In the Shadow of New Towers

Overtown is under pressure to change as property values skyrocket but violence remains pervasive

People say the rusty stain near the bottom of the door is Slob's blood, where he leaned as he faded out. The door, which was lying in the yard of a new home being built in Overtown by Habitat for Humanity, is covered in farewell messages, like an oversized page ripped from a yearbook -- "Bye my dog Slob. Miss you," "R.I.P. Slob from Mommie & many others." On a nearby concrete block, someone thoughtfully placed a red Sharpie marker, in case anyone else wants to leave a goodbye. One message offers trenchant social commentary in just three words: "Another Towner Gone."

"He was a runner," explains Cowboy, also known as Benny Cummings, a long-time resident of the area and a construction worker for Habitat. "The two boys were trying to get home, but they cut them off." Standing inside another half-finished home on the block, the lanky old man pivots in his work boots, thrusting a wrinkled brown hand through a window frame to the intersection of NW Sixteenth Street and Second Avenue. "The one boy was shot in the leg," he recounts, turning slowly to follow the arc of pursuit north. A yellowish-white shock of hair juts out from under the white hardhat he wears, completing a uniform of paint-spattered jeans, low-slung tool belt, and gray Habitat for Humanity T-shirt. "The other boy, Tavarus, tried to cut through the yard. They shot him and he died. His body laid there until twelve o'clock the next day so his associates could see what happened to him. That was a sad sight."

Slob, whose real name was Tavarus Lee, was shot down January 16; he was sixteen years old. (The police report says that a 22-year-old named Nikell Moss tried to rob the boys at gunpoint and shot at them when they tried to run. Lee's body was found hours later by two laborers.) It is a familiar story, but a teenager dying almost in the doorway of this new house illustrates the tension between the world Slob knew and the new one springing up around it. From the yard on this particular day his apartment is visible, as is the heroin den on the other side of the street, women and boys with cell phones serving as lookouts, men on bicycles cruising the road, and a man stooped inside a large construction trash container, apparently shooting up. On the corner, a bone-thin woman with scraggly hair, dressed in what looks to be a striped cat costume, idly paws through the produce in the open trunk of an old taxi, then shuffles down the block.

Benny "Cowboy" Cummings and the Habitat team are building new 
homes in Overtown
Benny "Cowboy" Cummings and the Habitat team are building new homes in Overtown

For now, this neighborhood is still in the grip of crime and poverty. Yet the presence of these new homes, and the people coming in with them, portend a shifting paradigm. Residents notice that the police seem to pay special attention to the streets where the new houses are, to help homeowners gain a foothold. The city has been completely unable to achieve anything significant with the many millions of public dollars allegedly sunk into Overtown in past years. Market forces now descending will test whether private investment can do what the public sector did not. Overtown is becoming the new land of promise for developers, speculators, and visionaries whose dreams don't necessarily include a population with an average income of about $12,000 a year. Even Habitat, which aims to help low-income people buy homes, has a tough time finding residents who can meet the income requirements.

This is a community dominated by vacant properties, slum apartments, and deteriorating shotgun shacks. The (decent) housing need is severe, as is the need for jobs, education, and healthcare. Only about ten percent of residents own their own homes here. Development will transform the landscape. The people are another matter. "Each house we buy and sell, we are stabilizing that neighborhood for poor people one house at a time," says Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami executive director Anne Manning. "I feel like we're in this race; there's all this pressure to create homeowners. Overtown is going fast."


Overtown is a relatively small but strategically important rectangle of land roughly bordered by NW Fifth Street, NW Twentieth Street, and First and Seventh avenues. "[It's] a place of broken promises and failed efforts ever since the destruction of it for the interstate," acknowledges Hodding Carter III, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is pouring millions into revitalization efforts in Overtown and East Little Havana. "Miami crushed it and Miami owes it to redeem at least some of the past promises."

For decades, O-town was shorthand for deterioration and concentrated poverty. But times have changed. On all sides, Miami is caught up in a full-fledged real estate boom. New condos are rising like glass-and-metal weeds along Biscayne Boulevard and the Miami River. Demolition, redevelopment, and traffic snarls are a constant downtown. Swank clubs and restaurants creep west along Eleventh and Fourteenth streets. Artsy, gentrifying Wynwood presses in from the north as galleries stake new warehouse outposts. Nearly $500 million in residential and commercial development is in various stages within a half-mile of NW Fifth Street and Second Avenue. Geography may at last be destiny.

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