By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Then two cop cars pass, and a tall gray-bearded man with a backpack strolls down the sidewalk belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Oh say can you seeeee ... !" He heads into the shop to buy a beer.
Were it not for profits from the sale of the conch salad and homemade baked goods, Moore's grocery store might have closed long ago. A look up and down the block offers one explanation for the lack of cash flow. Across the street is a vacant overgrown lot, sandwiched by one small apartment building that was abandoned long ago and another that is nearly empty. The lack of customers would be enough to drive out most shopkeepers. But Moore and his wife Lessie have endured far more daunting misfortunes during their 22-year tenure, including riots, fatal shootings, and the myriad problems that arise in one of the most blighted communities in the United States.
Over the past decade, the Moores' inventory has dwindled to a sparse two aisles whose shelves bear a few cans of soup and vegetables, six dusty bags of charcoal, and a smattering of chips and other snacks. A few baseball caps, baby pacifiers, and a lone pair of boxer shorts in a yellowed plastic package hang from hooks on a wall of particleboard behind the register. Cans of beer, which float in two cylindrical containers near an old vinyl check-out counter, and cigarettes are the place's bread and butter.
Along the back wall is a dilapidated deli counter that harkens to more prosperous times. The refrigerator case stopped working three years ago, when thieves stole the copper wiring from a compressor outside. In another section, empty shelves and counters in varying degrees of disrepair stand amid a jumble of plastic milk crates. Nearby three tall glass-door refrigerators are empty.
Amid the Spartan offerings, one can find slices of Lessie's sweet potato pie and layer cake, which seem like ambrosia alongside the junk food and canned goods. This evening the energetic 47-year-old is also serving up roast turkey and rice for three dollars per plate.
It would be difficult to find a place in Miami-Dade County more in need of economic revival than Overtown, and equally hard to identify a business in greater need of assistance than Moore's Grocery, which has been at 122 NW Fourteenth St. for 22 years. Knowing they could not fuel a financial recovery with sales of conch salad and baked goods alone, the Moores this summer applied for a $25,000 grant from the county's Commercial Revitalization Program. A total of 52 business owners from Homestead to North Miami-Dade also entered the competition; five were located in Overtown. In October the county divided a little more than $1.1 million in awards among seventeen companies. None of the Overtown applicants won.
On this Friday the Moores receive another rebuff, courtesy of a City of Miami code inspector. He leaves a notice warning they could be fined up to $500 dollars per day if they don't improve the building's façade, remove trash, and renew their $250 occupational license for the boarding rooms upstairs. "Three people moved out on me this week," Lawrence notes, adding that he can't really afford the fee. Then there's the price of conch, which has shot up. That will cut into salad proceeds.
The glut of bad news isn't discouraging to Moore, though. He is seated in a chair behind the register later on this evening when a thin man walks in. "Turkey," the reticent customer says.
"Oh, you is a turkey," the grocer jests.
The man says he has only two dollars.
"It costs three dollars," Moore tells him.
"I'll fix you up in a minute," Moore says with a sigh, surrendering to his charitable nature.
A few minutes later a man jogs into the store. "You better call an ambulance," he shouts nervously. The storekeeper rushes outside and over to the dark stairway that leads to the second floor. As it turns out, one of the Moores' tenants is drunk and has passed out on the stairs. "You okay?" Moore asks the inebriated man. "Yeah," he gurgles.
Moore heads back inside. "That guy has rented a room for about six months. But wherever night catch him, that's where he sleep at."
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."
The couple took out a mortgage to buy the building in 1977, Moore says. A year later they were granted a $25,000 county-backed business loan, the only public assistance they've ever had, Lawrence says. He paid back the county a year later, after receiving financing from the People's National Bank of Commerce. The store's first cash register was a cigar box. The Moores made about $75 the first day, but the business grew, and soon they were taking in more than $200 per day.
"Now a good day is anything over $100," he notes. "One hundred dollars or less is average. Leaning towards less."
Then Lessie says with a sigh: "It's strange how things die down."
"First five years was candy compared to now," Moore says, reflecting on the store's bearish history.
Of course there were a few bumps in the bottom line, even back then. During the May 1980 riots that started after a Tampa jury acquitted police officers charged with the beating death of insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, Moore spent the night in his van across the street from his store holding his 9-millimeter pistol to ward off looters. He never fired the weapon. The only one who bothered him during the turmoil, he says, was a helmeted policeman. "All my family was inside [the store] and I'm standing on the outside. And one of the riot police passed by me and hit me with his blackjack and told me to get inside. He hit his blackjack right on my funny bone." Lawrence pauses. "It wasn't funny though," he says with a chuckle that moves his shoulders up and down.
