While driving south of downtown on South Orange Blossom Trail, affectionately called OBT, my car begin to overheat – sadly a common occurrence with my older car combined with a desperately hot Florida summer – and I was compelled to quickly pull to a side road and let the car cool. Although I was a bit dismayed at the dilapidated state of the neighborhood, my options were limited. Fortunately, a local resident became my savior. A former mechanic, he suggested a quick fix, and after some polite discourse with one another, I was off. Shortly after resuming what was supposed to be a quick trip, I saw the flashing lights of Orlando’s Finest behind me.
Having committed no crime or traffic violation or otherwise, this took me by surprise. Upon his approach to the window, I queried the attending officer regarding my violation. He was hesitant at best to provide one and – given my out of state license – seemed to view me with suspicion. After the obligatory and torrid wait for the review of my license and registration, I was asked to vacate the car. After once again probing the nature of my offense, the policeman notified me of “extensive smoke” that had billowed from the tailpipe, apparently without my slightest notice. Needless to say I was suspect of this explanation. Seeing but ignoring my disbelief, I was asked to consent to a personal and vehicular search. Taken aback, I requested the probable cause for such a search.
“Normally people like you do no stop in this area.” I was told. People like me? I wondered. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a thinner, white, male in my mid-twenties with blonde hair and was driving a mid 90s Chrysler. Understandably confused, and after an overly extensive search – which involved the officer illegally searching my personal telephone – he returned to the sidewalk where I stood. During said search, I conversed with the backup officer asking if smoke emitting from a car was usually grounds for a search. “No, but when you stop around here and people in this area look in your car, we get suspicious,” he replied. I further asked whether receiving help from a good Samaritans was grounds for arrest. He interjected, “No, but if someone around here looked into my car, they would get a *EXPLICIT* gun in their face.” With this explanation, it was becoming clearer to me the real reason behind my stop.
Finding nothing of concern in the car, and giving me a small warning regarding the license, the officer asked, “Do you know about the area you are in?”
“Somewhat, yes,” I replied. “I know this neighborhood has a less than savory reputation. However, as my car was in need of a rest, I was forced to stop where I was.”
“It is no reputation, it’s the *EXPLICIT* truth,” he warned puissantly. “A guy like you with a broken down car will get robbed or worse here. Now get out of here quickly if you know what is good for you.” Outraged not only at my own miscarriage of justice, but the insistence that the kind gentlemen who assisted me was somehow a criminal simply because of where he lived, I obliged with a shaking head.
Why is OBT So Bad?
It is no secret that South OBT is a less-than pleasant part of Orlando. A quick Google search will bring up various news stories of crime and degeneration. A quick drive down the road, one will see countless closed businesses, run-down gas stations, a fair amount of liquor stores, strip-clubs, and numerous homeless people. Urban Dictionary even has an entry for OBT as “A road in Orlando Fl, that is in the main stay of violent crime and drug abuse in this tourist trap city’s ‘ghetto’.”
Why is OBT this way? In the late 1960s and into the 1970s the area was marketed as a place for business, spurred by its proximity to Disney World. Formerly, large manufacturing made up the brunt of Orlando’s economic activity, and since many of these factories were located mostly south of downtown, the OBT area served as the closest neighborhood for large amounts of the workforce. This labor force, bolstered by an influx of immigrants – mostly from the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola – saw their real wages and incomes decline since the 1970s. As a result, the condition of their homes and the corresponding property values declined as well, prompting an exodus of the remaining well-to-do from South OBT and their potential investment capital.
OBT failed to sufficiently develop on the coattails of the Theme Parks, in contrast to the libertarian economic theories in vogue at the time and still proposed today. Lacking adequate private financing, the only other opportunity for investment was the city, and it failed them.
I must admit, the City of Orlando has invested considerable amounts of money into the OBT area. Sadly, as evidenced by the dozen (yes, literally twelve) police and sheriff’s vehicles which passed my unfortunate soul that day, this “contribution” has been almost uniformly expended merely on increasing the police presence. It is not hard to understand why this political calculation was made. For those who misunderstand crime, the quick fix is to simply flood the area with police. This is usually supported by influential – meaning wealthy – members of the community who, through covertly, (in the form of Social Darwinism) or overtly (in the form of Racism, Xenophobia and Classism) suspect pre-suppositions, have a distinct distain for afflicted areas and their residents. This was anecdotally evidenced by the actions taken and words uttered by the officers called in to ensure that I was not contributing to the well-publicized delinquency of the area.
What Can Be Done?
The police presence has not led to a decrease in crime on and around OBT, and it never will. The true cause of crime is poverty, and OBT is impoverished not only economically, but politically and spiritually. I do not mean to connote that the residents of OBT are somehow more irreligious than the general populace; in fact, they are most likely more religious for demographic and cultural reasons. Since their political organization and participation is low, and the trust of public officials – for whom police officers seem to be the only sort – is suspect at best, the area’s residents are demoralized and given their minor political influence, left by elected officials to their own limited devices. This is partly why one see’s many car dealerships, liquor and adult themed stores and strip clubs on OBT as they are relatively recession and poverty-proof businesses.
What, then, can be done to help the area? The city of Buffalo, New York serves as a good example for Orlando. Buffalo suffered serious decline after the loss of much of its industry related to steel production. After much of the old wealth had left the area, economic activity slowed, unemployment soared and crime increased. In an effort to curb this, the city of Buffalo, combined with community groups like the Coalition for Economic Justice and PUSH Buffalo, started the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG) to promote a community-oriented vision of revitalization. PPG urged its local and state officials to devote resources to a comprehensive, community based plan to tackle abandoned housing and businesses and spur activity.
Able to procure ample funding, these groups went to work giving parts of the city a face lift, providing services to the residents, and getting its residents working again. It was and continues to be an amazing example of how when working people get together and are adequately funded by their government, they can achieve a great deal for their community. Buffalo today, while acknowledging the devastating effects of the current recession, has made great strides in both unemployment and crime.
There is, thankfully, at least one group in Orlando focused on this very task. The Orange Blossom Trail Development Board, created in 1999 by the city for the purpose of “planning and implementing projects intended to revitalize the Orange Blossom Trail.” Using a Municipal Services Taxing Unit Program and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) Projects, the board attempts to finance, “the construction of beautification improvements on segments of the Orange Blossom Trail and aid in redevelopment efforts and include housing, landscaping, parks, crime prevention and infrastructure improvements” with limited success due to a lack of appropriation and funding. The Board has been more successful and attributed much of its limited funds to its “Safe Neighborhood Program” which is simply another version of the failed policy discussed above. In general, this organization has been limited in its ability to generate funds and appears to be fairly inactive.
All told the problems of OBT are not insurmountable. Working together, the city and community organizations will need to come together and work in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion if the area is to ever shake off its bad reputation and its oppressive police presence. In the meantime, be prepared to answer for mere civility to Orlando’s ‘boys in blue’ if you are ever forced to or heaven-forbid willingly chose to stop near OBT’s Cowboy Bar and have the pleasure of talking to its patrons who are, for the most part and in contrary to commonly held perceptions, good people.