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.
"The sailors who docked in Miami said that Hell's Kitchen could not compare with North Miami," Helen Muir wrote in her 1953 book Miami USA. "Saloons were open around the clock. Roulette wheels ran in the middle of Miami Avenue. Opium dens flourished. Chinese, Negroes, and whites lived together in an atmosphere in which violence bubbled always beneath the surface. Three reported killings a night were about average." The evening after payday, Miami pioneer John Sewell observed, was particularly chaotic.
Henry Flagler's railroad reached Miami in April 1896, swelling the population. Downtown Miami began to spread north. It wasn't long before efforts began to run the sinners out. "When the area starts to become not just honky-tonk but residential, there are residents who start saying, 'Okay, that's enough with that kind of stuff,'" historian Paul George explains. "So they created a neighborhood association to clean it up."
In an article published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, George recounts that in 1908, prohibitionist Carrie Nation visited South Florida. She descended upon North Miami, where she entered a brothel and found women smoking and "lounging in loose attire." Nation interrogated a couple she discovered in a darkened room and triumphantly determined they were not married to each other. The experience was enough to convince the moral crusader that there was "crime and corruption in plenty in Miami."
But the area was not purged until Sheriff Dan Hardie took up the cause, announcing that he would "clean out the whole rat's nest" in six weeks' time. The high-profile lawman offered prostitutes "a ticket home to Mother" and uprooted the gamblers and honky-tonk owners who traipsed across the railroad tracks into Colored Town. "North Miami becomes part of the City of Miami circa 1913," George says. "By then the whole honky-tonk thing is gone. There have been raids on the place, they've chased all the prostitution out of there to the black neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. North Miami becomes a white working-class neighborhood." Several wooden houses still standing on shady NE Miami Court, a side street parallel to North Miami Avenue, provide a glimpse of what the neighborhood looked like 90 years ago, when it was primarily residential.
In 1915 Firehouse Number Two was established, coinciding with the hiring of the Miami Fire Department's first salaried corps of firefighters. (The original building was torn down in the Twenties to make way for the formidable building standing now, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.) Horse-drawn pumps were replaced by motorized trucks.
During the real-estate boom of the early Twenties, the area was targeted for small apartment houses and residence hotels, and merchants moved in, hoping to offer an alternative to the bustling shops on busy Flagler Street. In 1926 the Citizens Bank was built on the corner of North Miami Avenue near NE Fourteenth Street. An adjoining office building had four real-estate companies, an accountant, and a physician as tenants. The Fourteenth Street Drugstore was around the corner. Other tenants on the avenue included a restaurant, a cleaners, an artist's studio, an auto-supply store, the gas station, and the apartment building initially called the Bunny Apartments and later rechristened the Leslie Apartment Hotel. There was a ballroom on the ground floor.
By 1926 Miami's real-estate boom was over, and the city's financial decline was compounded by the wallop of a major hurricane. Within four years the Citizens Bank building stood empty, as did most properties on the North Miami Avenue block.
The economy was looking up by 1935, and by 1940 Miami was thriving again. The population was moving farther away from the city center, and the area north of downtown became less residential, evolving instead into a location for small manufacturing companies and warehouses. The Sears Tower, which had opened on NE Thirteenth Street and Biscayne Boulevard in 1929, did brisk business. In 1941 it was reported that more than 6200 cars passed through the traffic circle in front of the store each afternoon during rush hour.
Taxidermist Al Pflueger moved from New Jersey to Miami in 1925, figuring he could make a living mounting fish as trophies for sport fisherman in the growing coastal tourist destination. He invented a new method of preserving fish using sawdust and gauze instead of filling the specimens with heavy plaster of Paris. The taxidermist also became well-known for his "top secret" creation: prosthetic fish eyes that looked like the real thing.
In 1936 Pflueger moved his shop from NW Twelfth Street into the old Citizens Bank building. He put his workshop upstairs, turning the vault into a walk-in refrigerator where he stored freshly caught fish awaiting his handiwork. Pflueger's son, Al, Jr., fondly recalls spending time as a boy on North Miami Avenue, hanging out at the Standard Oil station across the street and dining at the Royal restaurant around the corner. "I used to hitchhike downtown to Flagler Street," recalls the younger Pflueger, now in his sixties. "I knew everyone and everyone knew me."
By his own estimate, the elder Pflueger mounted more than half a million game fish in his lifetime, and he was known in the marine-science field as one of the leading authorities on fish identification. He decided to share his knowledge with the public by setting up a marine museum on the first floor of the bank building. According to a 1941 guide to Miami, hundreds of mounted fish lined the walls. Large glass cases were fitted between the lobby columns, each painted with a reef scene in the background. "Running the gamut of rainbow colors," the specimens included "parrotfish, four-eye butterfly, angel, trigger, tang, and file." The museum was open every day and admission was free. "He had all the large fish indigenous to the area," confirms his son, who took over the business after his father died. "There were big rays hanging from the ceiling, whales, fish of all kinds. People were going in and out of there all the time."
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.
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.
Rodriguez envisions the area as a studio city for producing Latin-American television programs, fashion layouts, music videos, commercials, and possibly films. He plans to rent out the former apartments as offices to industry-related businesses, with a restaurant on the ground floor -- a kind of Hollywood-style canteen where executives and talent can network over lunch. The renovation of the ice factory where Leroy Smith used to fetch blocks of ice for his mother will boast nine sound stages, and is nearing completion. The crew of Oliver Stone's next movie is already using one area to build sets.
Rodriguez bought the buildings cheap, but he expects to spend about ten million dollars on the sound stages alone. He's already put about $30,000 into cleaning out the apartments, a kind of archeological dig in which crews spent weeks unearthing old clothes, furniture, appliances, personal documents, and petrified food from the stinking rooms.
"My economic venture is to turn this place around," Rodriguez contends. "I see it as attracting special people. It's exciting to create this blank slate and see who fills it up. It's getting back to that pioneer spirit of Miami that inhabited this area 100 years ago. There needs to be an area that has room, that has style, that has history, that has a good location," he says. "This is the original Miami, and I think it's really cool that all that history is there."
As he sits at his window, Carlin can hear the men at work in the apartment building next door. Rolling his eyes toward the holes in his ceiling, the storeowner mentions that he wishes Rodriguez luck, and hopes he finds some good security guards.
Suddenly an old gray sedan drives up to the liquor store window. Carlin's only customer of the day, a fortyish black man with a muscular physique, a thick gold necklace, and dark sunglasses gets out. He passes a twenty through the slot at the bottom of the window. Carlin passes back a pint of gin and some change. As the man turns to go, Carlin calls out after him, offering a plastic cup, which the man accepts.
"He's probably going to find a tree and sit and have his drink," Carlin muses. "People just need some peace sometimes. That's the way life is. Everyone needs to find somewhere to go."
Carlin says he hasn't figured out where he'll spend his days when he closes the store, now that he has the money to do as he pleases. In the meantime he'll be sitting here. He pats his dog Nick and returns his gaze to North Miami Avenue, dreaming, perhaps, of the future.