Looters also spared the Moores' store during other racially charged mayhem in the Eighties, including the 1982 riot that followed a Hispanic police officer's shooting of a twenty-year-old black man named Nevel Johnson. The grocery also escaped the chaos that broke out after officer William Lozano shot and killed Allan Blanchard during a chase in Overtown in January 1989. (A jury convicted Lozano of manslaughter in December 1989.)
Riots, crime, and blight are harmful to a retail operation, but the disappearance of customers can be fatal. During the Eighties and early Nineties, many of the Moores' regular clients -- nearby apartment dwellers -- moved from the area. "All the apartments around here was full when I first came around," Lawrence Moore says.
Indeed, city and county planners had visions of a lot of new housing for Overtown in the Eighties. But their goals remained elusive. A 1993 Miami Herald study found that administrators had projected 4000 new apartments would be built over the decade, but only 893 were finished. The officials had also forecast a million square feet of new shops and offices would go up in the Eighties, but only about 2000 were completed.
Overtown never became a priority for economic development. Braynon points out that blacks could never gain a majority on the five-member Miami city commission. "With one [black] representative, we never had the political muscle to buck the system," Braynon concludes.
In the Nineties some stiff competition pinched the Moores again. Several Middle Eastern merchants opened up markets that offered comparatively low prices and stayed open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. "See, what happened is the Arabs came in and started selling beers two for a dollar," Lawrence says. "You pay eleven dollars and change for a case a beer. If you sell it for 50 cents [per can] you only get twelve dollars back. So what ya' makin?" The answer: less than a dollar per case.
In addition to the new competition, the business environment on Fourteenth Street was grisly. Two years ago, Moore recalls, a driver dropped off a load of Budweiser beer at the grocery, used the telephone, then drove a half-block to make another delivery. A group of men hijacked the truck near an intersection in the shadows of the I-395 overpass. "He just pulled over on the corner and they got him," says Moore. The driver was not hurt, but he hasn't returned. Moore thinks the company assigned him to a different route.
Last April a man fleeing police shot himself in the head in the main entrance of Moore's Grocery. Law officers had chased 35-year-old construction worker Larry Miller because he was suspected of burglarizing a house in the Roads section of Miami. Miller pulled out a gun and fired several times, missing the cops, then turned the pistol on himself. "He was a friend of mine," Moore remarks.
Despite the fear and loathing on Overtown's streets, most days and nights are quiet at Moore's Grocery. The store has never been robbed, and most of the regular customers are charming, if a bit intoxicated.
It is another Friday evening when a man enters the dimly lit store and asks, "Cerveza fría?"
Lessie challenges him: "English?"
He appears not to understand, then admits he speaks English and starts to barter. "You got two for a dollar?"
"Nah," says Lessie.
The man grabs two cans from one of the drums and walks over to the register. "How much here?" "Sixty-five cent each," Lawrence says.
"So that's ..."
"A dollar thirty," Lawrence finishes.
On the way out the man offers a cryptic complaint. "I goes up and the price goes down. I go down and the price go up. What the hell." Then he repeats the same sentences in reverse order and smiles, proud of his poetry.
The Moores just shrug when asked to comment on the county's motivation for turning down their grant request this past October. But, standing in an aisle next to the Pringles potato chips, a man with the physique of a fullback is more effusive. "What about these businesses, man?" he questions. "There should be some kind of consideration for helping them.... When they move the people, the businesses is going to die. Once they die, that's it, man." He gestures toward the street. "There are three apartment buildings down here condemned. They done moved all the people out. That's [Lawrence's] income. How he going to survive when they moving all his income from around here? And you can't blame all of it on the tenants. You have to blame it on the landlords, too, who didn't took care of the stuff and who the county loaned money to buy the doggone places."
