Published: June 24, 2007Liberty City
Smoke rising over Miami-Dade County on May 18, 1980, only hints at the ferocity of the riot that followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating death of a black man, Arthur McDuffie. (Miami Herald file)
Attempts at recovery from 1980 riot fizzle
The riot 27 years ago left 18 people dead and Liberty City severely wounded. Millions were spent on revitalization, with little to show for it.

Knickerbocker Meats, Britt Metal Processing, Standard Mattress, B&J Auto Parts, Miami Cordage Co., Bohnert Sheet Metal. All were businesses that once thrived on the site of what would later become the Poinciana Industrial Park.

Today, only Bohnert remains. The rest are casualties of the most violent race riot in Florida's history.

On May 17, 1980, an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted four white Miami-Dade County police officers charged with beating an unarmed black man to death.

When the news reached Miami, the slow boil of rage triggered by the untimely death of 33-year-old Arthur McDuffie grew into a full-fledged riot in the streets of Liberty City.

The violence lasted four days, left 18 people dead, sparked more than 200 fires and cost upwards of $267‚million in property damage, when adjusted for inflation.

îîIt was Miami's worst moment,'' said Marvin Dunn, a former psychology professor at Florida International University, who has written extensively about the riot. îîIt didn't just damage Miami physically. It damaged its reputation … and its confidence.''

During the next three decades, the county spent millions of dollars attempting to revitalize the area, with little success. The Poinciana Biopharmaceutical Park is the latest in a long history of projects that made elaborate promises but failed to deliver.


In 1982, the County Commission approved a plan to develop a 90-acre industrial park bounded by Northwest 79th Street, the Florida East Coast Railway andû Northwest 22nd and 27th avenues.

Among the largest economic development projects in Miami-Dade's history, the park received an initial investment of $7‚million from the county to attract dozens of businesses and create more than 1,000 jobs.

îîThe revitalization of the Poinciana Industrial Center, so large a parcel in the heart of Liberty City, could make a tremendous impact on the area,'' a 1987 Miami Herald editorial proclaimed.

But more than a decade later, the park had eaten up $16.5‚million in poverty money while attracting just two businesses to the area.

One was a recycling plant, dubbed the worst-run recycling operation in Miami-Dade by county inspectors. It later closed. The other was Leasa Industries, a tofu manufacturing plant that has received more than $5‚million in county subsidies since it moved to the park.

The park became the focus of a 1994 audit by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that found widespread mismanagement.


As the riot faded into memory, large swaths of Miami flourished amid a booming real estate market and vibrant tourist industry. But Liberty City failed to keep pace, with nearly half of its residents living below the poverty line.

Those trends created an income disparity so severe that Miami is counted among the three poorest big cities in the country even as dozens of cranes erect luxury high-rise condos for the wealthy super-rich along Biscayne Bay.

The neighborhood around Poinciana has grown poorer since the riot, relative to the rest of the county. While the average household incomes in the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County have grown 22‚percent and 31‚percent, respectively, since 1980, incomes in the area around Poinciana have increased just 7‚percent.

Despite millions in public money going toward economic development, it remains difficult for those living in the shadows of Miami's immense wealth to find living-wage jobs, affordable homes and a modicum of financial security.

îîAfter 1980, a lot of commitments were made by people in public office,'' Dunn said. îîI can't think of a single person from the area who has benefited since then.''

Miami Herald staff writers Rob Barry and Tim Henderson contributed to this report.