At long last, the lights illuminating the basketball courts at Charles Drew K-8 Center in Liberty City have been repaired and kids are playing summertime hoops.
“It was a slow, frustrating process, but the lights are working, the kids are having fun and they feel safe outside,” said Angel Johnson, who works in the neighborhood as community space manager for the Miami Children’s Initiative.
The lights had been off for more than a year, as have lights around the Annie Coleman public housing complex, exacerbating crime at night and forcing residents to retreat inside their homes once the sun goes down.
Requests to fix the lights met with little response, but a recent Miami Herald story on the problem sparked a wave of outrage from concerned citizens. After a series of emails and phone calls, the Miami-Dade Public Schools maintenance department installed new fixtures and LED lights.
Rafael Saldaña Jr., Andrew Kemp-Gerstel and Monique Hayes are graduates of the Miami Foundation’s Miami Fellows civic leadership and engagement program and took it upon themselves to cut through red tape and bring light to the courts.
“They worked briefly in January but then nobody was paying the electric bills so they went out again,” said Saldaña, partner at the Oak Tree Investments real estate firm in Miami. “There was a lot of back and forth about whether it was a school property, city property or county park, so we had to track down the right people who would take responsibility. Our public schools are underfunded, but these are the neighborhoods that need the most TLC. We appreciate that the school board got it done.”
Saldaña credited Carl Nicoleau and John Whitehead from Miami-Dade Public Schools maintenance and facilities operations for supervising the repairs.
“The Brickell Avenue area is well lit every night and if a light went out it would not be out for long,” said Kemp-Gerstel, attorney and shareholder at Liebler Gonzalez Portuondo. “I think the emails contained a ‘shame on you’ element that pushed it forward.”
For Hayes, who has relatives and friends in Liberty City, “this was personal.”
“Why is there such a disparity in government responsiveness in our communities? Why are the voices coming from downtown and Brickell perceived as stronger than the voices from Liberty City?” said Hayes, a Miami attorney who sent emails with the heading ‘Please turn on the lights for our children.’ “Everyone wants to pass the buck, and nothing was accomplished until people from outside the neighborhood stepped in. It was disheartening to me that we even had to get involved.”
The lights in the housing complex remain broken, including those that would light the memorial garden and gazebo residents created to honor the victim of a shooting. Unable to get the lights repaired, residents resorted to applying for a grant from the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge in order to promote recreation, neighborly interaction and safety in the area.
“They are basically asking for a gift when they have a right to those lights, as part of the municipal infrastructure that should be maintained,” Hayes said. “Because they’ve been ignored, the garden is dark, literally and metaphorically.”
Kemp-Gerstel, Saldaña and Hayes said the next stage is to find out who can fix the lights that illuminate the courtyards, sidewalks and playground.
“The memorial exists because someone got killed,” Kemp-Gerstel said. “It is unacceptable that it is still draped in darkness.”