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City Limits

‘They Leave Teddy Bears on the Corners of Streets Where Someone Was Shot, and They’re Everywhere in Liberty City’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: A turbulent Miami neighborhood where pushers sell guns and illegal concealed carry licenses at swap meets.

One September night last year, a hail of bullets descended on a crowd of children and teenagers at an underage nightclub in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. Fifteen people were shot; the youngest victim was 11. The suspects in the shooting were 16 and 17.

“They all grow up good kids,” Eric Thompson, a housing activist in the neighborhood, told Miami New Times on the eight-month anniversary of the attack. “It’s just something went wrong.”

Liberty City, a six-square-mile zone dotted with blighted, sun-bleached buildings, patchy lawns, and row after row of low-slung housing units, is no stranger to bullet sprays from high-powered weapons. Separated from swanky South Beach by two bridges that span the Port of Miami, the area is overwhelmingly black. The median household income of its 51,000 residents lags $8,000 behind the rest of the city. Hometown rapper Luther Campbell has likened the neighborhood to Iraq.

While the area has been plagued by gun violence since the 1980s, residents tell The Trace that shootings have ramped up considerably in the last decade, particularly among young teenagers. Since May, students at Miami Northwestern High School — known for producing 15 NFL players — have lost three of their classmates to gun violence. Within the 2-mile radius around the neighborhood’s infamous Liberty Square housing complex, there have been 47 shootings during the past six months, according to the Miami Police Department.

Liberty Square is in many ways the heart of Liberty City. The facility was the first public housing project for blacks in the Southeast, constructed with New Deal funds in 1937. The 753-unit complex, now nicknamed “Pork ‘n’ Beans”, was at the time one of the few in the country with indoor plumbing and electricity. It was also walled off from Miami’s adjacent white neighborhoods along 12th Avenue; residents needed permission to pass in and out. Though most of the wall was demolished during the 1950s, remnants are still visible today.

Despite the segregation, the neighborhood became a middle class haven for Miami’s blacks. But in the 1960s, the construction of Interstate 95 cut straight through the neighboring community of Overtown, sending its low-income residents into Liberty City — and affluent black residents to North Miami. The resulting population was beset by economic inequality and racial tension as an influx of Cuban refugees who were accused of “stealing” black residents’ jobs. This resentment came to a head in 1968, when the Republican National Convention came to town just in time for a race riot, prompting President Richard Nixon to announce from the convention floor that the turbulence in Liberty City demonstrated the need for “law and order” in the United States. A more devastating riot visited the neighborhood in 1980, sparked by the acquittal of four white Miami-Dade police officers who beat a black insurance broker to death with a flashlight. Eighteen people died and more than $100 million worth of property was destroyed. A wave of businesses fled, never to return.

Liberty Square is set to be razed next year and replaced with a mixed-use, mixed-income public housing complex built partially with private funds. Residents will be relocated in phases to make way for construction, but if similar projects in other cities are any indication, many of them won’t return. Miami is watching to see whether gentrification wipes clean the neighborhood’s problems, or simply moves them a few streets over.

As part of a weekly series, The Trace shares the stories of three people living amid Liberty City’s gun violence.

The community leader determined to keep kids from taking revenge

Nathaniel Wilcox, 61, is the executive director of P.U.L.S.E.: People United To Lead The Struggle For Equality. He went to high school in Liberty City.

“My church is right on the outskirts of Liberty Square, and you see bullet holes in the walls and buildings and you hear about the shootings. It’s just terrible, it’s horrific. A lot of the stuff that’s going on is petty stuff. John beat up Jim, but John said something about Jim and made him look bad, so now it’s a gunfight. It’s a bunch of foolishness. A lot of people that’s being killed in Liberty Square do not live in Liberty Square. They feel that that’s an area they can come and do criminal things and basically get away with it because they have the people living in fear.

One of the young men in the area, a couple years ago, his mother was having issues. She was in her early 30s and had two sons, 15 and 17, and her sons hung out in Liberty Square. The mother was begging her sons, ‘Don’t go into Liberty Square! You don’t live over there.’ They lived about five, six blocks away. But they went, they got into a beef, and the younger one ended up dead. They’d been gunning for his brother. The father was in jail and telling his surviving son there’s got to be an eye for an eye. The son was acting all — just off the chain. Our goal was to get him out of town and back to the Bahamas, where he was originally from. We wanted him to come to the realization that his brother’s dead, but he’s doing stupid stuff, and you’re going to go over there and get killed. But he was just determined to go over there and engage them. We had people visiting him, trying to encourage him, ‘Don’t do what your daddy wants you to do.’ His dad hadn’t even made it past the 8th grade. The kid ended up not retaliating. But he ended up in jail. He was caught with a firearm. But we did manage to save his life.

