Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Bullets, body count have left Liberty Square bereft of hope

Maybe the despair that has befallen Liberty Square can be quantified by the brutal number of shootings that have transformed the neighborhood into a killing zone.

We have a count: 43. The Miami Herald's Charles Rabin and David Smiley pored over the police reports and found that in the first seven months of this year, 43 people had been shot in the 13-block area around the decrepit public housing project in northwest Miami. Seven of those people died.

It’s a wretched number. But residents say that more than the body count rips at their sense of security. Random gunfire rends the night. The crack-crack-crack of semi-automatic firearms has become part of the soundscape in Liberty Square, reminding mothers living in the 753-unit housing project, or in the dismal, squat, yardless apartment buildings on nearby streets, that their children are in constant peril.

The tragedy of the place can be reckoned, too, by forlorn stacks of stuffed animals, deflated balloons and wilted flowers, so many of them along the curbs and sidewalks, impromptu memorials to mark where young victims were gunned down.

My longtime colleague Bea Hines, who retired from the Herald in 2001, offers a different metric to gauge the descent of her old neighborhood. Her count stops at one. One church. Her church. She said the Church of God Tabernacle, True Holiness, on NW 67th Street, has become the only one of a dozen or so churches in the vicinity of Liberty Square still daring to hold evening services. For the other churches, asking their members to venture into this neighborhood at night has been deemed too dangerous.

That the godly are not safe in Liberty Square became all the more apparent last month when Kenneth Johnson, 67, a well-known local pastor, was gunned down by robbers grappling for a fake gold chain around his neck. They left him to die in the parking lot of a 62nd Street store across the street from the housing project. The Rev. Johnson had preached at nearby Power, Faith and Deliverance Ministries, a storefront church with burglar bars over the windows. Churches in this neighborhood are no sanctuary from crime.

The last stubborn holdout still holding evening gatherings, the 90-year-old Rev. Walter H. Richardson, pastor of the Church of God Tabernacle, is hardly naive to the hard realities of the neighborhood. Bea said he closes his services by cautioning his congregation, “Go home now. Don't stand around the parking lot. You never know what might happen.”

It has been a long, depressing, downward devolution for Liberty Square, once such a prideful place. The first 247 units were built in 1936, the first federally financed public housing project in the southeast, conceived as alternative housing for the black residents living in the squalid, crowded, awful slums in Overtown, where 25,000 people were jammed into less than 400 acres. Not that altruism, in segregated Miami, was a motivating factor. Paul George, historian with the HistoryMiami museum, has written that the city’s white power structure approved the project for self-serving reasons. They were worried that their household servants commuting from the unsanitary inner-city slums would, in the words of one civic leader at the time, “bring into their homes the disease germs that flourish in the present Negro district.”

Liberty Square became a mighty upgrade over the rotting wooden shotgun shacks clustered on the edge of downtown Miami. (Of course, this being Miami, this was also about a lucrative land deal, pushed hard behind the scenes by a powerful local white landowner who wanted the federal government to buy his property in northwest Miami for the project.)

Bea Hines remembers how when she was a child living in Overtown, she and other children would ride the No. 21 city bus to play in the Liberty Square playground. It was such a popular destination, she said, “We’d stand in line for the swings.” Bea was 13 when she moved with her mother and brother from Overtown to an apartment in Liberty Square. In 1951, she said, Liberty Square was simply the best available housing for a black family in Miami. “We were so happy when we were accepted.”

Her mother, Bea said, “kept the apartment like something out of Better Homes and Gardens. Everyone did.” She said residents kept the grounds beautiful.

And it was safe. “We didn’t lock the door. That was unheard of. We kept the big door open with just the screen door shut. My brother and I would sleep by the door to catch the cool night air.”

Somehow, the place that once offered Miami’s black residents reprieve from the slums has become the most dangerous address in South Florida. “I never, never thought I’d live to see this,” Bea said.

She lived near her church and Liberty Square until 1970, when she moved her family away, worried that drug dealers were taking over the neighborhood. Over the years, other working-class folks who once made up the majority of residents in the housing project fled the area, replaced by households headed by very poor, unemployed single mothers. Liberty Square became a different place. With a different ethos.

In 1980, when the McDuffie rioting engulfed Miami’s black neighborhoods, six white people were dragged out of their cars and murdered near Liberty Square. Lately, the area has been beset with an internecine brand of violence. Mostly local young men (often with fearsome weaponry) killing other local young men — and anyone else who gets in their way.

In 2011, four people were shot in this area (for our purposes, the 13 blocks bordered by Northwest 60th and 70th streets; 12th and 15th Avenues). In 2012, 11 were shot. Another 11 last year. But there’s never been a year as awful as 2014: 43 shot in just the first seven months.

People around Liberty Square have been targeted by gangbangers. They’ve become collateral damage, hapless bystanders, when shooters spray a street corner with military assault weapons. They’ve been shot during robbery attempts. They’ve been hit by the random gunfire that has become so common in Liberty Square.

Even as the violence escalated over the years, Bea has refused to abandon the church she has attended since she was a young woman. “But we knew that the things were getting bad when, during a service, a stray bullet hit a metal awning over the church window.”

Liberty Square has become so crime-ridden, so dangerous, so dismal, so far removed from that place she remembers, that it seems beyond fixing. Constant violence has left the old project bereft of hope. Whatever Liberty Square’s historical value, it’s just not worth the body count. It’s past time for this violent, dangerous place. Tear it down.