IT CAME FROM THE SWAMP 


Gas prices are down, so it's time to hit the road! But where are you going to go? How about exploring some of the less-appreciated features of the Sunshine State, where the beaten path is weedy and overgrown? We've dubbed these places "crapholes" (with apologies to local chambers of commerce) and our state's full of 'em! Fill up the family truckster and let's go!

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This time we're off to Belle Glade, in Palm Beach County, where "Her soil is her fortune."

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;It's not north Florida, with filigree Spanish moss hanging from centurion trees. It's not Central Florida, home to rampaging tourists wearing plastic mouse ears. It's southwest Palm Beach county, with its incongruous combination of livestock munching dark blades of grass against a red sunset bordered by cloud balloons. It's Belle Glade, in fact, with an emphasis on 'cane, as in hurricane and sugar cane. It's Belle Glade, aka (in the language of real estate agents) the "beautiful swamp," and, at one time in the '80s, the HIV capital of Florida.

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;Making my way from Orlando, 160 miles north of Palm Beach County, I pass mile after mile of telephone poles, rail fences and cows. Time passes slowly traveling in the Everglades. A driver in the car in front of me tosses what looks like a foot-long sub sandwich out his car window, complete with assorted napkins, wrappings and Coke cans.

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;Years ago, I lived in Palm Beach County and I drove to Belle Glade every day to work with teachers of migrant children. Lush green sugar cane rose up on either side of me, and canals gashed both sides of the road. When I got lost, there was only the cane, the canals and the position of the sun to guide me. A concerned member of the Palm Beach County public school system once told me to roll down my car windows should I ever end up in a canal, something that apparently happens on occasion to drivers entering the realm of Big Sugar.

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;This trip I pass acres of black loam, fallow for the season, and a United States Sugar Corporation truck idling out of the field. What I don't see are the roiling fires burning the waste of the harvested sugar every fall, an annual event that sends ash floating everywhere. Also missing are the machete-wielding Jamaicans cutting sugar cane in their colorful Rasta caps. I wonder where they went.

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;Eventually, I enter Pahokee (meaning "grassy waters"). I'm skirting the levee around Lake Okeechobee, a 730-square-mile body of water in Glades, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and Hendry counties. Lake Okeechobee is the second- largest freshwater lake in the United States. It's filled by rain and the contaminated southward flow of water from as far away as Disney World. The Herbert Hoover Dike that constrains it — constructed in the '30s by the Army Corps of Engineers — is leaking.

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;Belle Glade is an agricultural community and farmers like to impound a lot of water behind the dike. The trouble is it keeps trickling out, especially after the quadruple whammy in recent years of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Wilma, which hit the southeastern curve to Palm Beach County hard.

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;According to The Palm Beach Post, three engineers hired by the state took a long look at the dike. Their report, made public May 1, makes it clear that they didn't like what they found. In fact, they said the 35-foot-tall structure is in "grave and imminent danger" of rupturing. Back in 1998 the Army Corps of Engineers itself issued a report about the dike in which they acknowledged that their plan is to "diligently inspect" it when the water's high. If things get bad, they'd tell everyone to get the hell out.

An aerial view of the town shows a rectangle of numbered streets designated as southeast, southwest, northeast and northwest, bisected by the Hillsboro Canal. There are many signs off State Road 80 pointing to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (which possesses the amusing acronym LOST). Dedicated in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 110-mile trail is on top of the dike and circles the lake. There are 60 miles of paved road for hiking and biking, and views of egrets, herons and comically attired golfers taking mulligans at the 18-hole course located on the Belle Glade Marina and Campground.

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;If you don't like to fish, LOST is one of the few things there is to do in Belle Glade. Since the 1960s, when the Cuban revolution pushed the sugar industry into the Everglades, Big Sugar has become the major polluter of the Everglades, while still managing to slowly strangle all hope of economic diversification in Belle Glade.

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;Since 1960, when Castro's revolution turned Big Sugar from Cuba to Florida, Belle Glade has lost land, resources and agricultural variety. Sugar has inexorably weakened the economy until the place actually resembles Cuba: the old rusty cars, the crap everywhere, the busted signs that have never been replaced since the hurricanes, the smell of frying grease in the air, even the bloody-colored sunsets that sink below the silhouette of skeletal palm fronds.

