“There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
I’ve always heard lots about the big apple
So I thought I’d come up here and see
But all I’ve seen so far is one big hassle
Wish I was camped out on the Okeechobee
— Hank Williams Jr., “Dixie On My Mind” (1981)
In May, my girlfriend wanted to take a day trip somewhere. The first place that comes to anyone’s mind for South Florida daytripping is Miami, which has something for everyone. As it happened, I had something else in mind already.
I’m a sucker for human settlements. Ever since a tribe of Ethiopian hunter-gatherers decided it was easier to be herder-growers about 195,000 years ago, humans have found ever more effective and creative ways of reshaping environments to meet demand. South Florida is the 8th largest human settlement in the country, and while protected wetlands help contain sprawl, pockets of human communities dot the swampy landscape of south central Florida. Most of these are situated around the 7th largest freshwater lake in the United States: Lake Okeechobee.
As big as it is, Lake Okeechobee didn’t even exist until quite recently. After the last glacial period ended, global sea levels began to rise and rainfall increased, filling Lake Okeechobee with water shortly after the 2nd Millennium BCE (around the same time Stonehenge was thought to have been completed). Since then, it has hosted various tribes of people, the latest of whom being American farmers.
Most of these farmers settled in the town of Belle Glade, where the soil is extremely moist. Having been underwater for the majority of Earth’s life, it’s peaty quality is perfect for sugar cane. The sign welcoming outsiders to the city states that “Her soil is her fortune.” This sign erroneously suggesting that one can make a fortune in Belle Glade, and the term “settled” is also somewhat misleading since many of the American farmers who moved there did so as migratory workers, only living in the Lake Okeechobee region for half the year.
I wanted to see how Belle Glade had changed, if at all.
Migratory Worker Life
The plight of the migratory worker was portrayed in the 1960 documentary film Harvest of Shame. The opening sequence shows hundreds of migrant farmers hopping onto trucks and cramming themselves into jalopies at the Belle Glade “loading ramp,” where they headed out on a 6-7 month round-trip across thousands of miles of the eastern seaboard to pick vegetables along the way.
Elizabeth City, NC was a bean stop, good for a few months of work. Powell’s Landing, VA was about five weeks of corn and bean work. Coastal migrants usually turned around in the New York/New Jersey region, where labor camps housed many groups for the summer months. Migrant workers heading northwest usually made it as far as the Great Lakes region before the seasons reversed and sent them back south.
Migrant workers didn’t just come from Belle Glade. Nearby Pahokee, FL sent its fair share of worker northward. Homestead to the southeast, and Immokalee to the west, also contributed. It’s important to note that these were not immigrant workers. These were American families who were wholly reliant on crop maturity. These American citizens were effectively resurrecting the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their earliest ancestors.
This lifestyle was not for the faint of heart. The months spent on the road crammed into buses and trucks led to the occasional major highway accident. In the worst case on record, 21 people died (17 men, 3 women, and a kid) in a single wreck outside Fayetteville, NC on June 6, 1957. The cause was officially listed as the “packaging of the occupants of the truck.” Even when they weren’t migrating for work, their situation at temporary residences and labor camps could shift drastically. Even tropical climates weren’t entirely immune to agrarian disaster – the 1960 Florida freeze moved thousands of workers from the fields to the bread lines.
Birth control was a foreign concept, so it wasn’t surprising to see families with up to 9 children living in squalor. The surest way out of poverty is through a school, but migrant workers didn’t qualify for health or education benefits while working in other states. There were an estimated 600,000 migrant children in 1960, with most leaving school at 16 yrs of age. A mere 1 out of 500 finished grade school, and 1 in 5,000 were projected to finish high school. There wasn’t a single known case of a migrant worker’s child receiving a college degree.
When asked what he thought of the migrant lifestyle, one Florida grower opined, “I guess they got a little gypsy in their blood…a lot of ’em wouldn’t do anything else. Lot of ’em don’t know any different.” Indeed, many workers started in the fields when they were 8 yrs old, which would certainly imprint one’s fate at an early age. One of the most striking ironies in the documentary was that the federal government was spending $6.5 million annually on protecting migratory wildlife, while not even $3.5 million had been allocated to protect migratory children.
The documentary is powerful, and demonstrates the impact that 1960s media would have on America. Rural poverty was something postwar Americans were eager to forget in the wake of the Great Depression, but it was nonetheless in clear view on their television screens. Harvest of Shame demanded sympathy; it’s not as if there were 500 other channels to watch. Pre-TV era penury was experienced by either living in it or sipping coffee with impoverished families in their living rooms. In the 1960s, however, rural poverty made its way into suburban living rooms all over the country, only to be usurped by the jungles of Vietnam a few years later.
Belle Glade Today
I didn’t watch the documentary before visiting Belle Glade, but I had a general idea of what I was looking for.
I knew about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Belle Glade consistently had the highest per capita AIDS rate in the country, and led the world in 1985. One article written in 1992 articulated the effects of the virus on such a small city. Less than a year after the Magic Johnson announcement, AIDS had killed as many as five members of some Belle Glade families, and it merely added to the town’s stigma as a cesspool. Rival football teams cancelled games for fear of contracting the misunderstood disease. In games that did take place, opposing cheerleaders were so freaked out they refused snacks offered by Belle Glade squads.
I was also aware of the prevalence of violence, as Belle Glade had the 2nd highest rate of violent crime in the U.S. as recently as 2003. The website NeighborhoodScout.com claims that the average person runs a 1 in 49 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in Belle Glade, compared to 1 in 205 statewide. Rates of Belle Glade violence are more than 5 times the national average.
