In the Shadow of New Towers

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

Old-time Miamians know the history well. Overtown used to be called Colored Town, and it was the center of the universe for local African-American and Bahamian residents. Segregation kept all the dark-hued working folk in this outpost of civilization contained, but it had the positive effect of concentrating black wealth within a few blocks, thus producing a renowned business and entertainment district along Second and Third avenues that some called "the Harlem of the South." Then forces of urban renewal (a.k.a. "Negro removal") sweeping cities nationally in the 1960s blew through Overtown. Homes, businesses, and streets were ripped up to make way for I-95 and the I-395 connector, cutting the neighborhood into quarters.

The middle class fled to Liberty City or points farther north. In 1982, the Miami Herald estimated that some 430 businesses were lost in Overtown after its heyday. From then to now, the economic picture has gotten only worse. As years went by, the trend continued, with the poorest, least-educated people staying behind. Their numbers were augmented by even more poor people attracted by the low rents and by homeless drawn to nearby shelters and soup kitchens. As older folks who once anchored the neighborhood died off, moved, or became inactive, the community lost most of its center.

FIU psychology department chair Marvin Dunn, a historian of black Miami life, acknowledges that the severe population reduction that followed the highways had a draining effect on community leadership. "The best of the leadership went out to north Dade, Richmond Heights, or elsewhere. They didn't all leave, but the power base shifted. It's a different kind of leadership today. People work on more focused activities, such as affordable housing. In the past, black leaders were representing much broader community issues."

NET administrator Kris Smith (left); barbershop banter (right); O-Town 
teens stroll the gritty streets
NET administrator Kris Smith (left); barbershop banter (right); O-Town teens stroll the gritty streets

Devastating drug wars and riots took a further toll. From a peak of about 40,000 residents, Overtown now has less than a quarter of that population. "It's hard to stand up to all these things continually," maintains Denise Perry, co-director of the Power U Center for Social Change, which supports activists in neighborhoods such as Overtown. "This community is in survival mode."

Although the churches, some of which date back to the founding of the city in 1896, are individually involved in aspects of life in Overtown, they do not form a united front in terms of leading or protecting people from the consequences of government and market forces. One simple reason is that the big churches are mostly commuter congregations. These are people who made good and got out of the neighborhood, but they still feel a connection to the church and a nostalgia for a place that doesn't really exist anymore. But because people, including many of the ministers, aren't living in Overtown, their ability to be leaders there is greatly diminished.

Irby McKnight, the blustery "unofficial mayor of Overtown," laments that Dwayne Gaddis, the pastor at his church, Greater Bethel A.M.E., left before he could complete his program of bringing more local residents into the church. "People from Overtown were going there. Now it's back to a commuter church. If people live in Miramar, they can't provide nothing for the people in this community because they don't know anything about it."

As far back as the 1970s, official Miami took notice of the rapid decline of a once vital area. The city created the Community Redevelopment Agency to funnel money into Overtown and Park West. At least $70 million was spent by the city and the CRA, but most of it was wasted on loans to deadbeat slumlords, lucrative contracts to politically connected companies, and other initiatives that did little to add jobs, small business support, or housing to the area.

As of now, the most vital forces at work are market forces. In recent years, property has been changing hands more frequently. Prices are going up as well, as much as 400 percent on some parcels in just five years. Absolutely everyone, from residents to policy makers to developers, recognizes that Overtown is prime property. It is only a matter of time, people believe, before the remnants of failed history are swept away. The only uncertainties are when and how this will occur. The question is whether current residents will be able to share in this destiny.

"The same people complaining about this don't live here, or if they do, it's the people who were asking to tear down the old buildings," argues McKnight. "They were so ignorant they didn't know they couldn't afford the new ones. So let 'em live outside. Let them move to the Everglades."

"We are cleaning out the bad peoples, puttin' in the good peoples," opines Benny "Cowboy" Cummings, back on Sixteenth Street. "In five years, this is not going to be Overtown anymore. It's going to be downtown. That's good. All that there got to be wiped out. It ain't no good. The rents are too high and it's all slumlords. They don't fix the places."

The Habitat house Cummings is working on belongs to Amparito Alomoto. An immigrant from Ecuador, she is one of the new faces of working-class Overtown. She lives in a cramped one bedroom apartment in Wynwood with two daughters, ages eight and thirteen. Her husband died in a car accident a few years ago. Last year, she heard about Habitat for Humanity through a friend at her church. "She said, öI got a new house, you should apply.' I said, öMe? I don't think so. I'm a cleaning lady.' She said, öLook at me, I sell hot dogs.' I thought, Well maybe I could do it."

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