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Pitts: A tale of two parts of the same city

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

It was the suddenness that shocked me.

This is one night 22 years ago. I had just moved to Miami and was visiting Coconut Grove for the first time. I remember being charmed. The side streets were lined with cozy bungalows. On the main streets there was light and music and an air of bohemia going upscale that made you want to linger and people-watch as women who looked as if they just stepped from the pages of Vogue were squired to and from nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques by handsome men in guayaberas.

Leaving, I drove west on Grand Avenue and ... bang. Just like that, I was in another place. Here, there was less light and no music, nor flocks of date-night couples, nor really anybody except a few guys standing around, silently marking my passage. The buildings rose shadowy and quiet in meager pools of illumination cast by street lights. These were not streets for lingering. These were streets for passing quickly through.

I didn’t know it then, but I was in West Grove, the hardscrabble, historically black area that abuts Coconut Grove. I had driven less than a mile – and ended up on the other side of the world.

Ever since that night, the two Groves have struck me as a vivid illustration of the stark dualities of race and class in a nation that likes to tell itself it has overcome the former and made immaterial the latter. If you’re one of those who still believes that fiction, consider this scenario: Dangerous levels of contaminants have been found in the soil of a residential neighborhood. What happens next?

Turns out – although not to the surprise of anyone who understood the fiction to be just that – that it depends very much upon race and class. Just days after the discovery of toxins in the soil of a park in Coconut Grove, residents were alerted, the park closed, the soil capped. All within the past few weeks.

Down the street on the other side of the world, it was a different story. There, in 2011, soil was found to be contaminated on the site of an incinerator – Old Smokey – that had belched ash into the air from the 1930s until it was closed in 1970.

County environmental officials ordered the city to find out if the contaminants posed a risk and draft a plan for dealing with it. They gave the city a 60-day deadline. The city missed it. They gave the city another deadline. It missed that, too.

Residents were told none of this, knew nothing about it, until the initial finding was unearthed this year – two years later – by a University of Miami researcher. Now we learn that city tests have found this land, which sits next to a park and a community center, to be chock full of poisons, among them arsenic, lead, and benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogen.

Just days ago, officials declared the site is not a health risk. West Grove residents can perhaps be forgiven if they are skeptical.

People often profess to be confused when I write about systemic inequity. Absent the caricature of some guy in a pointy white hood, they can see no racism. Absent the cliché of some society lady with nose elevated and pinky extended, they have no conception of classism. They can understand these as individual failings, yes. But what in the world is systemic oppression?

Well, it is this, right here.

It is a child whose health is zealously safeguarded at one end of the street and a child who is allowed to play on soil saturated with carcinogens and heavy metals on the other. It is the city making a determination, albeit de facto, that the latter child’s life has less worth.

Shame on Miami for that.

Shame on us all. These inequities exist because we allow them, because we condone by our silence the two-tiered treatment and second-class citizenship of those who are not us. Well, in this country, people have the right to expect they will be treated as if they matter.

Even if they live along shadowed streets on the other side of the world.

• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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