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;It is a land that keeps slipping backward economically, environmentally and socially.

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The town library, which can be identified by the sculpture of a family of four fleeing the 1928 hurricane out front, features books, a decorative piñata and free Internet access. At 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning teens are lined up to check their MySpace accounts.

;;The library is also the only branch of the Palm Beach County System that has a museum. It is closed when I get there, but the librarian opens it up just for me. The museum's namesake, Lawrence E. Will, was, among, other things, an author of six books chronicling his personal experiences on Lake Okeechobee and in the upper Everglades. I own one of his books, Swamp to Sugar Bowl. It is folksy, to say the least, using verbs such as "a-fixing," adjectives like "stomp-down" and chapter titles such as "Bean Pickers Never Sleep."

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;The museum also features bones from the Smithsonian Institution's 1977 excavation of Tequesta and Calusa Indian mounds in the Belle Glades area, an extensive history of the 1928 hurricane, and an interesting pictorial display of migrant farming in the Glades. One corner of the museum depicts a "picker's shack," essentially living quarters in three-story chicken coop.

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;The 1960 film Harvest of Shame, the last documentary by legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, was shot in the area. It revealed, in stark black-and-white images, the grinding poverty and economic injustice inherent in migrant worker camps, where people often made less than $1 a day for backbreaking toil.

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;AIDS was the city's harvest of shame in the '80s. Before it was definitively known how the disease was spread, researchers thought it might have something to do mosquito bites. Belle Glade has a lot of mosquitoes. And in 1985, it had an AIDS infection rate that was 51 times the national average. Researchers sent to Belle Glade to test the link were ultimately proved wrong about the mosquitoes. What they learned, however, was that the crumbling social fabric of the city provided a fertile breeding ground for prostitution and drug use, the real reason for the city's ignominious distinction.

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According to Swamp to Sugar Bowl, (published in 1968), people in Belle Glade worked the fields, danced all night and didn't sleep from November until May.

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;Sim Putman, a Belle Glade citizen I hail shortly after arriving in town, says times have changed.

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; "I like to drink, and I like running my mouth, as you can see," Putman tells me. But he doesn't work, and there is not, in fact, much work to be had. When I met him, Putman was hauling butt in a motorized wheelchair down a side street near the chamber of commerce. A plastic nametag pinned to his baseball cap declared that he was a disabled Army veteran, although Putman admits that he actually broke his neck in a motorcycle accident.

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;"What do you do around here?" I ask.

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;"Not much," Putman says.

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;Ken Lutz, president of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce and the Glades Economic Alliance, has lived in Belle Glade all his life. Like Putman, he attended Lake Shore Middle School and Glades Central public schools, although he branched out to major in industrial arts at a Lakeland college.

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;Lutz has been in the news quite a bit lately for trying to broker development deals that are criticized by some as excluding the black majority of the city's 15,000 residents. An economic panel he put together has only one Hispanic and five black members, out of 21 seats. The rest of the panel is made up of wealthy farmers, sugar execs and white chamber members.

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;The exclusion of nonwhites is on purpose, apparently. Quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Lutz said, "We can't apologize for it. It's just the way we think it should be set up to be inclusive. There are members of the black community who wanted a say in the power structure, and there is probably a reluctance on the part of the white community to entrust them with responsibility of running the city."

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;The state recently allocated $1.5 million for an engineering study to establish a boat lock on the Hillsboro canal, next to the Belle Glade city golf course. Locks are a hot idea on Lake Okeechobee because they allow residents access to the water; you can't build a dock on the side of the dike. More access to the water means higher property values. But the leaky dike has stalled economic progress.

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;Ironically, so has automation. The Jamaican cane cutters that I missed on my drive into Belle Glade are gone. When they were here, times were better.

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;Every year for decades, migrant workers from Jamaica, Haiti, and Mexico came to Belle Glade armed with machetes. U.S. Sugar gave them a contract and put them up in barren labor camps for five or six months. They earned the equivalent of $8 an hour, and spent it all in the city of Belle Glade.

