It was one of those gatherings made for the city's chief cheerleader, Mayor Glenda Hood. Two weeks ago she hosted a budget workshop with neighborhood leaders of Districts 5 and 6, which lie in the predominantly African American sections of the city. Leaning on a podium in city-council chambers, the cuffs of her dapper yellow jacket rolled up, the mayor delivered a convincing walk-through of the annual budget, making sure to highlight the finer points of civic pride as seen through the eyes of city leaders. Among her boasts: a Spanish-language web site, new community police stations, the opening of Trotter's Park, more e-government offerings, the finest police and fire services in Central Florida, a top 10 ranking in Child Magazine and a 6.2 percent decrease in property taxes.
"We're the most dynamic city in the state of Florida," the mayor gushed. Of course, that boast presented a small burden: The city's reputation was being raised to ever higher levels, making city leaders have to work that much harder.
Most of the 29 black leaders in attendance had few complaints about the mayor's presentation. Except for a few nitpicky things such as streetlights and the interminable crime problem in Parramore, they seemed to enjoy being members of the city's dysfunctional family.
But these few black residents weren't the only ones Hood should have been buttering up. There were thousands of uninvited African Americans just outside the city limits who have been excluded by Orlando leaders for decades. They have quite literally been annexed around in a quest for more affluent and, by default, whiter neighborhoods.
These upscale neighborhoods are miles from the heart of the city, contradicting Orlando officials' ostensible goal of having rational, compact boundaries. Neighborhoods to the southwest and southeast, such as Metrowest and Lake Nona, jut out from the rest of Orlando almost as if they were separate cities. Pockets of the county, called enclaves, lie helter-skelter within city boundaries, but mostly in black communities on the west side of downtown. Fingers of city poke out at odd angles into the county. The effect is that the city's borders look as if they were drawn by a punch-drunk idiot. Even the city's planning and development employees call the boundaries "bad" and "horrible."
Not only has Orlando's annexation pattern broken its own cardinal rules, it also has created de facto segregation in Orlando. White upscale communities have been annexed in. Poor black communities have been continually overlooked.
"They're cherry-picking these areas," says Ezell Harris, a member of the Orange County NAACP. "It's not to their advantage to [annex] these neighborhoods that have social problems. They want to go to more affluent areas where the tax base is higher."
State Sen. Lee Constantine agrees with Harris, using the same word -- cherrypicking -- to describe the selective annexation practices of some Florida cities. A Republican, Constantine is the former mayor of Altamonte Springs who was instrumental in passing several laws that expedite the annexation of forgotten unincorporated areas. "Cities are saying, 'Let's just annex this area and not this one.' It's going to cost something," he says. "That's a fundamental problem."
No doubt Orlando leaders were seeing dollar signs when they agreed to two of the most well-known annexations of the last 20 years, Metrowest and Lake Nona. But they couldn't have fully realized the racial implications since neither community was completed at the time of annexation. In Metrowest, an 1,800-acre development southwest of Orlando annexed in 1983, almost 9,000 whites have moved in but only 1,000 blacks. The figures are worse in Lake Nona, a gated community east of the Orlando International Airport. The community, which was added to the city's boundaries in 1994, has 178 whites but only 10 African Americans.
Meanwhile, city leaders carved out 29 enclaves within Orlando, according to figures provided to the state in 1994. (St. Petersburg, by comparison, had 2; Altamonte Springs had 30.) These pockets of unincorporated territory cause logistical problems for public-safety officials and cost taxpayers extra dollars because fire and police protection are often duplicated. Enclaves are such a problem that the legislature outlawed the creation of any more of them in 1993.
Ironically, not all those who live in -- or own property in -- the enclaves want to become a part of the city. Take, for example, some of the residents of Holden Heights. Named after rancher and citrus grower William Harrison Holden, the neighborhood is home to 5,400 people, 58 percent of whom are black. It is located in the south central part of Orlando, bordered by Grand Street to the north, I-4 on the south, Parramore Avenue on the east and Clear Lake on the west. Orlando's seediest street, the Orange Blossom Trail, runs through the middle of the neighborhood. Holden has a per capita income of $21,500 and an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Three hundred of its 2,200 homes are vacant; another 396 are considered substandard.
Given the depressed economics of the area, it is easy to see why the city annexed around the neighborhood. The area's homes are still on septic tank systems. It has few sidewalks, street lights or gutters. If you look north on Rio Grande Avenue, one of the area's westernmost boulevards, you see some vestige of contemporary life, a wing of the Florida Citrus Bowl rising in the air. Look the other way, you see remnants of rural Orlando -- weeded lots, ramshackle homes, yards piled with trash.
Only lately has the county tried to do something with the neighborhood. The community is undergoing a $20 million sewer, sidewalks and gutter project, for which residents are being assessed. Completion date is set for 2004.
"We're like nobody's child," says Dedra Jenkins, who was the Holden Heights Neighborhood Association president for 10 years. "Nobody's wanted us."
Jenkins bought her two-bedroom, one-bath house in the 1970s, when land prices bottomed out. At the time, Holden Heights was just another middle-class neighborhood. A state trooper and young professionals were Jenkins' neighbors. Open-air drug sales and prostitution were nonexistent.
Then the neighborhood aged and the population shifted. Older residents died, and sons and daughters sold their parents' homes to absentee landlords. Two strip bars and a host of labor pools moved in.
Now, Holden Heights has a reputation as being among the roughest neighborhoods in Orange County. It is part of the northern section of Zone 42, which has the second-highest number of calls for service in the unincorporated county (33,300 last year). The area with the most calls for service, Zone 22, is near the UCF area. But deputies in Zone 22 usually respond to noise disturbances and car accidents. Calls in Zone 42, on the other hand, report what Orange County Capt. Bernie Presha calls real crime -- rapes, robberies and carjackings. "Things that are a bigger priority," he says.
