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.

When Carlin took over Buddy's Bar in the early Seventies, the apartment house had a new owner and name: the Riomar. Most of the apartments were occupied by older people who had been there a long time, or people who couldn't afford any place better. Former residents who had a choice had long since left the inner city. (Carlin himself still lives in Broward County.)

The decline of the area around Buddy's was hastened by the construction of Interstate 95 in the Sixties, which severed Overtown and effectively obliterated its vibrancy. The population west of the railroad tracks dropped from 40,000 to less than 15,000 in a few years. Poverty and crime overtook the black neighborhood, and much of the area west of Biscayne Boulevard became a wasteland.

"That abandonment [of the inner city] is part of a national trend," historian Paul George says. "You see a similar situation in Jacksonville or Atlanta and across the country. Basically it's an American problem."

In 1979 the owner of the Riomar vacated the tenants from the building. Refugees from the Mariel boatlift and other squatters moved in. (It was later sold and renamed the Vera Hotel, but it remains vacant.) "Things changed when the Mariels came," Carlin remembers. "It got so that if you had an open door, people would come in and rob you." Carlin's former clientele of old-timers and laborers disappeared. He closed the bar and coffee shop and set the whole place up as a package store, gradually installing more alarms, gates, and wire to create a bunker against crime. "I did a big business with the blacks from Overtown in the package store," he says. "I looked after them. The older men, the older women, they needed [the liquor]. Drinking was something that helped get them through [the day]."

Carlin also brought in customers by cashing welfare checks. He proudly notes that he sold no cheap swill. There was no loitering in the parking lot, and prostitutes were not welcome at his store. "It was nothing great," he says with a shrug, "but it was lucrative for a while."

It didn't last long. There were days when the area was a war zone. In the winter of 1982, after a policeman shot and killed a black teenager in a game room on NW Fourteenth Street, Overtown residents rioted, looting and burning businesses. Smoke hung in the air for days. In 1989 Miami Police Ofcr. William Lozano shot at a motorcycle speeding down an Overtown street, resulting in the deaths of two men, both black. Rioters overturned cop cars in the streets. Carlin says he stood outside his store with a shotgun preparing to defend himself as a furious crowd moved toward him. Only the arrival of more patrol cars sent them in another direction. Carlin was shaken, but he kept the store open.

"You've got to remember that 90 percent of the people are so good and so nice. They're trying," Carlin says. "It's ten percent of the bastards who want to take it all away from everyone." The storeowner's ruddy face goes redder as he rails against the welfare system and assorted politicians.

Eventually his ire gives way to a wistful description of his own Depression-era childhood in Connecticut, one of six children in a poor Irish immigrant family. "You've just got to work, then at least you've got that happiness," he sighs.

Carlin sits on a stool by the window, a pile of small brown paper bags at his elbow. A thick layer of dust covers the bottles stacked around the wood-paneled room. Within his reach are a cluster of lollipops, also wearing thick caps of dust. Carlin used to give the candy to the children who'd accompany mothers cashing checks. Some of those children have come back to see the storeowner with their own children in tow, Carlin says. Most, he notes with a satisfied smile, have moved away from the neighborhood.

Carlin doesn't see any reason to dust the bottles and clean up the store. He still sells a few pints and cashes checks, but he won't be here much longer. Late this past year he sold the building to Eugene Rodriguez, who plans to turn the whole area around NE Fourteenth Street and North Miami Avenue into a production facility for television, fashion, and film.

The kinetic 37-year-old Rodriguez is the owner of Big Time Productions, a successful Miami Beach company located in the old Paris Theater on Washington Avenue. One day this past summer he was cruising in his Mercedes convertible, looking for a lot where he could park the fleet of Jeeps and campers he uses for his business. Spotting the Sears Tower, slated for conversion as part of the Performing Arts Center, he turned west off Biscayne Boulevard.

"I couldn't believe it," Rodriguez says of the worn structures he found at the North Miami Avenue crossroads. "All of those beautiful 1920s buildings were just sitting there intact." The entrepreneur moved quickly, buying the old ice factory, the bank building, the apartment building, and Buddy's Bar -- 100,000 square feet in all. He has a bid in with the city to purchase Firehouse Number Two.

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