It's getting spicy on the practice field at Glades Central. Lined up in press coverage during a scrimmage, cornerback Tavares Crawford jams some poor sophomore receiver halfway back to the huddle, then lectures him after the whistle: "It's a privilege to be on this field. You've got to earn it!"
A tall former Marine is watching with his arms folded, nodding impatiently as I extol the talent on display. "People in this community do a beautiful job of supporting these guys on the field," the former serviceman says. "The sad thing is, we don't support them academically. In the Marines we believe in never leaving a man behind. If we are truly a team, how can one guy be carrying a 3.0 and the guy next to him is academically ineligible?"
The speaker is William Grear, Glades Central '81. After 14 years in the Marines, Effie Grear's only son wanted to return to the Muck. His wife, not being native to the area, did not. The Muck won. Now 46 years old and single, William is a director for the GYRO (Glades Youth Recreational Outreach) program. Last March he was elected one of Belle Glade's two city commissioners. Although out of the service for nine years, he retains the direct manner of a Marine. "Why don't I take you for a ride," he says, "show you around. You need to see what the deal is."
Soon we are in Grear's white Chrysler sedan, cruising slowly through an apocalyptic tableau of dilapidated buildings in a 24-block area of Belle Glade known as the Grid. Window down, elbow resting on the car door, the commish greets passersby by name. He drives past a series of squalid structures, many slapped together a half century ago to house migrant workers. They are in dreadful shape. "Can't renovate them," says Grear, "because we could never get them up to code. And we can't knock them down, because we've already got a homeless issue." Some of the complexes have as many as 40 apartments and two bathrooms. "Not two bathrooms per apartment," he emphasizes. "Two bathrooms for the whole building. One for males, one for females."
Seconds after scowling at a wall defaced by fresh graffiti, Grear pulls up to a group of teenage boys, one of whom seems especially pained by his arrival. "We're painting over that graffiti at four o'clock tomorrow," Grear tells the kid. "You need to be here."
There are bright spots. Two blocks from the graffiti, everything is suddenly immaculate. I meet Pastor Pat, of the Community United Methodist Church, which works with GYRO. He and Grear make plans for the graffiti cleanup. We drive by the Lighthouse Cafe, where "we feed 100 people a day," Grear says with pride.
Back in the 'hood I see an elderly woman on a balcony, sitting on a cinder block as if it were an ottoman. People of every age are marking time on stoops, balconies and street corners. Men loiter in front of a NO LOITERING sign. "They're not hanging out because they're looking to rob somebody," says Grear. "They're hanging out because there's no place else for them to go." There is no mall, no movie theater. "Even if it's 90 degrees outside, it's 105 inside."
Toward the end of the tour we pass the building where Janoris Jenkins lived. Jenkins is the former Blue Devil who started at cornerback as a true freshman on Florida's national championship team last season. "Do you see why he plays with that hunger, that edge? Because if he doesn't make it, look what he's coming back to. He's not coming back to a job."
Help is on the way, predicts Kevin Johns, director of the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office. There are high hopes that this area will be chosen as the site for an inland port distribution hub connecting South Florida's three seaports. Such a hub would create thousands of jobs. The downtowns of both towns are undergoing makeovers, thanks to grants won by the PBCEDO. The Rim Canal, silted over by a series of hurricanes, is now being dredged to reconnect Pahokee and Belle Glade to Lake Okeechobee, to revive the area's moribund marine industry. "But that," Johns allows, "is going to take years."
Big Sugar, meanwhile, is getting smaller all the time. Four years ago Florida Crystals closed its Belle Glade grinding mill. U.S. Sugar shut down its mill outside of Pahokee in '07 and is selling 73,000 acres to the state as part of Governor Charlie Crist's Everglades restoration land deal. That arrangement includes a 10-year option to pick up another 107,000 acres from U.S. Sugar.