the move to South Florida, which seemed to offer limitless opportunity.
Max flipped a coin: Heads, they move to Fort Lauderdale; tails, to Homestead.
Nearly 90 years after that fateful coin toss, the Losner family is still here. And like his great-grandparents, Steve Losner still sees opportunity in the region many still consider remote — from Miami-Dade, that is — and where people still appreciate the city’s rich history.
The family is joining others who, particularly this centennial year, are acknowledging all the obstacles that still are ahead for the city while honoring its ability to overcome adversity. To that end, there have been a dozen or so celebratory events, including parades, an essay contest and a play written about the city’s history. Looking ahead, there will be an Oct. 5 book fair and a closing reception on Dec. 7.
“This place is historic,” Losner said. “It’s a sense of connection.”
When the Losners arrived in Homestead in the 1920s, the town was an outpost; railroad service was so limited that ox-pulled sleds were needed to move goods through the Everglades and Tamiami Trail.
But that didn’t stop the family from establishing the 1st National Bank of Homestead in 1932 — which still runs today — and to become active in civic affairs; Steve is a former council member who has unsuccessfully run for mayor twice. He and others in Homestead are proud not only of the challenges Miami-Dade’s second-oldest city has overcome.
Today, the 15-square-mile city of 63,000 is burgeoning: The only U.S. city nestled between two national parks, it is also home to such landmark attractions as the Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Schnebly winery and the Homestead Air Reserve Base.
And over the years, its population has become predominantly Hispanic — 63 percent as of 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Maria Garza, who works for many organizations that serve migrant workers in the area, said the first Hispanic influx arrived in Homestead in the mid-1940s, composed mostly of Mexican farmworkers who were looking for a new life in America.
Often, she said, immigrants’ inability to speak English blocked their job opportunities. “The deficit was language,” she said. As a result, she has seen even teachers, engineers, nurses and other educated people from Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador as well as Mexico and other Latin countries start their new lives by working on farms.
With time, the new arrivals opened businesses that laid the foundation for the strong Hispanic presence in the city’s business community.
“They are an economic force to be reckoned with in Homestead,” Garza said of the Hispanic community.
Garza said that with the Centennial, she has begun to reflect on the role of Hispanics in the city.
“Today more than ever, we have completely integrated,” she said.
Homestead’s history is full of challenges that have been followed by periods of recovery. Among the first big obstacles: The streets and canals of downtown Homestead were flooded by a hurricane on Sept. 28, 1929. The hurricane, which damaged several businesses, had winds of up to 125 miles per hour. People rowed boats to get to the Homestead grammar school, which was used as a shelter.
But only a few years after the 1929 hurricane, the area’s nascent aviation industry was taking off. Sightseeing planes headed to the Everglades used runways on a field west of Sixth Avenue on Kings Highway, which was to officially become Homestead Municipal Airport in 1935. (It closed in 1952.) During the farming season, the airport was used by crop-dusting planes.
The city has always had a strong history of aeronautical business, mostly out of the South Dade County Airport. In 1942, the airport became the Homestead Army Airfield. The airfield served during World War II until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1945.
Yet the stormiest example of Homestead’s past can be seen in 1992.
Even with a century of history, the people of Homestead only measure time by two metrics — before or after Hurricane Andrew. When residents talk about Andrew, the Category 5 hurricane that decimated Homestead, they gaze off as if to look into the past the same way veterans look when they reminisce about wartime. And if you want to be considered a bona fide Homesteader, you had to have been there for the storm.
Ruth Campbell, who moved to Homestead in 1942, is certainly one of these. After Andrew, Campbell remembers having to leave herself a trail of pebbles whenever she left the house so she wouldn’t get lost.
“Hurricane Andrew came, we didn’t invite him,” she recalls.
Campbell, who married into one of the area’s pioneer families, now works at one of the city’s two museums. She has long been a spectator to the city’s adventures and misadventures.
The fallout from the storm long affected the city’s businesses as well as its psyche, she recalls.
For instance, she remembers, when two brother-managers from Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians were looking to come to Homestead for spring training, the city was thrilled and built the Homestead Sports Complex to accommodate them. After the city was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew, one of the brothers died and the other decided not to play ball with Homestead, but instead move the team’s spring training to Winter Haven.
“It was a darned shame. We could have used the notoriety,” Campbell said.
About a year after Andrew, the widow of the Indians manager felt so bad that her brother-in-law had left the city in the dust she wrote the city a check for $1 million. The money was used to construct Harris Field Park, which showcases football fields, a YMCA and a pavilion for rental.
More recently, the town has been coping with other problems.
In the past few years, for instance, the area was hard-hit by the nation’s foreclosure crisis, with some of the highest default rates in the country.
Housing prices are relatively low compared to those in the rest of the county — making it attractive for young families. Increasingly, however, many people work outside city limits. That means fewer people have ties to the community, note long-timers.
“The majority of new voters aren’t as knowledgeable with the business and political connections within the city,” Losner said.
Over the past few years, Homestead also has seen its share of outrageous scandals: a mayor who has used his office to turn a profit, a ballpark that had 17 children from a visiting Venezuelan baseball team living in it and a city manager who had to leave office under allegations of political favoritism.
But there are many working to improve the quality of life in Homestead. Among them is Janis Klein-Young, chairwoman of the board of directors for ArtSouth.
A full-service art center on 3.5 acres in downtown Homestead, ArtSouth rents space to local artists who, in turn, teach art to at-risk youth. At the center, kids can learn visual arts, music, theater and dance.
“South Dade is culturally abandoned,” said Klein-Young. Before ArtSouth, she said, the closest arts center for children was the South Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. The 13-year-old nonprofit organization, founded by Ellie Schneiderman and Stanley Levine, is run with county and state grants.
Klein-Young has taught art for 40 years and now teaches artists how to teach art to children.
“It’s a labor of love that I have to do for this community and these children,” she said.
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