In eye of hurricane lies spark of rebirth

July 24, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Bill Finley looks at a blank green wall on the side of an empty furniture warehouse and sees a trompe l'oeil, a lush street-scape of this once-hurricane-battered downtown. There are an ice cream parlor and antiques emporium, a boutique and interior design shop, old City Hall and the Seminole Theater restored to their Spanish mission-style origins.

Of course, Krome Avenue looks nothing like this today -- what years of neglect and the lure of strip shopping centers began decades ago, a hurricane named Andrew almost finished last year. At least 15 storefronts on this small-town Main Street are still empty. Vacant lots mar the nearby business district, where everything from satellite-dish companies to flophouses can be found. In the neighborhood to the west, absentee landlords have let their properties decline.

None of this deters William E. Finley. He has seen the future.

The man who carried out James W. Rouse's vision to build a new city called Columbia on 15,000 acres of Howard County farmland and transformed the fairways and greens of a golf course into the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore is the same man the world-renowned urban developer tapped to help the city of Homestead rise from the rumble and ruin of Andrew.

This is a first for Mr. Rouse's Enterprise Foundation, which builds affordable housing for the poor and improves residents' lives through access to job training and educational and child care services. In Homestead, Mr. Finley and his eight-person team are helping a community in need to find itself and develop a road map to secure its future.

It was a chance to rebuild "based on the sins of the past," and address the problems of the present -- lost jobs, inadequate housing, a shaken civic psyche.

Last fall, after a month spent simply listening to the people who live and work here as they struggled to see past the hurricane's devastation, the Enterprise team realized the challenge before them.

"It became clear our work was not going to be a result of the storm damage," says Mr. Finley, who recruited an engineer and three community planners to this South Florida town founded by homesteaders building a railroad to the Florida Keys.

"It had to do with rebuilding a city that had come undone over the last 40 years."

Elements of revival

Even before Andrew hit, this city of 27,000 was looking for a tonier image. Townhouses and condos had sprung up on a planned 3,300-acre golf and residential complex east of the Florida Turnpike. The city built a flamingo-pink stadium for the Cleveland Indians' spring training site. Antique dealers hoped to transform the 1950s-era downtown into a dealers' mecca.

But the hurricane forced Homestead to confront its past. Over the decades, an Air Force base, fueled by the Cold War, and tourists heading for the Florida Keys provided more jobs than the area's healthy agrarian economy. At the same time, the farm workers harvesting tomatoes, corn, mangoes and beans in Homestead became more ethnically diverse. Mexicans and Central Americans followed blacks into the fields and the city's forgotten neighborhoods.

Almost overnight, the flatland wedged between the Everglades and Biscayne Bay -- and life as South Floridians knew it -- changed. Andrew's pelting rains and battering winds flattened Homestead Air Force Base, plowed through fields, peeled roofs from houses, leveled hundreds of mobile homes and gutted apartment complexes.

Three weeks later, Jim Rouse, at the behest of Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., surveyed the damage from the air. Initially, he wasn't sure he could help. But state and city officials -- and Mr. Rouse's wife, Patty, a co-founder of Enterprise -- pushed.

"She wouldn't let it rest," Mr. Rouse says of his wife.

The prospect of bringing the city back seemed daunting, even to this visionary. "But it had to begin somewhere, and it had to begin where we began, with Bill Finley, to get all the dope on the existing conditions and to find out what the people wanted," says Mr. Rouse.

Homestead's youthful and tireless city manager, Alex Muxo Jr., had seen Columbia, Md., "so I could relate to what could be done with a well-planned city, all the facets that make a community work."

Initially, not everyone was as convinced.

"When they first came to town, everybody said, 'What do they know about us? They're going to tell us what to do,' " recalls Ruth Campbell, the city's 72-year-old vice mayor. "But you know what? They showed us what we were, what we can do, and the choices have been up to community."

"What the hurricane has done," adds Mr. Muxo, the city manager, "is given us an opportunity to learn from 60 years of mistakes, properly plan areas of the community and also given us dollars to make an impact . . . state and federal funds that would not have been available to us if it were not for the storm."

Recovery among the ruins

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