By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Joseph Carlin sits behind the bulletproof glass of the walk-up window at Buddy's Bar, staring out at North Miami Avenue and absently stroking the head of his guard dog, a sweet German shepherd named Nick. Also near at hand is the semiautomatic handgun Carlin keeps tucked in the waistband of his white tennis shorts. Even though it's midday, he expects no customers, and nobody comes.
Carlin, a chatty 65-year-old with a bulbous nose and a graying mop of hair, remembers when Buddy's Bar was a friendly watering hole for working-class folks rather than a down-at-the-heel package store. Residents of the apartment building next door stopped in regularly for a cocktail and a tender Delmonico steak. "In the good old days," Carlin says. His rheumy eyes flare for a moment. "Before the crack moved in."
The intersection of North Miami Avenue and NE Fourteenth Street seems to inspire daydreams about the past. Standing here, in the tiny neighborhood just east of Overtown and north of downtown, it's no great stretch of the imagination to envision the city as a nascent settlement on the southern frontier of the United States. The shining towers of Miami's modern skyline rise just to the south, but there are no high-rises on these corners. The wide streets still look suitable for horsecarts. The sun hangs low, bleaching the brush that grows between the train tracks that separate this traditionally white neighborhood from Overtown. Back in the days when the unobstructed vista extended all the way to Biscayne Bay, Buddy's view must have looked like fertile ground for sowing big-city dreams. Today this patch of central Miami looks bombed-out, a ghost town of rundown buildings abandoned in favor of suburban sprawl, a nagging testament to urban decay.
As if to affirm this impression, just down the street from Buddy's place a cherub-faced young man lies passed out in front of a boarded-up structure that came into existence 70 years ago as a filling station. Across the street stands Miami's second firehouse, built in the Twenties and deserted three decades ago for a new facility farther north. A plan to turn the historic building into a fire-department museum never materialized, though it served as a day-care center for a while. Under bricked-up windows, the faded words "Overtown Community Center" can still be seen, hand-lettered hopefully on one side.
The neoclassical facade of the nearby old Citizens Bank of Miami is painted an ugly brown. In the Forties the busted bank had its most spectacular incarnation -- as a taxidermist's office and home to a fanciful museum of colorful mounted fish. The building has persevered since the Fifties as the Fourteenth Street Fabric Bazaar, the bank's grand old lobby filled to the ceiling with schmattes, bolts of fabric, and faded remnants of material.
Across the street a vacant seven-story Art Deco apartment building towers over the rest of the block. It was the first residential structure in the City of Miami to have an elevator, Carlin notes. By the Seventies the ancient apparatus frequently got stuck between floors. Firefighters arrived at least once per week to rescue some elderly resident. "The smart ones started taking the stairs," Carlin recalls. "The others were too old, or just too stubborn."
Television news crews also made periodic visits to the building over the years, pointing their cameras at a corner apartment, number 38. That was where, in the early Sixties, an FBI informant secretly tape-recorded a right-wing extremist as he revealed a plan to kill President John F. Kennedy in Miami.
There's no visible intrigue on the street today. Most of the half-dozen stores on the block sell restaurant supplies, the area's enduring enterprise. Cell-phone-toting buyers of stainless-steel stoves and espresso machines park as close to the store entrances as possible and duck inside, catching a whiff of urine from the sidewalk as they go.
A rusty sign reading "Liquor" used to light up the front of Carlin's building. It now leans inside the door, where a handwritten placard is posted: "Buddy's Bar Restaurant Equipment." A couple of years ago Carlin thought he'd get into the neighborhood trade. A hodgepodge of pots and pans, pizza trays, and a lone fryer are all that remain of that venture. Carlin has tired of trying. He points to the ceiling. It's full of holes where thieves have come in through the roof, despite an alarm and motion detectors. Outside, the small building is thick with concertina wire, inner-city ivy that curls over the roof and down the façade.
"I've been shot at, had rocks thrown at my head, bottles thrown at me by prostitutes," Carlin shrugs. "You do what you can to stay alive. You've got to be good to people, but you can't take no shit." He lifts up his polo shirt slightly, flashing his gun. "Around here, anything to do with money, they'll just blow your ass away."
Carlin's description of the neighborhood might have been much the same a century ago, when the area was settled by the proprietors of a string of honky-tonk shacks. It was called North Miami then, an infamous red-light district just outside the border of the newly incorporated (and abstinent) City of Miami.