The View from Buddy's

The corner of North Miami Avenue and Fourteenth Street may not look like much today, but it encompasses the history of Miami. It also has a bright future.

In 1949, when Pflueger needed more room for his growing taxidermy business (which at its peak was turning out 15,000 mounted fish each year), he moved up north to then-pastoral NE 159th Street. The younger Pflueger later sold the business and dedicated himself to big-game fishing, ocean ecology, and sport-fishing photography. He now lives in South Dade and has had little occasion to visit the downtown neighborhood he rambled as a boy. "I'd be afraid to get out of my car," he admits matter-of-factly.

One person who never entered the marine museum was Leroy Smith, although he would have liked to. "That was a place that I always admired," Smith recalls. Now 72 years old and retired, Smith was one of the first black sergeants on the Miami police force. Later promoted to lieutenant, he patrolled Overtown for 27 years, and zealously campaigned for the rights and recognition of the black members of the force. "The taxidermist's was really a place of art," Smith proclaims. "I never got to go in there but I always used to peek in the window when I walked by." As a young black boy in a white neighborhood, Smith says, he wouldn't have felt comfortable walking in alone.

Smith grew up just a few blocks from Pflueger's store, on NW Third Avenue and Twelfth Street. Driving through Overtown on a recent morning, he points to a scruffy field where his family's wooden shotgun house once stood. Down the street was the grocery store where he worked as a delivery boy, and the real-estate office where his mother paid their $2.50-per-month rent. Nearby was a strip of hot nightspots, including the Zebra Lounge and the Harlem Square Club. Driving past rows of squalid apartment buildings and garbage-choked vacant lots, Smith can't help but grin. "Overtown was it!" he exclaims.

Despite segregation whites would slum it to Overtown on weekends in those days for the glamorous nightlife. Like other Overtown residents, Smith frequently crossed the tracks on errands for his mother. He regularly walked over to the Florida Power and Light Ice Department on Fourteenth Street and NW Miami Court to pick up a block for the ice box.

Often Smith would venture farther east on Fourteenth, past the firehouse, where some days he'd be lucky enough to spy the firemen sliding down the pole. He'd pass Pflueger's place on his way to Sears. "A lot of the black families had charge accounts there; my mother did," Smith says. "If you wanted to buy clothes, you'd go over to Sears, Roebuck. Back then that was what you called the mall."

Smith says he never felt uncomfortable walking on the east side of the railroad tracks. Although it was ostensibly a white neighborhood, there were few residences, therefore few residents to complain about his presence. "I was never told to stay on my side," Smith stresses. "[Segregation] was just something you understood since the day you were born." He learned quickly that blacks could shop at Sears and other stores, but they could not use the bathrooms. He recounts a vivid childhood memory of being taken to the courthouse by his mother on their way to shop on Flagler Street: "It had a restroom facility for Negroes in the basement, but in the stores, it was white water or no water."

In fact, although blacks and whites in the area coexisted peacefully, the Overtown "border" kept white businesses located near North Miami Avenue -- such as Pflueger's taxidermy business -- from expanding westward.

Others in the neighborhood remember relations between blacks and whites as cordial, if far from equal, during the segregation era. "The Negroes were 'Yes, sir and no, sir' in those days," says the owner of the Fourteenth Street Fabric Bazaar, an elfin man who gives his name only as Mr. Schwartz. "Overtown was like the border between blacks and whites. They didn't come over here too much."

Joe Carlin wasn't toting a gun when he bought Buddy's Bar in the early Seventies. He was living in Broward County and working as a wholesale liquor salesman when Robert McCready offered him the place on North Miami Avenue. McCready, a.k.a. Buddy, opened the bar in 1959 in a space formerly occupied by a film distribution company. "It was a bar and restaurant for local people," says Carlin, who sold liquor to McCready before taking over the establishment. "The area was all built up then. You could really walk the streets."

Although it was never particularly grand, the neighborhood slid into seediness during the Sixties. Since the Twenties the small apartments in the Leslie had been home to working men and young couples, and served as pieds-a-terre for businessmen going back and forth between Havana and Miami. By the Sixties, according to a 1976 Miami Magazine article, the building was a "semiflophouse," offering faded, furnished rooms to transients.

William Somersett, known to Miami police as "Agent 88," lived in apartment 38 with his wife Peggy. On November 9, 1963, he ensured the building a place in Miami history. That afternoon he recorded his conversation with Joseph Milteer, a Southern racist and political extremist who hinted that while visiting Miami later that month, President Kennedy would be shot from the window of an office building while being driven through downtown. The motorcade was canceled for other reasons and JFK ended up taking a helicopter to Miami Beach. Less than two weeks later he went to Dallas. Reporters and various assassination buffs who've thumbed through the file on the episode at police headquarters have turned up at 1334 North Miami Avenue periodically over the years. Somersett died in 1970. The apartment building just kept deteriorating.

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