The Sociology of Suds

Overtown gets clean at Mister Lee's

Across NW Third Avenue from Mister Lee's, where a park lies now, there used to be a pool room, a restaurant, a dime store, and another laundry. Behind them was the notorious Goodbread Alley, which stretched from Twelfth to Fourteenth streets and to about Fourth Avenue. "Right over there about where the library is now, that was the neighborhood," Mister Lee points. "People there were tight. The police didn't go in there too hard, unless they know somebody, cause they were close-knitted and would protect one another. If a kid from there would go out and do something, if he could make it back to the alley he was okay. He wouldn't go to jail. The old people in there, they was going to right you, you know."

Then the powers that were -- Mister Blue Eye, as Overtown artist Purvis Young might put it -- decided to build a couple of highways right through the neighborhood. Interstate 95 and the I-395 connection to Miami Beach effectively left Overtown drawn and quartered. A lot of folks lost homes and businesses that were never rebuilt. The end of segregation, the rise of public housing, and so-called urban renewal (or "Negro removal" as some residents bitterly call it) also played their parts in separating the black community into different economic classes. The middle and upper classes left the inner city, while the poorest stayed behind and gradually got poorer.

"When they started building the highway is when the whole thing started going to heck really," Mister Lee recounts. "They started tearing up houses for the right of way in the Seventies. In the Eighties, it was the building of the Metrorail sunk it even more, and it went downhill from that. People who had the money moved out."

Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes 
round and round like clothes in a dryer
Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes round and round like clothes in a dryer

Just as economic hard times swallowed Overtown, so did drugs; they hit the community like a sledgehammer striking a porcelain vase. "Back in the day you'd have a few alcoholics, a few crazy people, but a neighborhood just lives with those. When that crack hit the scene, it just turn everything into a tailspin. We had about ten rough years where this area did nothing but go down down down." Amazingly, Lee's place made it through all that without much more than a few broken windows. "I'm very lucky," he says. "I say luck because everybody know me, but they don't love me that much isn't why they haven't robbed me."

In the middle of the poverty and drugs of the Eighties came several riots, brought on by a legacy of police brutality and racism that exploded when black men were killed and the cops got away with it. "You'd see the kids getting into the black power thing," Mister Lee opines. "Their parents were struggling. They were frustrated. Then the police did something wrong and Boom!

"I was here during all the three riots and they broke the front windows," he adds. "I was right here open. I felt that I needed to be here, otherwise I be like everybody else. The cops threw tear gas in here and I ran and threw it back out. The boys would be on the street and run in to use the bathroom and wash out their eyes. As long as they just out there on the corner, not breaking the law, I'd let them do it. They live here, all the businesses closed, what else they going to do?"

Lee's basically a law-and-order small businessman, but he also sympathized with the people in the streets. He would have to sit through the blockade around Overtown for an hour until the police would let him in. "That gets you frustrated. Then people would come up to me and want to talk about what happened during the night. I'm trying to calm them down, but I'm frustrated. I'd go out there to a group of young people and try talking to them. And here comes a police car --boom -- and throws a gas bomb in the middle of us. It just makes it worse. People in my generation are the ones who should be frustrated because we saw how things used to be -- and how they went down. But we didn't go out there rioting. This generation did."

As the Eighties turned into the Nineties, the worst of the problems subsided. The riots stopped and a lot of the dealers and junkies either killed each other off, or went to jail or rehab. The bottom had been reached. "It didn't get no worse, but not much better until recently," Lee says. Drive around Overtown today, and you still see boys and men selling, women and children playing lookout, and apathetic cops barely bothering to get out of their patrol cars. Overtown is a pitiful place, full of survivors and the walking wounded. Mister Lee could have sold out to the Arabs who bought a bunch of places in the hood in the Nineties, but he declined. Here, just sticking around this long when you don't have to means something. It makes the handful of old men like Mister Lee, who by no means is trying for sainthood, special. "How'd I survive here?" he reflects. "Well, you just make it work. By working twelve, thirteen-hour days, you make it work.

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