My parents moved to Liberty City from Overtown in the early ’60s, to 60th street between 12th and 13th Avenue. We didn’t have a whole lot of money or live in the best part of town, but we did have order in our house. Liberty City doesn’t have a lot of that in the family structure now, and that’s a lot of the problem. When you have children taking care of children, you don’t have direction and leadership in the house. I’ve had to go to the floor a couple times with my son and let him know, I might be older than you, but I can still hammer you. He’s 23 now. In high school his friends were filling his head with a whole bunch of stuff. He told me me what he was gonna do, regardless of how I feel about it. He’s a minister now, a preacher. He came to the realization I was fair with him. Being a part of their lives is what the kids look for.”

The filmmaker who asked residents to let it all out

Shanks Rajendran, 29, is a documentarian from Melbourne, Australia, who was drawn to Liberty City after reading about it in the news. The film that resulted is Liberty City, Miami: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

“I was going to go on holiday to South Beach in November of 2012, and while I was still in Australia I Googled ‘Liberty City’ after a rapper who was from there named Bizzle died. I ended up spending most of my time in Liberty City. People were so welcoming to me. I started walking around like a little kid — I wasn’t aware of how things were, which is pretty bad. I was walking around with a $9,000 camera. This one guy, Chris, who I met while walking around a gas station in Brownsville, he introduced me to people and took me to places, and he was very scared. Not for me, but for himself. We went to the Pork ‘n’ Beans and he didn’t want to step out of the car to film. And he was born and bred there.

While making the film, I flipped the camera and let the people talk, and it’s interesting how they just start letting things out. There’s so much oppression in Liberty City. People are hurting there. A lot of them are really mad — they try to get jobs, and it all goes well until they’re asked if they speak Spanish. It’s like a double whammy — first they see the Liberty City address. All for a job to move boxes at a warehouse. The dream here is to be a football player or a rapper, but meanwhile, drugs are dealt out in the open.  

Getting a gun in Miami is kind of like getting a medical marijuana card in L.A.: really easy. They call Florida ‘the gunshine state’ — everybody’s strapped. When I was at a swap meet, someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna buy a gun?’ I didn’t even know what was going on, really. It took me a while to register. I said, ‘I don’t have a green card. I’m not even American.’ He said, ‘That doesn’t matter. I can get you a green card for $400. I can get you a concealed gun license for $300.’ He ripped a piece of paper and put his number on there. He walked away. I think maybe he thought I thought it was too expensive? Because he came back and said, ‘O.K., I’ll give you a license for $150, it’s legit, I’ll bring you to a store, you can buy it.’

They leave teddy bears on the corners of streets where someone was shot, and they’re everywhere in Liberty City, just bunches of them.” 

The receptionist who’s watched kids give up jump ropes for handguns

Agnes Strange, 59, is a lifelong resident of Liberty City and the receptionist at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where her brother is the pastor.

“Mount Calvary is right across the street from the Pork ‘n’ Beans project. We’re at the heart of Liberty City. We basically see it all. I was raised right here in this area, and when I grew up, you didn’t hear about gun violence. My grandparents lived in the Pork ‘n’ Beans but it was nothing — nothing —  like it is now. It was a respectful place. You were at liberty to walk the street as you pleased. Now, you’d better be really, really careful.

The gun violence started getting bad in 2000, 2005. I have not a clue what happened. And then again I do, because God said each generation would get weaker and wiser. And I know there is a tremendous change in the generations. I am close to 60, but I went to Miami Northwestern Senior High School, which is right up the street. Never gun violence as it is now. We went through physical fights, that’s it. May the best man win, and that’s just how it went. But now? They will actually come and shoot up one’s family members’ houses.

The young guys here need something positive to do. I know they do like riding dirt bikes and things of that nature. The type of fun that we had, it didn’t cost anything. Probably the only thing that cost was our Union 5 skates. Other than that we made our own fun: we did jump ropes, we did jackstones, we did springboard, where you put a brick in the middle and you put a long piece of plywood over it and someone on either side jumps and you see who jumps the highest. We created our own activities. Now it’s a different era. The kids are into the designer clothing and the sneakers and the tattoos.

Where the guns are coming from, I have not a clue. But evidently they are being brought here, because it seems not to be a problem to get a hold of them. I actually think, to be honest with you, the gunplay is a coward’s way out. If you have an altercation with someone, you stand there and you fistfight it out, and may the best man win, and it’s done. Over. But they do a lot of retaliating here. You know how that goes.”

[Photo: Google Maps]