The speaker is Leroy Jones, the 37-year-old convicted drug trafficker turned community activist who last year won a Miami-Dade medal of merit. Jones is executive director of the Neighbors and Neighbors Association, a nonprofit organization of small businesses primarily in Overtown and Liberty City. He is also the man who convinced the Moores and other owners of small stores to apply for the county grants. Jones thinks the county's rejection of the Overtown grocers' applications smacks of corporate welfare. "The government gives big businesses money to move into inner-city places like Overtown and Model City and Little Haiti. They actually give them tax breaks and incentives and all types of funding to help them cut down their cost to relocate here," Jones says. "But what about the businesses that nobody had to pay to come here, that have been here struggling, year after year, investing their money back into this area, into their businesses, trying to make things better? They've never been to the government crying and begging, but they need help now. They are dying."
Unfortunately the Moores are in good company in Overtown. Two other small, black-owned markets that have survived for decades were also denied county revitalization grants. Both are called Bradleys'.
At the first store, a few blocks from the Moores' place, Elizabeth and Henry Bradley are eking out a living, mainly from milk and juice sales. Their rejection by the county is particularly confounding because they have been located on the historic Third Avenue business corridor for 30 years. (The Miami commission designated the strip as a priority for commercial redevelopment in 1998.)
The once-illuminated sign protruding from the Bradleys' façade at Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue is broken and illegible. Inside, the shelf space is mostly empty. Seated on a stool behind an ancient check-out counter, Elizabeth Bradley is upset about the county's denial of her application. "I was surprised," the voluble 56-year-old begins, "because you know why? We've been here more than twenty years. [Officials] from the City of Miami, they always come over here, and they always say we should fill out the information to get money to help the business. Okay. I'm saying that they've waited until the business went completely down, and they're still not giving us nothing. And we're just trying to hold on so that we'll be able to get something."
Henry, age 60, emphasizes that the couple is not accustomed to handouts. "We was here all those years and never got a dime!" he declares.
In one way the Bradleys are in an even tighter spot than the Moores: They do not own the building their store occupies. They lease it for $400 per month.
"See what happens?" Elizabeth says, preparing to share an example that illustrates the Bradleys' plight. "Like we have a sausage machine. As soon as something go out we cannot put it back because we don't have enough money to put it back. We've got to try to keep the lights on. We got to try to pay rent. We got to pay these things before we can do something else. We used to sell sausage and hot dogs and all these things. These things can make money, and we need something to make money with."
A few blocks south, at 1141 NW Second Ave., Henry's brother Harry and his wife Corine run another grocery store. One of four children, Corine grew up in rural South Carolina. She never knew her father; her mother worked on a farm for a while before resorting to a life on public assistance. Corine says she was determined to avoid the welfare rolls. After moving to Miami in the Sixties, she met Harry, also a South Carolinian, and the two managed an apartment complex on NW Fourteenth Street near First Avenue for several years. In 1968 they opened the grocery store; a year later they moved the operation to its current location, a small beige masonry-and-wood building, which they own.
Corine and Harry's market is surrounded by old apartment houses. Inside the store faded turquoise-hue paint on the walls and ceiling are stained from water that seeps through the leaky roof. The deli case still works but the glass is so old it is barely transparent.
"I really need some help," Corine declares. "Because for 30 years I was here and no one come to give me one dime."
Not only that, but as the Bradleys' sales have gradually declined over the past decade, the cost of doing business has soared. Corine and her husband, like other small grocers in Miami, pay hundreds of dollars in fees and licenses every year: $250 for a certificate of use, $100 for an occupational license, $50 to sell cigarettes, and another $250 to dish out hot food. On top of that, it costs $450 for state and federal licenses to sell beer and wine. "They are killing us with license [charges]. When we started getting licenses from the City of Miami they were like $15," she groans. "Licenses that we were paying $55 for went up to $250." On top of that there are property taxes and other expenses. "My water bill is horrible," she moans.
Just after 5:00 p.m. a flurry of customers arrives, mostly for Corine's hot food. Some have just finished work; others have been hanging out nearby all afternoon. Today's menu: fried chicken wings, stewed chicken, and yellow rice seasoned with ingredients she refuses to disclose. Every few minutes she dishes it up from an electric hot plate near her cash register for three to five dollars per serving. "This is like home for a lot of them. When we close, they [are] lost," she says.
Despite the popularity of Corine Bradley's cooking, the store doesn't take in enough cash to pay for badly needed repairs. "I need total renovation: the roof, the inside ceiling, the bathroom, the floor, the walls," she says. She also wants to replace a deteriorated wire fence around the small yard behind the building because several homeless people like to stay there. "I also need an iron fence in the back," she explains. "The only way I can keep them out is to put an iron gate out there."
