In the Shadow of New Towers

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

Crime is still pervasive. Police will conduct occasional blitzes to round up a bunch of bad boys, but the troublemakers are soon back on the streets. "We are understaffed in policing," says Steven Porter, executive director of the Overtown-based ministry group Touching Miami with Love. "The NET officers are wonderful, but they need more of them."

One morning, a couple of dealers lurking around Leila's Grocery approached an automobile I was riding in to offer their goods. Not three car lengths ahead, a police vehicle rolled blissfully on. The next street over, a City of Miami solid-waste truck paused at a light, as a man on a kid's bike hailed him with a stack of new DVDs. The city employee flipped through the stack, shrugged, and handed them back. No sale. Hang around, and you see the same scene and many more like it several times in an hour.

Still, there are believers here, even in government. The city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team administrator for Overtown is a tall, baby-faced 37-year-old named Kris Smith. He's only had the job for about a year, so he's not yet achieved that glassy-eyed poker face sported by so many bureaucrats. Everybody likes Smith for his earnestness and his hustle. Wednesday mornings, Smith is out making the rounds of the homeless, attempting to connect them to services. Even though they are without shelter, they tend to sleep and lurk in the same places, sort of their own personal territories.

At the Ninth Street pedestrian mall (a beautifully paved and landscaped crack alley at this point), the only people there appear to be homeless or drug addicts. A one-armed black man, a hard-faced white woman, and a Hispanic man stream past; another woman saunters unsteadily along the fancy bricks, her pants unbuttoned, one hand idly scratching at her pubic hair. "How you doin' today, sir?" one young man on a bike calls out to Smith.

The mall, like Overtown itself, has one foot in the past and one in the future. What it turns out to be -- just another blighted block, or Lincoln Road West -- is yet to be decided. It may seem ridiculous that the city spent money to beautify a strip of concrete in a blighted, barely populated fringe of ghetto. But Smith spins in a slow circle, pointing out the construction on the Lyric Theater, the vacant lots where Crosswinds will rise, the high rise tower to the east that is converting to condos, and the transit village construction near the Metrorail. This pedestrian mall will eventually be a draw, a focal point for all of the new people flooding in. He believes that. "There's some great people here," Smith says. "There are people and institutions worth protecting. We need to bring it all along for the next generation, while preserving the past."

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