It’s a slow-ass day today, so much so that I was a little irked when the mail trolley didn’t bring me that copy of The Crime of Monsieur Lange I’ve been pining for, and instead dropped off the latest issue of one of my company’s in-house magazines. I was flipping through the various urban renewal stories inside it when the words “Opa-Locka, Florida” caught my eye—I hadn’t known before today that we’ve been working on some revitalization projects there. Opa-Locka is, of course, the hell on Earth into which the bible drummer Paul Brennan falls during the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s great film Salesman. It’s one of those nutty little communities that adopted a “theme” when it sprang up during the land boom that Groucho took an axe to in Cocoanuts, and its choice of motifs—the Arabian Nights—seems stranger still now that we’ve entered the 21st Century. In one of Salesman’s most memorable passages an exasperated Brennan tries to make sense of the city’s whimsically named and plotted streets, including Sinbad Avenue, Sharazad Boulevard and, yes, Sesame Street. The town’s founders, not content with laying out their city as a pack of five-year olds might, went on to line its avenues with buildings done up in a faux Moorish style, with a City Hall festooned in golden domes and pointed arches and minarets so laughably fakey that Walt Disney’s version of Mad Ludwig’s Castle looks authentically medieval by comparison. And if you thought the name “Opa-Locka” was coined by some tin-eared booster, you wouldn’t be wrong: it’s a land developer’s abbreviation for the region’s unwieldy Indian name. A true linguistic curiosity, it’s a word that physically pains the eye that takes it in.
What civic nuttiness couldn’t take care of, geopolitics would do its best to finish off. When I was a kid my family drove down Route 66 to my grandparents’ place in the Ozarks every summer, a trip that took us through the tiny burg of Cuba, Missouri, whose denizens, perhaps too aware of how much that name stood out in the early 1960s, mounted a billboard at the city limits that read WE MAY BE NAMED CUBA BUT WE DON’T LIKE CASTRO. I can’t help but think that in late 2001 Opa-Locka’s civic leaders felt even more pricklish and on the defensive, especially when it came to light that the some of the 9/11 hijackers, perhaps at home amongst the papier-mâché towers and play-tot street names, had taken their flying lessons there.
Now, you’d think that its links to Salesman—one of the most ferocious assaults on American capitalism ever put to celluloid—and the WTC attacks would create enough bad vibes for any city in the world, but Opa-Locka had yet to win the saddest prize of all. In 2003 and 2004 it led all of America’s cities in violent crime—and not by a little, but by a lot. In 2005 its murder rate dropped to second, after East St. Louis, but it was still something to behold: where the killing fields of Oakland reported 23.2 murders for every 100,000 citizens, Opa-Locka—with a population slightly south of 16,000—racked up 51, while the number of its assaults and robberies dwarfed the national averages. Most of the violence could be traced to “the Triangle,” a tiny warren of streets just a short hop up Ali Baba Avenue from where Paul Brennan got lost in 1968, and home to some truly vicious drug wars.
In Salesman’s closing shot a sere and withered Paul Brennan gazes out of his motel room, and his thousand-yard stare looks like it’s taking in the abyss rather than some choice Floridian real estate—the poor old guy was seeing his hopes and dreams evaporate before his eyes. It was the end of a long process but one that starts easily enough. This morning the mailroom guy plopped a magazine down on my desk and I happened to glance at its thirteenth page, and in less than an hour I was up to my eyes in Opa-Locka.