How did things get so bad? Apathy, ambivalence and just plain neglect, Jenkins says. "In the beginning, the ignorance and decay the county let perpetuate around here became a sore spot," she says. "It began to cost too much money to bring us up to code. The city would not annex us because we did not have the infrastructure. The county did not want to spend money just to have us annexed."
Not all of Holden Heights is blighted. The homes around Clear Lake, built in the 1950s, are as pretty and well kept as those you would find in College Park. Homeowners here are frustrated with the county's lack of attention to the area. While the sheriff's department often receives blame, some residents complain about the failure of code-enforcement officials who are supposed to make landowners maintain their property. "Enforcement has been piss-poor," says one Clear Lake homeowner, who asked not to be identified. "If they would enforce the code that is already there, that would be a big improvement."
Since he already knows how unresponsive Orange County is, this homeowner would rather take his chances with Orlando's government and its higher taxes. "We should be annexed. I'm very strongly for it. We'd have better police protection and more and better services."
Years ago, it would have been virtually impossible for Holden Heights to annex into the city -- if not because of city leaders, then because of city voters. To annex into Orlando, not only would the voters of Holden Heights have to hold a referendum, but Orlando voters also would have to agree. That was a very unlikely scenario given the economic disparity of the two areas. "If you have a wealthy city considering whether to let in a poor area, it will say, 'Why would we want to pay for their services?'" according to Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University public-administration professor who has worked with the state legislature on annexation issues. "On the other hand, [an unincorporated] wealthy area is going to ask, 'Why should we go into the city? We have a gated community. We have a community swimming pool. We don't need their stuff.' The only time annexation will succeed is when the socioeconomics of the areas are very similar."
But in the 1999 legislative session, Sen. Constantine was among legislators who changed Florida law so that certain annexations could go forward with a vote only from an enclave's residents. In theory, that should allow areas such as Holden easier passage into the city.
But annexation is never that simple. For one thing, 85 percent of Holden's homes are owned by absentee landlords, who are more likely to favor lower taxes and the status quo.
"Most of them are going to say, 'What's going on is okay by me,'" says Jim Gibson, a member of the Holden Heights Neighborhood Association. "Why would they want to increase their cost? Because of the typical resident-transient movable population, we don't have stability."
Landowners are not the only ones opposing annexation. Longtime residents like Dedra Jenkins are also skeptical, arguing that Orlando city officials will be just as unresponsive as county leaders. Especially when city taxes are estimated to be 25 percent higher than the county's.
"I question paying higher taxes for inadequate services," Jenkins says. "There's a big difference between paying city taxes and paying county taxes. How would you feel if you paid more for similar services? My feeling is that we'd be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
"Annexation," she continues, "is just another word for adding more taxes."
Reactions like those of Jenkins are the reason that Mayor Hood will have a bona fide sales job on her hands if city leaders ever get serious about annexing Holden Heights and areas like it.
What can Orlando offer citizens in these areas to persuade them to come into the city? Generally speaking, the city has a reputation for better code-enforcement and other services than the county. It has a better ratio of police officers, 3.38 for every 1,000 citizens compared to Orange County's 2.05. Its fire department has one of the highest ratings in Florida. And Orlando offers an identity, a chance to be recognized on an international -- even historical -- scale.
"If you think back in history," says former Volusia County state Rep. Sam Bell, "you think of great cities like Athens and Rome. But you can't tell me what county they were in. Cities are the building blocks of civilization."
But is it ridiculous to assume that the mayor would lobby county residents on annexation?
Lee Constantine doesn't think so. He says that's exactly what members of the Altamonte Springs city council did in the mid-1980s with a low-income, African American community called Winwood. Altamonte Springs lobbied Winwood leaders to annex into the city, but were ultimately rejected.
"You've got to be able to sell your city to areas outside the city," Constantine says. "It's a question of leadership. If we do this, we can improve the lot of all our citizens."
Constantine stops short, however, of endorsing an increased role for the state in closing enclaves and mediating boundary disputes. "I don't think it is the responsibility of the state to mandate who annexes into a city," the senator says.
DeHaven-Smith, the FSU professor, argues that the state should be more of a mediator because cities are likely to continue coveting affluent communities, allowing questionable annexation practices to be the rule rather than the exception. "It's like a big mud pit that the legislature has told them to wrestle in," he says. "It's a tragedy."
So what is the future of Orlando's enclaves? Sherry Gutch of the mayor's economic development team says the city will begin annexing some of the smaller ones through agreements with the county. She added that the city might lobby legislators to make it easier to annex larger enclaves, such as Holden Heights.
The county, meanwhile, wholeheartedly embraces closing in enclaves, though there's little its officials can do. Cities and county residents wield almost all of the power. "We don't like enclaves," says Chris Testerman, the county's planning division manager. "We're not adverse to the city's trying to delete them."
But there's an interesting side note to Holden Heights. City leaders don't consider it to be a true enclave. Their reasons are technical: To gain a right of way down I-4, the city annexed the interstate in 1969, effectively closing off Holden Heights. Rights of way, according to the city, cannot create enclaves. But does that make the city any less obligated, either morally or legally, to annex Holden than it is "true" enclaves?
More importantly for residents of Holden, will changes ever come -- no matter who's in charge -- that are anything more than cosmetic?
"If you stand at the end of my street and look at the city boundary," Dedra Jenkins asks, "what difference do you see?"