Harvest of Ignoring Shame

BELLE GLADE, FL β€” Today we went out to Pahokee, where we used to have a boat until Frances sunk it and Jeanne swept it away, as it did everything in the marina there that was one of the hopes of this forsaken community.

I wanted to see what was left, and the answer was very little. Magically, in the years since hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which came at the midway point in the Bush residency, and prior to Gov. Crist’s deal that will evacuate employers from the area, a few small businesses have survived. Most of the storefronts that we remembered when our boat still bobbed in the Everglades Adventures marina are shuttered.

We went on to Belle Glade, because the main squeeze had never been to the “loading ramp” there, although we had both recently seen it when we watched “Harvest of Shame,” an Edward R. Murrow documentary filmed in 1960.

The loading ramp is where workers, when there was work, lined up to get aboard a truck that would carry them to fields to do stoop labor for a wage that didn’t quite cover the costs of staying alive. As a result, the people who lined up there to harvest the crops of the world’s best fed nation were not in on the American dream; without access to health care, adequate nutritiion, education, they could not hope that their children’s lives would be better than theirs.

That was before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, before the Great Society, before the social justice movements of the decade’s waning years. That was before an outbreak of tuberculosis in 1980 could not be explained, before the AIDS epidemic and before researchers from the federal government spent 10 years there to try and figure out why more people per capita had come down with the deadly contagious disease in Belle Glade than in any other place in America.

It hadn’t changed yet when I first saw it in 2004. I was warned then I would not believe I was in my own wealthy country, in fact, that it was worse than people who had travelled the world had seen anywhere. I was worried, as I had been before visiting the Grand Canyon, that descriptions would diminish reality. That wasn’t the case with the Grand Canyon, an illustration of nature’s grandiosity, and it isn’t the case in Belle Glade, an illustration of humanity’s limitations.

And it hadn’t changed today. Buildings that should have been leveled after Edward R. Murrow’s visit stand there still, serving as barracks, sheets flapping in broken doorways.
People in rags sit listlessly outside. It is miles of sugar cane fields away from work, charity, decent housing for people who don’t make enough money to plan for the next day. As a result, people don’t. Open air drug dealing appears to be the most thriving business in town. But perhaps not the most blatantly illegal, as these buildings, for which absentee landlords charge rent, don’t meet any code on any books, anywhere.

We saw a “Weed and Seed” sign in the midst of this — tax money at work, without leaving a trace. We saw other signs of fleeting philanthropy. But mainly, before we peeled out and left town, we saw people ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill, on the western edges of one of the wealthiest towns in America.

And it occurred to us, some 80 years after the hurricane that warned the nation what Katrina would do, nearly half a century after Murrow’s visit, and nearly a quarter century after this was first called “the AIDS capital of America,” and well into a century that has seen this nation offer less healthcare and higher rates of infectious disease than any other industrialized nation, that we have, in fact, reaped what we have sown.

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2 Responses

  1. This is very good. It is why you are writing a book- because the problems in Belle Glade are not just abhorrent, they are immoral, especially in a wealthy county like Palm Beach.

  2. It wonderful to see that with all that is wrong here in Belle Glade and the rest of the country people like you still find time to beat down my town. I call it my town because I work and live here. But do you really know anything about Belle Glade. It clear to me that it is easier to rehash old material pay quick visit and publish an article.

    I guess I would be easy to say your not from here and you do not know what you are talking about. But some of this statement would not be true. There are problems and issues here. There is high unemployment, there are few jobs other than agriculture. The schools need help too.

    I have lived in Belle Glade and Pahokee all of my life. I worked in Scouting, Youth atheltic programs, been on the boards of the local Boys and Girls Club and the Chamber of Commerce. I have been a Volunteer Fireman and still am EMT. So I can say you do not know everything about Belle Glade, and will continue not too as long as you stand at a distance throwing stones. Did you know that some of the nicest and friendliest people you will ever meet are here in Belle Glade.

    If you want to see the people of Belle Glade improve and have a better way of life maybe you should get off that soap box get a little dirty helping them out. You could work toward providing better education for the adult population, so they could get better jobs. You could use your Bulletins to motivate companies to invest and bring business to our community. These two issues alone would improve the quality of life in Belle Glade.

    So next time you should be ready to stay and help instead of runaway.

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