From the early 1930s through the late 1950s, the joint, as the phrase goes, was jumping in Overtown. Back then locals called the area Colored Town, and the stretch along Second Avenue between Sixth and Tenth streets -- known variously as Little Broadway, the Strip, and the Great Black Way -- teemed with a handful of hot clubs that presented popular jazz artists. Over the years, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and many others packed the Harlem Square Club, Cotton Club, Clover Club, Rockland Palace hotel, and the Flamingo Lounge at the Mary Elizabeth Hotel. They performed for enthusiastic audiences composed of blacks and whites, despite the fact that such race-mixing violated a city law. "Nobody paid much attention to it when there was a big-name entertainer in town," former Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves recalled in a 1991 interview. "In fact, by about the middle of the set, blacks and whites were sitting all over. They weren't caring about color and racial differences."
If painter Marvin Weeks has his way, that same zeitgeist will inform "106 Candles, One Light," the multiethnic art exhibition that he has curated as part of Happy Birthday Miami. The daylong celebration of the city's founding 106 years ago will be presented by the city and the Black Archives History and Research Foundation at the Lyric Theater, Overtown's last significant structure still standing. "Art is one of the links which harness Miami," explains Weeks. "We're trying to bring together the diverse groups of artists -- Caribbean, Anglo, Hispanic -- and connect the dots in Miami's cultural community, as well as to make art one of the avenues to the restoration and development of the Overtown community."
Accordingly a veritable Benetton nation of artists and galleries will showcase work under a huge air-conditioned tent adjacent to the Lyric: Nicolas Gullen from Cuba, Chris Bolter from Jamaica, Purvis Young from Overtown, plus pieces from Diaspora Vibe Gallery and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, among others. And on a building at the intersection of Third Avenue and Ninth Street, beside an I-95 overpass, Weeks hopes to unveil his four-panel mural depicting Overtown's history. Given the fact that the highway virtually decimated the neighborhood in the early 1960s, he muses on the irony of his creation's location: "Fitting, eh?"