Only now that it is crashing do we set eyes on the forgotten city of Opa-locka, whose claim to fame is the Arabian Nights theme of Moorish architecture and street names like Ali Baba and Sharazad.
Only now that a city commissioner facing corruption charges has committed suicide, and that the city’s chief financial officer — finally — reveals that Opa-locka can’t pay its bills, are we paying attention to this enclave founded by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and left to disintegrate into a culture of corruption.
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Miami-Dade’s throwaway city sits in the shadows of jet-setters who fly into the Opa-locka Executive Airport on private jets for fancy events like Art Basel, or simply to drive fast and furious around Party Paradise, as was infamously the case with teen sensation Justin Bieber.
The singer’s flight out of Opa-locka after his arrest was covered by live camera crews, but the city and its people are seldom the subject of attention in modern times.
Celebrities and moguls fly in and drive away in fancy limos, windows darkened to the city’s reality: 43 percent of its people live in poverty, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2014. They’re 66 percent African-American, and 35 percent Hispanic. It is, by numbers and size — less than five square miles — a hard-scrabble town of 16,640.
Listen to residents and hear profound hopelessness. How can residents not despair, when city leaders, even as they vow to clean up crime, can’t seem to stay away from criminal enterprise themselves?
In the city’s official history page, Mayor Myra L. Taylor gives herself credit for leading “crime prevention, cleaning up the city and maintaining financial stability.”
This official account of the state of the city goes on: “This drive has generated an increased sense of community, pride among Opa-locka residents and a major drop in crime.”
But the mayor and her husband, Bishop John Taylor, are at the center of a federal investigation into a $150,000 kickback scheme. And Taylor is the same mayor who in 2004 — when Opa-locka had the highest rate of violent crime for any city in the United States, according to FBI figures — was forced out of office on tax-fraud charges. Put on probation, she was reelected in 2010, even as her husband, The Bishop, as he’s known, was charged with illegal campaign activity and kicked out of his church.
Now, amid the far-reaching federal corruption probe, the city is millions in debt and likely facing a takeover by the state.
That Opa-locka City Commissioner Terence Pinder, facing charges stemming from an alleged bribe from a city contractor, chose to ram his car at 100 miles an hour against a tree at the airport seems no coincidence.
We only look when Opa-locka is crashing, like in the early 2000s, when people were being gunned down almost daily at The Triangle, a nine-block neighborhood literally barricaded into a zone marred by drugs and violence, and the city rose to national stature as the most violent in the country.
In a place no one cares enough about, the forces of darkness are free to do their best work. Mismanagement, bribery, a disheartened and disillusioned population, and a young politician who couldn’t break out of a cycle of corruption are the by-products of public neglect.
On that count, we’re all guilty to some extent.