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Brickell

North Bay Village

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There's quite a boom going on there as well...

This is an editorial column by the way.

JIM DEFEDE/COMMENTARY

Town continues to be a magnet for corruption

The scene was a small party at a friend's house.

One of the guests was a Voice of America reporter who had just returned to Miami after covering weeks of violence and mayhem in Haiti. The country's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been forced from office and was accusing the United States of kidnapping him. Food supplies were dwindling. The country was without electricity. And armed gangs ruled the street.

The correspondent spoke in a calm and even voice.

Then someone at the party mentioned North Bay Village.

The correspondent shuddered. ''North Bay Village,'' he said, his expression growing sour, ``that place is ungovernable!''

And so it is.

In the past year, the mayor and three city commissioners have been arrested, two others are under investigation and the police department is also facing scrutiny. All in a town of just 7,000 people.

In a county filled with strange little cities, none has the history or flair for corruption that North Bay Village has cultivated. In the '50s and '60s this was the quintessential mob town, home to Tommy ''The Enforcer'' Altamura, Vincent ''Jimmy Blue Eyes'' Alo and Joe ''Skootch'' Indelicato.

Dean Martin had his own nightclub in North Bay Village, as did blues legend Wayne Cochran. There was also Jilly's South, a spin-off of the famous New York eatery that was a favorite of Frank Sinatra. Zsa Zsa Gabor once had a diamond necklace stolen from her penthouse suite by a cat burglar.

Back in those days, North Bay Village boasted the latest ''last call'' in Dade County. The bars didn't close till 7 a.m. and the brothels were open 24 hours a day.

''There were some real characters on the causeway, right out of a Damon Runyon novel,'' recalls Harvey Ruvin, a former county commissioner and now the county's clerk of the courts. Ruvin got his start in politics in North Bay Village when he was elected mayor in 1968 as part of a reform movement.

A year before he came into office, a mafia gang war had broken out in the city, which most elected officials shrugged off. ''What are we talking about? A few bombings and a murder,'' asked one city commissioner. ``That could happen any place.''

When Ruvin came into office, one of his first goals was to get rid of the city's police chief. ''In the four years he was chief, there hadn't been a single arrest for prostitution,'' Ruvin said. ``That's because he was the rental agent for the [apartment complex] that was also well-known for prostitution.''

The city rolled back its bar hours to a more respectable level and as the mobsters faded away, other notoriety followed. Donna Rice used to live in North Bay Village before her scandalous affair with Gary Hart in 1987. And in the '80s, hardly a year passed without one or two police officers being indicted or fired. (The department's liaison to the elementary school's drug prevention program was indicted for cocaine smuggling.)

When I arrived in Miami in 1991, I lived in North Bay Village. And one of my first stories for Miami New Times was about the town's upcoming election. Indeed, my all-time favorite political candidate came out of that race: 70-year-old Emanuel ''Mannie'' Diamond. His campaign flier featured a tiny picture of himself, photocopied from his driver's license.

'You are looking at Mr. Emanuel `Mannie' Diamond,'' stated the flier. ``I have two eyes to see what is needed in the City of North Bay Village; I have two ears that will always listen to the people.''

As we talked, he stressed his credentials, including his service in World War II. ''I'm as healthy as a horse,'' he told me at the time. ``Except that I have a plate in my head and I lost one eye in the war.''

At that moment, with his one good eye, he stared at the campaign flier, with its two-eyed pledge. ''Huh,'' he said. ``I didn't really think about that when I had these printed.''

It was then and there that I knew I would love it here in South Florida.

Ungovernable? Sure.

And proud of it.

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