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The grocer goes back behind his dilapidated deli counter and slices pineapple to prepare for his night run on the streets of Overtown.
Moore's Grocery is one of only a few black-owned small enterprises that remain in a community that has never recovered from urban renewal and the federal government's mind-boggling decision to build an expressway through a historic enclave. From the Twenties until the early Sixties, Overtown was a vibrant, though segregated, hub of dozens of small homegrown businesses, including markets, barber shops, clothiers, law offices, and medical practices. The area's legendary nightlife was concentrated along several blocks of NW Second Avenue known as Little Broadway, which included the Lyric Theater, the Mary Elizabeth hotel, the Rockland Palace, and the Harlem Square Club.
In the early Sixties the construction of I-95 and the I-395 interchange flattened Overtown's commercial district. Using the power of eminent domain, the state forced out thousands of people whose houses and apartment buildings were demolished to make way for the expressway. State and city officials rejected an alternate corridor further east because they believed it would not allow enough room for downtown Miami to expand.
Harold Braynon, who opened a law office at 803 NW Third Ave. in Overtown in 1962, remembers the exodus. "Most of the people who lived in those homes owned them. But when they moved out, if [the buildings] weren't condemned for urban renewal, they became rental property. And rental property is never maintained as well as the homestead. So you end up with a lot of absentee owners. And that's a prescription for deterioration."
Braynon rattles off at least six Overtown markets forced out by the freeway construction, including Eddie's Grocery, which his parents Edward and May Dell owned. "It meant that they had to give up not only their home but their livelihood, and relocate and establish another business," recalls Braynon, now 67 years old and retired. "I'm sure to them it must have been catastrophic, because that was all they knew. [My parents were] making a good living.... For them it was starting a new life." The businesses that survived found that fewer residents translated into fewer customers. In the late Sixties Braynon followed the path of other members of the Overtown middle class and relocated his law office to Liberty City. "With the blacks moving north, all professional men or businessmen had to give some thought about 'Maybe I need a new address,'" he explains.
The gradual desegregation of the city, which was forced by civil-rights laws, further undermined the Overtown economy as blacks began to spend their money in white areas. "Integration was like a death blow," says Enid Pinkney, who lived in Overtown in the Sixties and is now president of Dade Heritage Trust.
Overtown never regained its glory. But the remaining business owners carry on the tradition of self-reliance forged during the area's segregated heyday. The steadily disintegrating economy is increasingly fueled by food stamps, worn dollar bills, and illicit drug sales.
Lawrence Moore arrived in Dade County in 1967 from rural northern Florida. He had grown up in Madison, where his father, Oscar, was a sawmill worker and his mother, Hattie, a maid. Hattie died when Moore was fifteen years old. He still grieves for his only brother, who was killed many years ago during a fight at a pool hall in New York State. One of his four sisters also died as a young woman in Philadelphia. This month another sister, Betty, perished from cancer. In recent years Betty, a registered nurse, had often come through with emergency funds when Moore needed money to keep the market open. "She has been my strength," he says.
Moore studied auto mechanics at a trade school in Madison for a year, then decided it was not for him. Feeling adventurous, he moved to Miami and found work at a bottling plant. A year later he took a job selling new cars at Northside Motors in Liberty City. "But they wouldn't put me on commission. They didn't want to pay me that kind of money. So I quit." After a stint managing a 7-Eleven store for three years, he took over as manager of Bradley's Grocery on NW Second Avenue near Eleventh Street. That's where he met Lessie.
Lessie, a native of West Point, Mississippi, headed for Miami after graduating from high school in 1971. She moved in with an aunt who lived in Overtown and worked at a dry-cleaning shop. Like many black women before her, Lessie found employment cleaning the homes of wealthy white people on Miami Beach. After a year she took a job closer to home at a fish market next to Bradley's. Overtown was "beautiful" then, she recalls.
The couple married two years later, and by 1976 had two children, Latoya and Lawrence, Jr. About that time Lawrence Sr. began to think about opening a grocery store, but his wife was skeptical. "She wasn't interested in opening it up," he says, prompting a loud laugh from Lessie. "I thought that in the grocery business we wasn't going to make it, you know?" she says. "But we gave it a try, and we was a success."