By John Dorschner
The problem with violence in Liberty Square is not inside the decaying public housing project, but the areas surrounding the 66-acre site -- and the county's massive redo of the project is unlikely to diminish crime.
That's the view of Tom Petersen, an active Miami-Dade senior judge who has a long knowledge of working in public housing. In the late 1960s, he was a VISTA volunteer in Liberty City. He went on to become a chief assistant to Dade State Attorney Janet Reno.
In the 1980s, after the McDuffie riots, Reno gave him a four-year leave of absence to work again as a community organizer in three public housing projects, including Liberty Square. He later spent spent 10 years he was a judge in the juvenile division, often dealing with Liberty Square youths. He's also co-authored a history of the project.
The issue of violence at Liberty Square is crucial because the county's political leaders are counting on a $200-million plus remake of the project to fix the problems of the area, which has a dismal history of violence, extreme poverty and unemployment.
In an unpublished research paper, Petersen calls the razing and replacing of Liberty Square "long overdue," but he worries that the rebuilding "will divert our attention from the needs of the much larger community around Liberty Square."
"Pull the police reports," Quarterman says. "Half the people have different zip codes. We do have a gang issue over here, I won't deny that. But the murder and all that – it's people from the outside."
Yet many people point to Liberty Square as the root of the problem. One example, a Herald survey last year examining shootings for the first seven months of 2014: "43 people living in a 13-square-block area surrounding Miami's Liberty Square housing project have been shot, police records show. Seven have died."
Herald Articles "Misleading Impression"
Petersen's take: "The articles convey a misleading impression that Liberty Square and its residents are somehow responsible for the incidents of violence" and removing or rebuilding the project "will somehow result in a decrease in violence on the streets on which these acts occurred," Petersen wrote.
"Actually only nine of the 25 incidents occurred in Liberty Square and we have no way of knowing how many of the perpetrators or victims resided in the project and the probability is that few of them do or did."
Petersen says the "sad reality" is that most of the shootings occurred on streets outside Liberty Square where "crime and social dysfunction have existed without remission for at least the three generations during which I have been familiar with the neighborhood."
Projects' Residents Crime Rate Lower
He notes in particular 15th Avenue on the western edge of Liberty Square, the stretch of NW 62nd Street along the project's southern boundary and a two-block area south of 62nd Street known as King Heights --- an area he's well familiar with. As a juvenile judge, he worked with a public defender to help tenants object about horrendous living conditions in buildings owned then by a notorious slumlord.
Petersen noted that the stretch of shops on 62nd and King Heights "will not be impacted by a razing of Liberty Square. ... I contend the crime rate attributable to residents of Liberty Square, if the research were done, will be shown to be considerably lower" than crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
|Liberty Square Source: Google Maps|
One major reason: The overwhelming majority of households in public housing are headed by single women, "and in the great majority of cases their children are under age 12. ... With rare exceptions males in the age range with the highest crime rates simply do not qualify to live in public housing. That is not to say that men in that age range (16 to 25) are absent from Liberty Square. Boyfriends come and go – but they are not 'on the lease' and should not be staying there. ...
"Liberty Square was unique in that its residents also included many older residents, women all, who had been there for as long as decades due to the age of Liberty Square. The demographics of the legitimate tenants are predictive of a low rate of criminal activity," wrote Petersen, co-author with historian Paul George, of Liberty Square, 1933-1987: The Origins and Evolution of a Public Housing Project, published in the 1988 edition of Tequesta, the Journal of the Historical Society of South Florida.
"Men Come. But They Don't Live There"
"The men come. But they don’t live there," Petersen wrote in his recent research paper. "They live in the neighborhood around Liberty Square and will live there when Liberty Square is gone. The demographics of the streets surrounding Liberty Square are predictive of a high rate of criminal activity."
Redoing Liberty Square "won't change that. It won't change the neighborhood," Petersen wrote.
But how much will that do? ,
In his paper, Petersen quotes Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson, who observes that "hundreds of studies" suggest "concentrated poverty," as is the case in Liberty City, "increases the likelihood of social isolation (from mainstream institutions), joblessness, dropping out of school, lower educational achievement, involvement in crime, unsuccessful behavioral development and delinquency among adolescents, nonmarital childbirth, and unsuccessful family management."
Note: While at Tropic magazine, I wrote two cover stories in which Petersen was the main character: The first on his attempts to help women at the Larchmont Gardens housing project get into the workforce, the other when he was a judge and discussing one youth's case to illustrate the problems with the juvenile justice system. Since then, we've become friends, often sharing ideas on social problems and how to fix them.