With a name like this it must be a dream town. A place where children play safely in the streets, families congregate in the front porch and the ice cream truck attracts hordes of young boys and girls seeking to lower the temperature of a hot spring afternoon. Belle Glade is anything but.
This small town, tucked between Lake Okeechobee and miles of endless sugar cane crops is a hybrid of an agricultural hub and a suburb neighborhood of Palm Beach County. Only about 40 miles from the island of Palm Beach, where 80 million dollar mansions line up the magnificent Atlantic coast, Belle Glade looks nothing like its coastal counterpart. Chances are that 80 million dollars here could buy the entire city. And maybe even leave some change so the entire place could be rebuilt.
If you have never visited a poor neighborhood in a Central or South American country, a trip to Belle Glade may give you an idea of what those places are like. But be prepared because if you have a pulse, what you’ll see will make your stomach churn. The shock here doesn’t come from being exposed to the real Belle Glade where vultures pull the left over meat off a dead animal in the middle of an urban street. The shock doesn’t come from seeing the condemned buildings where homeless people and drug addicts share rooms with monstrous piles of garbage. The real shock comes from the fact this is these people’s new normal.
And normal is the Dungeon, as they call an old, ready-to-collapse building right in the middle of town, where 50 residents share one bathroom. Normal is also the Jamaican building where the smell of freshly cooked jerk chicken gets lost in the odor of old garbage sitting in the curb waiting to be picked up, god-knows-when. Normal are the many dwellings that look like just came out of an old Charles Bronson movie. These are all reminiscent of the times when the sugar cane farmers would bring workers from the Islands to work the crops in what could be referenced as pseudo modern-day slavery.
But watching people coming with all of their belongings – which often would fit in a single trash bag – to the Loading Ramp is the real heart breaker. These are farmer workers loading their bags into a U-Haul truck and stepping into one of two school buses which will take them to the crops in the morning. It turns out that these buses are also their home for that night. The ones who do not make into the bus before sunset not only will not have a place to sleep, they are most likely out of a job the next day too.
Belle Glade is not for the faint of heart but should be seen by all. As one member of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department shared on a sunny afternoon: “There are organizations in West Palm Beach that do mission trips to Belle Glade”. He was making a comparison with regular mission groups that travel to underprivileged villages in South America. Who knew that the same kind of missionary work is also desperately needed here, a stone throw from those garages housing Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis on A1A.
As a motorcycle rider, I have been through Belle Glade a couple of times, on my way towards the north end of Lake Okeechobee. Thousands of bikers take this route every month. But it was only now, as a photographer for the Jameel McCline’s congressional campaign that I had the opportunity to walk the streets of Belle Glade, enter the buildings, talk to people and learn a little more about the fabric that keeps this community together. Hopefully, the wind of change will start blowing in this direction. Hopefully, the first public basketball court will surface out of that slab of concrete that one day was supposed to be the foundation to another building but never happened. Hopefully, the Loading Ramp will be converted into a place where the city congregates and celebrates its diversity instead of mourning shootings and stupid deaths.
All it takes is for the people of Belle Glade to believe that change is within reach. That what they have is not the normal. That there is another way.
And it all starts with a vote.