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;"They got too demanding in their own wages," Lutz complains. "Five years ago, the sugar companies went to 100 percent mechanical harvesting of cane. Harvesters came from Australia to set it up. It was very expensive. I don't know if there was any savings to sugar. The thing that hurt the Glades economically was that most of the migrants went to Plant City or Immokalee. Their money went to someone else."

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;;Palm Beach County is divided up into east and west, which is a Florida indicator for the haves and the have-nots. The east side is the area of tony, overpriced homes whose owners sip martinis while admiring their tanned and trim trophy spouses. Its population is expected to double in the next two decades.

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; So if you wear blinders, Belle Glade could be Palm Beach County's sweet fiscal frontier. This is a city that would love a Wal-Mart. Unsightly strip-mall blight? Bring it on.

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; Or maybe not.

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;At Mrs. Georgia's Catfish House restaurant, Venanza Vereen, a lifelong resident and a 30-ish father, comes in every morning and "talks about how bad it is" — the economy, not the food.

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;Vereen works in the produce-packing plant, one of the few opportunities available other than the post office, prison or Big Sugar. "Glades Central was on ESPN," he says. "The kids are good at football because what else is there to do? You outta be able to put in something for these children, a community center. That's why you got so much interracial conflict. "

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;Sure, Belle Glade lacks a movie theater, bowling alley, miniature golf or a public swimming pool. There was no shopping that I could discern except for Cato Fashions, which carried only plus sizes, in the Big Lake Plaza. But people had to do something for recreation. What was it?

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; I found the answer at the local gospel radio station WSWN (900 AM), a small station with a large reach: It comes in on John Young Parkway just outside of Orlando.

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; "I was originally a window cleaner," says program director Mike Diogostine, a jovial guy in a Detroit Pistons muscle shirt. "I took a few falls off the ladder."

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;Diogostine did the play-by-play for the Glades Central Raiders on ESPN in Duncan, S.C. "Rickey Jackson, who wore No. 57 for the Saints, lives in Pahokee," he says. "The Glades are the No. 1 recruiting stop for football. Santonio Holmes, a Steeler; Fred Taylor, a Jaguar; Anquan Boldin, a Cardinal; all were Glades Raiders or Pahokee Blue Devils. It's the tradition of the high schools."

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;So it's a big deal when the two schools get together for their annual autumn showdown, known as the Muck Bowl; so big, there's a documentary coming out about it. According to the production company making the film, the bowl "attracts as many as 12,000 fans, including former players and alumni. … When the players look up into the stands, they know that more than a few college recruiters are sitting there, too. They know the game could be their ticket out of an area where jobs are scarce, the average wage is about $12,000 a year and the biggest employers are prisons and sugar-processing plants."

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;;Back at the storm-shuttered Traveler's Motor Lodge, at the stuffy, cluttered front desk, I find the definitive voice of reason, someone who was not in Belle Glade to rape the land, revile the city or turn a blind eye; someone from another place who could provide perspective. I find Kim, an adorable "mixed" puppy who barks like a coyote at the sight of a stranger.

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;Kim's owner, Edward Lutfey, a native New Yorker and the proprietor of the Lodge, is also pretty levelheaded. He's ensconced in a recliner for the duration of our conversation.

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;"I spent all of my adult life here," says Lutfey. "I used to spend a lot of time down on Lake Okeechobee. The lake was paradise. I like it here. It's so open.

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;"But economically, the vegetable farming was hit by the hard freezes. Landholders would just lease their land to the sugar co-ops. This left the locals in the communities high and dry. They resorted more to government aid. The key to development out here is the sugar-cane holders who hold the land. Will they give it up?

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;"The land across the street has been for sale for 30 years. The ground just settles. You'd have to rake up all the muck and build it up to sea level."

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;At this point a young man in thigh-high fishing boots enters the motel to inquire about the room rate.

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;"Seventy-eight dollars," Lutfey says without moving from his comfy chair. The man leaves. He continues.

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;"Living here, I'm kind of isolated. Most of the land is bought up by the federal government for water-holding areas. Water will always come back to haunt us. But, eventually, expansion will have to come west."

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;So that's the future for Belle Glade. Maybe. In the meantime — people are always telling us to slow down, to smell the roses and pat the dog. When you, like Lutfey, are ready to embrace the quiet life, Belle Glade awaits.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

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