Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 2, 2010

Fast Times in Belle Glade

Let me introduce you to Belle Glade, Florida, one of the highlights of my recent relay run across the Sunshine State. Belle Glade lies on the shores of lovely Lake Okeechobee, a 730 square mile shimmering jewel smack in the middle of the state. Or smack in the middle of nowhere, depending on your point of view. Belle Glade is sometimes referred to by its nickname, “Muck City,” which refers to the large quantity of sugarcane-growing muck in the area.  Or it could be a socioeconomic reference. I am not sure.

The city is small, only around 15,000 residents, and yet it has distinguished itself in notable ways over the years. In the 80’s, it had the highest rate of AIDS in the United States. More recently, the FBI declared that Belle Glade had the second highest violent crime rate in the country.1 Yes, that is second highest in the entire US, and we are not talking small things like property or identity theft. We are talking the big stuff: murder, assault, rape. Things that could get you sent to the Big House (and conveniently enough, there happens to be a prison nearby, making it easy for friends and family to visit).  So Belle Glade is not only a lakeside fisherman’s paradise, it is also ideal for anyone seeking violent crime, prostitution, poverty, and drug trafficking.

Belle Glade, it turned out, was one of the points we passed through during the Sunset-to-Sunrise Relay Run across Florida. Normally, the race route would stay on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, a bike/running path along the shores of the lake and away from the city itself.  However, due to construction, the race route was diverted onto local roads right through Belle Glade’s hottest neighborhoods. To top it off, we were passing through during the prime midnight-6AM shift.  An ideal time to visit a crime-riddled area.

Now, the key to visiting a place like Belle Glade is to blend in with the locals.  Try not to stand out.  Don’t call attention to yourself.  Unfortunately, race rules stipulate that participants running at night must run with a reflective vest, a blinking light, and a headlamp.  When running along the Lake Trail, as I had earlier in the night, wearing the headlamp was oddly comforting.  I would regularly turn my head to direct the spotlight off the trail, hoping to frighten away any lurking gators.  In the ‘hood, however, the headlamp seemed to be a shining beacon beckoning every would-be assailant within visual range.   In addition, race rules allow for overnight runners to be accompanied by a cyclist for safety, which seemed like a good idea in a place like Belle Glade.  So now we are talking two reflective vests, two blinking lights and two headlamps cruising down the street at 3 AM.  Only a strobe light could have made us to stand out more, or perhaps a disco ball mounted on the bike.  I could hear Marissa Tomei from the movie My Cousin Vinny talking in my ear: “Oh, yeah, you blend.”

So there I am, dressed like a geeky wayward spelunker on a bicycle, accompanying my friend Elaine who is running through the deserted streets of Belle Glade.  Our lights are blinking, our headlamps are ablaze, and we are sticking out like a UFO that has landed in an Iowa cornfield.  Fortunately, all the drug pushers and prostitutes must have had other plans because the town was largely deserted.  We made it through the center of Belle Glade and then turned to cross over the railroad tracks and head out of town. (I guess you could say we were on the wrong side of the tracks, but both sides seemed equally dodgy.)

Just after we made the turn, I suggested to Elaine that we cross over to the other side of the street so that we would be heading against traffic (easier for cars to spot our glowing headlamps!).  However, no sooner were the words out of my mouth when I spied a couple of large dogs coming out of an alley up ahead on the other side of the road.  Knowing that Elaine was scared of dogs, I suggested that we hop up and continue running on the sidewalk, instead of crossing over to run against traffic.  As I looked again, I saw that the two dogs had now become a pack of about 8.  Eight large, not-too-friendly looking dogs headed right towards us. Now, I can be a little naive, but it dawns on me rather quickly that this is a large pack of dogs roaming around loose at 3 in the morning.  This is not Fido and friends, whose owners let them off leash for an afternoon stroll.  This is not one or two rambunctious Marley-and-Me type Labs who escaped from a backyard and are out on a doggie joyride.  No, there are no collars, no evidence of trips to the groomers, not a wagging tail in sight. This is a pack of wild Belle Glade dogs and they will mess you up, sister, headlamp or no.  Fortunately, our support van had stayed nearby for our entire Belle Glade Odyssey. They saw the dogs, slammed on the brakes, and a team-mate hopped out with pepper spray.  Fortuitously, another team van was nearby and drove up to the intersection, helping to scare the dogs away from us.   But I like to think it was our blazing headlamps that did the trick.  Perhaps the dogs thought we were escaped miners and knew better than to tussle with us.  Miners can get nasty in a fight, after all.  The dogs moved off to our left, and although I still gave nervous looks over my shoulder for several minutes, we proceeded on our way.  Eventually we crossed “Hooker Highway” (and no, I am not making that up) which I assumed was the danger zone demarcation line, and we headed out into the quiet farmland that awaited us.  We had survived Belle Glade.  Only 60 more miles to go.


Responses

  1. Now that’s anthropology. What kinds of comments and conversation did you get as you passed through?

  2. Had I known, I would have warned you: when encountering alligators, one should never, ever run. They run faster. Also, for next time, should you wish to avoid that suspiciously septic Subway sandwich shop and catch some local fare, perhaps some blue crabs in the creek by the road, bear in mind that it is best to use the ‘catch and release’ method in the event an alligator latches upon onto your line and takes your bait. Trust me, cuz I’m here and not gator droppings: Drop it (that’s the ‘release’ part) . But don’t run. They run faster.

  3. I’m glad you made it through. Great writing style…I felt everything you wrote! See you in 2011…on the dike and not on the streets (we hope!).

  4. Only a child hood friend would know Elaine is afraid of dogs!!!!Hard to believe the little girl I used to babysit and who was VERY protected is now running with the Gators!!!

  5. I’m glad it turned out OK. I thought the neighborhoods that I ran through Ocalla were rough in the Daytona to Tampa Relay. I’m taking notes, I probably won’t sign up for either relay anytime soon. Thank you.

  6. If the S2S course stayed on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail as planned, we would have by-passed Belle Glade altogether. This was just a one-time (hopefully) detour. Generally speaking, the S2S route is very safe and quite scenic. The middle of the course is usually all trail, which is perfect for overnight running: no cars, much safer than a road. Of course, there are still the gators and wild boar….

  7. Was doing research on Florida, thanks for all the info on Belle Glade….where you were ‘running amuck’ : ) I used to live in the country, in Hawaii ~hungry, wild packs of pitbulls, wild boar and locals with guns and bloody dogs…the things they don’t put in the travel guides~I feel your angst…and it is actually much worse than that!

    • Thanks for stopping by to read. And you’re right, these details are not the kind that end up in the travel guide – there would be no tourists if they did!

  8. There’s a saying, ” If Florida has a Twilight Zone, it’s called Belle Glade.”

    Lived at the marina in Pahokee for a year, won’t be going back. Glad you made it.

  9. Forgot to mention,
    Those wild dogs for the most part, were dumped there by people over on the coast. They have killed many cats, and live in the sugar cane fields. I’ve seen packs of them too.
    Gators can run as fast as a horse for about fifty feet, but can only run straight, so always move aside . . . . QUICKLY


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