It’s fitting, then, that the first thing on my list to see was the abandoned, 211 acre Glades Correctional Institution, which was recently sold to BGI Group (the only bidders) for the paltry sum of $1.2 million. It was closed in December 2011, putting more pressure on the local economy by injecting 250-300 workers back into the unemployment pool. Amazingly, Belle Glade’s overall crime rate went down in 2012. Only the number of assaults increased (from 244 in 2011 to 316 in 2012), but this drop could merely be the long-awaited result of the Sheriff’s takeover of the local police force in 2006. Whatever the case, higher unemployment surely exerted more pressure on law enforcement, and Lake Okeechobee’s southern edge is now at 40%.
The prison complex was eerie. The creepiest structures I’ve ever visited have been the dead ones, the buildings that formerly buzzed with activity: schools, hospitals, malls, prisons, etc. Dead buildings are as psychologically disruptive as places holding dead people (e.g. cemeteries, morgues). I get a weird rush from dead buildings. I’m subconsciously curious about death, but still not old enough to accept or comprehend it. Human death, especially, is metaphysically unwieldy, but the death of a building reflects a circle of life I don’t mind investigating.
My girlfriend was understandably spooked, so I had her lock the doors while I took the camera (and my Ka-Bar) on a tour of the facility. Those pictures are below.
For my girlfriend’s sanity, I didn’t press my luck by driving around the back and photographing the west side of the complex. I figured it wouldn’t look much different than the front anyway, and overhead views proved me right. I got good photos of two of the six guard towers, and barbed-wire looks the same regardless of where you’re standing.
We headed into town, stopping off at Walgreens on Main St. to grab a drink. The door was open, either because the air conditioner was broken or they were trying to save money by not running it. Whatever the reason, it was hot and there were flies buzzing around everywhere as I stood in line with two Arizona teas.
The parent in front of me was letting her child hang all over the aisle displays. He was slapping whatever toy he had picked out against everything around him, even the lady’s buggy in front of them. Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to bother the lady, and after a while the parent called her child down in Spanish, though not to much effect. The child continued his obnoxious behavior, so I turned around to ignore him.
That’s when I unfortunately made eye-contact with the old lady behind me, who was muttering something inaudible at the time. Interpreting my glance as an interest in speaking to her, she raised the volume of whatever she was saying, yet it still sounded like jibberish. I couldn’t really tell if she was asking me a question or merely vocalizing some imperceptible opinion that she felt compelled to share. My girlfriend showed back up, and I used the opportunity to direct all my attention to her and away from the person behind me.
I got to the counter only to see an enormous woman walk in to my left. She must have weighed 350 lbs, and her rolls of gelatinous tissue blorphed out of her clothes like biscuit dough. As she waddled into the drugstore, it suddenly struck me that maybe a drugstore isn’t the best place to get a sense of resident life. I mean, when was the last time you walked into a CVS or a Walgreens and said to yourself “Now, this is an accurate cross-section of the surrounding demography.” Besides, chain drugstores target high-traffic intersections, not the quiet nooks and crannies of residential areas, but either way I had plenty of reasons to get the hell out of there.
So, we started driving through Belle Glade. Here’s what we saw.
We drove around for a while, backtracking a few times to get better pictures or see if we missed anything. When we came to a blue sign marked simply “Shelter,” we decided to follow it.
I remembered reading that The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 flooded the entire region, killing at least 300 people. Two years later, Lake Okeechobee got a hurricane named after it when a cyclone killed more than 2,500 people in the area (and 1,500+ elsewhere in Florida and the Caribbean), making it the 2nd deadliest hurricane in American history.
We didn’t find a hurricane shelter, but I found what I was looking for: native Belle Gladians.
We had been on the main road, Hwy 80, aka Main St, which was predominantly small commerce and municipal buildings. This prevented us from really getting into the neighborhoods, so I couldn’t really get an idea of how people lived in Belle Glade from what I saw on Main St. Turning onto SW Martin Luther King Blvd. finally satisfied my curiosity.
Just five blocks down the road and one block off the main drag was “the loading ramp,” the same area featured in the opening sequence of Harvest of Shame. To this day, people still arrive there early in the morning to park their cars or leave their bicycles and head out to the fields. The city has planned to demolish it and turn it into a park, which is kind of sad when you think about how long its been an economic hub for the town. A historic marker should be mandatory. The problem is that the loading ramp is also a hub for crime, and demands the attention of 1-2 patrol cars almost around the clock.
This is what we saw on SW Martin Luther King Blvd.
I didn’t stop to do any interviews, because my girlfriend and I aren’t VICE reporters. This was just a mandatory educational stop on a recreational day trip (yes, I’ll be that father). We also had to finish our loop around the lake, which took us through Clewiston and all the way up to Okeechobee, the seat of Okeechobee County. We visited an animal rescue there, because my girlfriend loves animals and we needed some levity after Belle Glade.
Belle Glade, FL is basically a microcosm of what is wrong with federal policies in rural America. There are numerous federal programs dedicated to things like rural health and rural economic development, but both of these types of programs will remain ineffective or negligible because the societal infrastructures in places like Belle Glades are fundamentally unsound. Uncle Sam will have to continue pumping tax dollars into a place that’s not paying them back (i.e. chronic net loss).
The only real investment we can make that will change the status quo in Belle Glade is through education. Since 1999, Belle Glade Elementary school has received a single B-rating, seven C-ratings, seven D-ratings, and an F-rating. Over that same time period, Glades Central HS received one B-rating, three C-ratings, seven D-ratings, and four F-ratings. Belle Glade public education is failing its children, and its children are failing at life because they are immediately siphoned into an agrarian economy sitting at 40% unemployment.
I came away from Belle Glade with empirical evidence supporting all the data I’d seen. We frequently read statistics and see things written about a place, and then judge it without even stepping foot on its soil. Well, I set foot on Belle Glade soil, and it is both her fortune and her curse.
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