Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Necessary Visit to Baltimore Tomorrow and a Must-Be-Told Florida Southern Gothic Story (Reposted from The New York Times)

UPDATED 9:36PM 3/11/2014: See below in two places.

Baltimore (by hot air balloon!)

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This is an afternoon update. I'm actually working from home today -- while simultaneously trying to get over a hangover from last night. I met Mike G. last night (we also met last Friday) at Old Ebbitt Grill. However, the place was just too damn mobbed (at 715PM on a random Monday evening in March ...), so instead we walked over to the Bottom Line on I Street and had dinner and some drinks there.

Bottom Line bar, Washington, D.C., 7:50PM March 10, 2014

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Then we went to Larry's Lounge, where the usual bacchanal sh!t show ensued.

Actually, it was kind of fun, and both Gary and Kristof showed up. I really don't remember leaving, though everything seems to be fine, and Mike got back to Ellicott City safe and sound. (He only had a couple beers -- I was the one who had too much white wine followed by apple-flavored Stoli vodka and soda water.)

As for today, I need to do two things: Complete a fairly sizable editing assignment for one of my supervisors who returns to the office tomorrow after a two week trip to China and go to the gym. I need to have tomorrow free and clear to go to Baltimore. My mom is having surgery for gallstone removal at MedStar Harbor Hospital, and (of course) I need to go there. I'm not sure if she'll be there overnight (the surgery is in the morning).

South Baltimore neighborhoods -- don't forget Pigtown!

I'm planning on taking a MARC Penn Line (the Camden Line, though it terminates at a much more convenient spot to where I need to go) is too unreliable and infrequent) late morning. The only trouble is I need to get to Harbor Hospital -- which requires getting first to downtown Baltimore / Inner Harbor and then walking.


I am NOT doing a Baltimore mobile ghetto MTA bus.


I need to walk down Charles Street from the Inner Harbor through that weird but NOT ENTIRELY unpleasant stretch of South Baltimore that includes portions of Otterbein (Otterbein?), Federal Hill, Sharp-Leadenhall, Riverside, an area on a map called "SBIC" (South Baltimore Improvement Committee -- ha ha); and Port Covington and then over the Hanover Street (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) Bridge. It's a 2 to 3 mile walk.

The Hanover Street Bridge -- officially called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge -- as seen in 2006.

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Updated 9:36 PM 3/11/2014


Now I'm thinking maybe I should just take a taxi or even a bus. I don't know if I want to chance it walking in such a weird no-man's land as that. As for the bus, it looks like the southbound Route #64 would be the one I would want. In fact, it looks like it runs all the way from near Penn Station itself, which is rather convenient. And the schedule indicates that it runs every half hour or so midday during the week.

Update continued below.

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That bridge goes over something called the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River that ostensibly contains water but is more like a vintage Baltimore toxic muck.

I love Bal'mer, hon. It's both simultaneously awesome and appalling, a multi-faceted and rich cultural treasure (Charm City, indeed) and a bad-ass scary 'hood.

Too bad I don't have a bicycle. Remember our little Baltimorese expression (nonsensical but it one gives a sense of the accent):

"She RAID her boskle in da snao wif her ayes glazed in Anny Runnell Kenny, hon."

Translation: "She rode her bicycle in the snow with her eyes closed in Anne Arundel County, hon."

Anyway, I plan to be back in D.C. by tomorrow evening. Hopefully, I can take a Camden Line back.

Baltimore on a pleasant autumn day.

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(Cont'd) Updated 9:36PM 3/11/2014

So I got my gym visit out of the way, and it was more or less a full workout. I heard from my mom, but I didn't tell her I am planning on going to the hospital. She's kind of scared right now, which bothers me. I also called my dad to tell him about the surgery -- as well as about the story directly below (since it isn't that far from where he lives).

As for my dad, he was happy because he set successfully set up an antenna on his trailer-by-the-sea in unincorporated Flagler County, and now he gets all these digital channels from Orlando, and he can tell the cable companies down there to pound sand. He loves doing that -- he must have walked away from at least 30 cable and cellphone carriers in the past 20 years in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, happily stiffing them.

Finally, I made a good dinner tonight -- steamed broccoli and carrots, jasmine rice, and heated up Tysons grilled chicken strips, all mixed together. And flavored Vintage Seltzer water, though I allow myself a can of soda pop. And I'll have my milk and two Reese's peanut butter cups later as I watch TV (various old sitcoms) and work on the aforementioned editing assignment.

End of Update.

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Southern Gothic: The Story of Dumpwater, er, uh, Hampton, Florida

Speaking of strange places and stories, below is posted in full a New York Times article just that has to be read. It's a story that has must be told far and wide.

It's a story of the flyspeck of a Florida town called Hampton and the speed trap it set up along its tiny stretch of Route 301 -- and how the abuse of this has lead to discoveries that could result in the town's abolition. I was hooked when I got to the quote about how it was like a Southern Gothic novel. And some of the names involved ("Hall" and "Innocent") just put it over the top.


A Dot on the Map, After Scandal, Could Be Wiped Off

By Lizette Alvarezmarch
The New York Times
Published online March 10, 2014 and in print edition on March 11, 2014.


HAMPTON, Fla. -- It's easy for motorists driving down busy Route 301 to miss this speck of a city in rural north-central Florida: Fiddle with the car radio, unwrap a pack of gum, gaze out the window at the sunset and, whoosh, it's gone.

