'You Guys Shouldn't Be Driving Around Here'

FACE it. Route 1 is an inanimate object, a long, long hunk of pavement. The life it has is bestowed only by the people who use it, by cultural trends and any urgent social issues reflected at the side of the road.For instance, the first words out of the band director's mouth are, "You guys shouldn't be driving around here. It's not too wise." Just off Route 1 we saw an all-black high school band in the black section of Miami practicing on a field next to the football team. It was late afternoon. We parked the car and approached the band director who was holding a bull horn. We introduced ourselves, hoping to learn about the school. Suddenly the issues of race and crime are enjoined. The band director has our best interests at heart because Neal and I are white. He is black. "You guys shouldn't be here," he says, meaning we shouldn't be in the black part of town. A few days earlier, John and Rose Hayward from England were in Miami driving in a clearly marked rental car like ours. The Haywards became lost in the high-crime part of town and innocently asked two men in a car for help. Seconds later, after refusing to leave their car, Mrs. Hayward was shot in the chest and Mr. Hayward was shot in the shoulder. The police said the assailants were after money, credit cards, and cameras. Later, two suspects were apprehended. On the same day five other tourist cars were robbed. Last year 8,000 crimes were committed against tourists in Dade County, many along Route 1 as it wiggles through the city. "You guys sure you know what you're doing?" asks the band director again, suggesting we should leave. The quick answer is, yes, as journalists we think we know the reasons we write articles and take photographs: to clarify, explain, maybe even illumine. Wisdom? Maybe. It's not so much where journalists go to write and photograph, but why people do what they do under any circumstance. Lee Thompson and James Chapman are prime examples. In Key West they are on the front lines in their community's efforts to improve circumstances for black people, particularly black children. They love what they do despite the perils. Two blocks from Route 1, Ms. Thompson puts in 70-hour weeks as director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. It's next to the Nelson English Park, a small, grassy park named after the first black postmaster in the United States. Key West has a black population of around 3,500. EVEN though she says she is not as effective as she could be because she is a white woman working in a black community, Thompson has successfully battled city hall for years on behalf of the center. She has kept the center alive, managed to get the big swimming pool renovated (a $356,000 project), planted trees, scavenged for furniture, equipment, computers, funds, and is always trying to encourage volunteers to help. She offers programs such as campouts, tutoring, English classes, leadership workshops, a "Say No To Drugs" club, and community dinners. She has involved the police in programs. "There is so much that needs to be done," she says. m always grabbing anybody to help. There are no drugs here in the center," she says, telling of past confrontations with drug-dealing adults at the center. "Kids can come here and not be bullied by anybody either." But the characteristics of big-city drugs and crime have come to Key West and the streets around the center. "We've had drive-by shootings even in this little community," says Thompson. "Kids get so slick and so cool so fast, and the black culture can be so rough and tough. Yet I've seen mothers and fathers be so tender toward the babies and families. But the paradox is that many of them are drug users and dealers," Thompson says. TWO blocks away on Petronia Street a stocky, tough-eyed, street-wise James Chapman moves in and out of the Goombay Cafe carrying an old cigar box full of quarters. "There ain't no drugs on this block," he growls, then changes his demeanor when a shy eight-year-old wants four quarters for a dollar to play video games in the Goombay. Open every day, the Goombay is a hangout for black kids run by Mr. Chapman, the father of 15 children, an ex-boxer, ex-bartender, ex-bootblack, and ex-construction worker. The building has a main room, a non-alcoholic bar off to the left. Attached to the main room is another room, filled with old furniture and cabinets and no ceiling. "Wasn't up to code," says Chapman, pointing to the sky. "But look, wide open and no burglars." He manages a small grin. "We keep 'em off the streets," he says as the street in front jumps with kids moving in and out of the front door. Next to the entrance is a small patio with chairs. "No booze, no drugs, no cigarettes," says Chapman. "Got to have shoes and a shirt to get in here. We got a pool table, video games, TV, and good food. We send the little kids home at nine and the big kids at 10. I say kids got too much freedom today." Outside again kids hang around Chapman. "One of my stepsons is in prison for armed robbery," he says. "Eleven counts of armed robbery. Judge said he had a cute little face and was about to let him off again. I said, 'Judge, don't look at his face. He did something bad. Send him to jail.' He's getting out soon. He believes in God now." Chapman holds contests. Kids with the best grades win prizes. He gives cash prizes for video game winners, tells the kids to go to church on Sundays. He gives them free hotdogs. He asks them, "Did you go to school today?" Or, "What's the capital of Delaware?" Next year he says he's sending the "King and Queen" of the best grades to New York for a weekend. Chapman shapes tough religious messages for kids who think they are tough. "I tell 'em God will take you even if you get shot and patched up," he says. "You come back and face what you've done." Why does the Goombay flourish along a street that used to be filled with bars? "I love all these kids," he says. "They're the future of the world, but most of 'em don't have a curfew or much of a future in Key West. Maybe they could work in a hotel or a restaurant, but what else? I got some bad kids coming in here, but we gettin' to 'em. I tell 'em, 'fools don't get old; they die young.' " Is Chapman a "positive role model?" He grins. "Hey, you don't see no more bars along this street, do you?"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.