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
Irby McKnight, unofficial mayor of Overtown, walks north along NW Third Avenue, cuts a right at Thirteenth Street, and heads over to NW Second Avenue. The deadline for the revolution looms, and he's got hundreds of soldiers to recruit. "There's a whole lot of discontent in this building," McKnight says, standing in front of two Fifties-era apartment buildings outside of which a small group of men stand and chatter. Linda Jones sits nearby on the steps, huddled into a thin black vinyl jacket against the cool February evening, slowly sucking down a Marlboro.
McKnight, a big, round fellow with glasses and unruly front teeth, carries a thick wad of papers under his arm. Can he get a little help taking on the most powerful black man in the City of Miami, he wonders. The official representative of Overtown -- Arthur E. Teele, Jr.? He offers up the papers, hundreds of pages of a recall petition that would force Commissioner Teele into a special election, he explains.
"Can you tell me anything Arthur Teele done besides build parking lots?" McKnight asks Jones, referring to the three small lots on Third Avenue paid for by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which Teele controls as chairman of the board.
"Parking lot?" she repeats incredulously, blinking behind her glasses. "The parking lot! I don't even have no car!"
"Everybody 'round here mostly rides a bicycle," McKnight adds.
"This Overtown," Jones huffs. "We need business. We need jobs."
She points to the dilapidated hulk of a building in which she's spent most of her life. Her mother manages the place, mostly an exercise in laying Band-Aids on mortal wounds. "People paying $235 to live here," Jones rants. "For what? We've got bad walls, rats and roaches everywhere. They do a little patching and in two or three months it's bad again. My mama's own bathroom wall fell in the other day. And she's the manager!"
McKnight commiserates: "We were over on Ninth Street and there's some old ladies over there living on $550 a month in Social Security. These ladies are 78, 80 years old, paying $400 and $450 a month in rent. I asked 'em: 'How do you eat on that?' You know what they tell me? They told me they go stand in line at the homeless shelter to get food! The people live like this and he's building parking lots!"
Jones shakes her head. "Everybody getting rich on the poor," she says. "You know what the problem is? We don't speak out. Or we speak out to the wrong people." She signs the petition.
Down NW Third Avenue, just south of Eleventh Street, a checkers game is under way on the sidewalk outside Lovell Singletary's shoe-repair shop. Three men crowd around a battered checkerboard he keeps there for such quiet evenings. It's about the only place showing signs of life after dark on this desolate stretch, other than the occasional tired pedestrian returning home from work to the apartments next door, or the aimless circling of young men on bicycles. Two elderly men perch on metal chairs, the checkerboard between them resting on their knees in lieu of a table.
The 72-year-old Singletary is about to close for the night, which means the checker champs will have to give it up. Entertainment Tonight blares on the television in one corner, black-and-white images of the rich and famous occasionally swimming up through the snow, discernible in rolling distortions on the small screen. Singletary's friend Al kicks back in a chair next to the TV and stares moodily at a woman's shoe perched on the edge of a machine. Singletary has been rehabilitating shoes in Miami since 1963, in this exact location for more than twenty years. It's a tough place to do business, he says, but he's held things together, waiting for the day when Overtown is supposed to reawaken from decades of dissipation, like a broken man redeemed. "Nothing," remarks Singletary as fitfully as his television, "ever changes here."
Then suddenly something does change, at least in the mood of this crowded little storefront, as McKnight strolls through the door on a mission. McKnight is Singletary's friend. "Lovell, I need you to sign this petition," he says forcefully. "This is Round 2 of getting Arthur Teele out of office."
Singletary is more than happy to sign. Once a Teele supporter, he became disillusioned with Miami's only black commissioner when Teele failed to come through on a grant to help him upgrade some of the old shoe-repair machines in his shop. He grew even angrier when he heard about all the money the CRA spent on the parking lots and numerous consultants. "You'd think they'd try to help the few businesses struggling out here," Singletary fumes. "Why build parking lots when there's no reason for people to come use them?"
This is one of the reasons McKnight (who is also chairman of the Overtown Advisory Board) and like-minded activists in Miami's inner-city neighborhoods represented by Teele -- Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti -- last year initiated a campaign to oust the commissioner. It was a rare undertaking in Miami (former mayors Joe Carollo and Maurice Ferré were threatened with recalls, but the campaigns never really took off) and nearly unthinkable in black neighborhoods, so accustomed to rallying around leaders attacked by other ethnic factions in an oft-polarized city.