And so it fell to the police to force hurried travelers to stop and savor the 1,260-foot ribbon of roadway belonging to this city. Hidden by trash bins or concealed in a stretch of woods, the officers -- a word loosely applied here -- pointed their radar devices. Between 2011 and 2012, Hampton’s officers issued 12,698 speeding tickets to motorists, many likely caught outside Hampton's strip of county road.

But, as it turns out, surprised motorists are not the only ones getting burned. So many speeding tickets were churned out for so many years and with such brazenness that this city of 477 residents came under scrutiny -- and not just for revenue raising with a radar gun. Now, Hampton, an 89-year-old city, is fighting legislative momentum to wipe it off the map, after a state audit last month uncovered reams of financial irregularities, shoddy record-keeping and missing funds.

The state attorney, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Bradford County Sheriff's Office recently opened a criminal investigation, focusing primarily on the actions of the city's three former full-time employees -- the city clerk, the maintenance operator and the police chief.

"If half of this is remotely true, they've used the city as a personal pocketbook," said the Bradford County sheriff, Gordon Smith, who routinely butted heads with John Hodges, Hampton's police chief.

"I have said it before: It's something out of a Southern Gothic novel. You can't make this stuff up," said State Senator Rob Bradley, whose district includes the city. "This situation went on for so long and the mismanagement was so deep, we have to seriously consider abolishing the government."


Hampton, a mishmash of trailers and wood-frame houses, some ramshackle, some not, has about 30 days to come up with a plan and make a genuine attempt to right itself or it will tumble into oblivion. The State Legislature would then take up a vote to dissolve it, handing over management of the city's one square mile to Bradford County.

Mustering salvation is a tall task for a city of this size and condition. Hampton lost its three full-time employees to the scandal, seldom runs City Council elections because nobody wants the jobs and often skips holding monthly Council meetings altogether.

Even picking a mayor among the five Council members proved an ordeal. The post was finally filled last September, but two months into the job, the new mayor, Barry Moore, was charged with possession of Oxycodone with intent to sell. He now sits in jail awaiting trial.


For years, complaints about Hampton streamed in to local politicians and the county sheriff, most often about the speed trap. Tens of thousands of motorists were stopped for speeding, even though they had little time to slow down from 65 miles per hour to 55 m.p.h., particularly coming from the south, on 301's 1,260-foot Hampton strip. Among them were the legions of University of Florida Gator fans making game-day pilgrimages from Jacksonville to Gainesville. Even State Representative Charles E. Van Zant Sr., who represents Hampton and spearheaded the audit, got a speeding ticket here in 2011. (He said his speeding ticket -- which he paid -- had nothing to do with ordering the audit.)

Google areal map view of the western portion of Hampton, Florida with boundary lines drawn. This shows the annexation including the portion of Rt. 301 in question.

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In 2011, the city took in $268,624 from traffic fines. The sum was $197,247 in 2010 and $151,000 in 2012. Despite those windfalls, the city operated at a deficit.

Traffic fines were by far the chief source of revenue in a city with two gas station convenience stores and only scrapings of property taxes. In fact, Jim Mitzel, 50, a former mayor who left office in 2008 after a conflict with the police chief and the city clerk, said he helped Hampton annex the tiny slice of 301 in the mid-1990s simply to help fill city coffers.

"This town has struggled financially for years and years," Mr. Mitzel said. "But once we got 301, our chief went crazy."

The city went so crazy that it wasn't long before AAA put it on its list of notorious speed traps.

Nothing changed.

"The last couple of years were the worst,” Mr. Mitzel said. "They went after people like fresh meat. They pulled out in front of semis."

In pursuit of speeders, the city's force grew to 17 from one, some of them volunteers and a few of them driving uninsured cars. Sheriff Smith said he did not know how many were actually police officers and how many were trained in radar detection. Fed up, the sheriff last year cut the police chief’s access to databases, radio communications and the use of the jail.

"We didn't know who was bringing someone to our jail," Mr. Smith said. "Was he a cop?"

A few years ago, the police chief added ministering to his job description. He suddenly began holding services at the tumbledown City Hall in a novel merger of church and state.

"I called it the John Hodges Church of God," Mr. Mitzel said.

City grievances ran deeper than the tickets, but no one ever challenged it robustly, not wanting to rock the boat, Mr. Mitzel said.

There was chatter about nepotism at City Hall. Jane Hall, the former city clerk, is the mother of the former maintenance operator, Adam Hall, who also ran the water system, and the wife of Charles Hall, a longtime city councilman. Her daughter also worked there for a short time.

"I called it, the City of Halls," Mr. Mitzel added.


There were mutterings about vanishing city funds; personal use of city credit cards, trucks and gas; and trips to Ms. Hall's clutter-filled house to hand over cash payments for water bills for which she offered no receipts. Some residents were threatened with the loss of water -- the one utility controlled by the city -- if they made trouble, Mr. Smith said. Auditors found that 46 percent of the city’s water went unaccounted for, much of it leaking through decrepit lines.

In a February email to The Gainesville Sun, Ms. Hall defended herself and said, "There has been a deliberate attempt to make me look like some criminal mastermind."

Councilman Frantz Innocent said a lack of staff and "oversight" was part of the problem. "We are just trying to fix things that happened," he said. "If you want to go poking around looking for something, you can always find something wrong."

Again, this is a story that needs to be told.

The Bundy's in the fictitious town of Dumpwater, Florida.

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OK, that's all for now. My next update likely will not be until at least tomorrow (Wednesday) night or early Thursday.

--Regulus

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