Just a half-mile south of the three grocery stores, the shiny multimillion-dollar Enterprise Community Center on NW Fifth Street symbolizes the gulf between the county's spending power and Overtown's flagging businesses. In a snazzy conference room inside, Ignacio de la Campa, county economic development director, is telling New Times about the commercial-revitalization grant program. An elegantly dressed, mustachioed, and affable Havana native, de la Campa worked as banker at Irving Trust in New York City until the early Eighties, when he took a job at the county, where he currently earns about $80,000 per year. The source of the commercial revitalization money is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The main purpose of the program is to improve the façades of buildings," he says. "It's intended really to help neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods." Grant winners also must be located in areas that need commercial revitalization, he adds. "Once the look of the area is changed," de la Campa points out, "then it will become more attractive for economic investment." That's the theory, anyway.
So aren't these Overtown grocery stores the perfect candidates? De la Campa picks up the phone and calls his assistant, Javier Dominguez, who is back at the Office of Community and Economic Development at the Stephen P. Clark Center. De la Campa is consulting with Dominguez because the assistant was more closely involved in the grant selection process. "They were not in a commercial corridor," De la Campa asserts as he hangs up the phone. Then he elaborates on his explanation. "The aim of the program really is to change the look of a commercial corridor, really." He contends the Overtown businesses are too isolated, "like in the middle of a housing project, let's put it that way.... I wish I could set up a grant program for those businesses." The city never guaranteed matching funds, he adds.
Then the former banker says that a variety of loan programs are available for small business owners like the Moores and Bradleys. He also concedes that, personally, he doesn't think giving grants to businesses is good policy. Loans make more sense in the long run. "May the strongest survive," he comments with a smile, while hurrying through the lobby on his way to a county commission meeting. "That's what business is all about, right?"
Many taxpayers would likely agree with de la Campa's preference for loans rather than grants. But ironically, while the county denied grants to struggling Overtown enterprises, it handed out money to much bigger companies with far more extensive sales. For example, the county gave $67,110 to Coastal Textiles, whose director Roger Rand is also CEO of Dade Corners Marketplace, a west Miami-Dade institution. (Rand declined comment on the grant.) County administrators also doled out $100,000 to All Florida Paper, which is owned by Marisel Caceres and her husband, Armando. The Cacereses' business, located in a warehouse just north of NW 63rd Street on NW 37th Avenue, has annual sales that exceed ten million dollars, according to the U.S. Business Directory, a national database.
Coastal Textiles and All Florida Paper requested the money for things such as paving parking lots, installing lawn irrigation systems, and painting façades. "The funds were available, we applied for them, and the reason we received them versus who didn't -- I don't want to get into that," comments Marisel. "That was not our decision."
The county also awarded $100,000 to the Dixie Plaza strip mall in North Miami for, among other things, renovation of interior space, including new lighting, floors, and air conditioning.
For Neighbors and Neighbors director Leroy Jones, the awarding of grant money for work inside a building adds insult to injury. According to county guidelines, the commercial-revitalization grants are available to business owners and merchants in middle- and low-income areas "to rehabilitate the exterior of their commercial buildings," not interiors.
Jones is even more vexed that de la Campa's staff and Miami officials failed to find a way to provide at least a portion of the $1.1 million to the Overtown grocers. "They done seen all these businesses. They been inside of 'em and outside. So they know who need it. They know," he fumes. "It's peanuts, what these people are asking for. Peanuts. It ain't nothin', man!" Jones also bristles at de la Campa's statement that the city did not back the projects. He submitted letters from Mayor Joe Carollo, commissioners Art Teele, Joe Sanchez, and Tomas Regalado, and City Manager Donald Warshaw, stating their commitment to finding matching funds for Jones's applicants. "We are making every effort to working [sic] with Mr. Jones to identify a source of funding that will support the participation of the thirteen City of Miami businesses in the commercial revitalization program," Warshaw wrote to de la Campa in June.
Next time the county should look more seriously at black-owned businesses in historic neighborhoods when distributing federal funds, Jones seethes. After all, he says, putting a twist on the lyrics Frank Sinatra immortalized singing about another city: "If you can make it in Overtown, you can make it anywhere." Then he adds: "If [city and county officials] really want to make a change, man, they'll come in here and do some things, man, because a community is only as good as its businesses. Any place you go in America, if the businesses are thriving, the community look good.... That's the truth! If the businesses ain't doing nothin', the community look like garbage."