In the Shadow of New Towers

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.

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.

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."

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."

Alomoto's new two-story house will have three bedrooms and a yard. She bustles around it with the same industry she displays in her cleaning business. Even though she'd lived minutes away for years, Alomoto had never been to Overtown until she applied for a home. "In the beginning, I was kind of a little scared," she admits. "But now I'm working around here, I think it will be okay. I think it's going to change, like everybody says."

Inconspicuous in the curve of the Metrorail as it snakes north and west from downtown Miami is another possible future for Overtown. It is called Crosswinds, a $200 million "affordable" condo project that will, if actually built, bring 1050 resident-owned units (plus office and shop space) to the city's center. This is the City of Miami's silver bullet.

The project, currently named the Overtown Urban Village, would be built on several acres bordered by NW Sixth and Eighth streets and NW Second and Third avenues. Interestingly, Michigan-based Crosswinds did not come to Miami through a normal bidding process conducted by the city. Instead, the developer put together a proposal based on an inquiry from the Overtown Civic Partnership and Design Center, which is an outpost of the Collins Center for Public Policy (most people refer to the OCPDC as the Collins Center).

The center, besides billing itself as a community-building and economic-development think tank, owns a small amount of property in Overtown and elsewhere through a land trust it uses to leverage public-private ventures. "We brought in a group of developers and said, öIf you had this land, what would you do?'" relates Philip Bacon, executive director of the OCPDC. "We understood clearly you couldn't continue to do more of the same in Overtown and expect a different result."

Bacon then took the Crosswinds proposal to Mayor Manny Diaz, who liked it enough to put his economic-development guru, Otto Boudet-Murias, on the case. The situation is tricky. The property is owned by the city, but it has been tied up for years in litigation with a developer who built a condo complex on some of the land. Adding to the difficulty is a reverter clause on some of the property (purchased decades ago with federal money), which means the land becomes property of the county if construction doesn't occur by 2007. Crosswinds cleverly managed to avoid an open bid process by essentially buying out the lawsuit of the previous developer. In that way, the city could settle the lawsuit and make a development deal in one vote of the commission.

Opposition to the deal boiled down to a few main concerns, the most legitimate of which was that it would spur gentrification of the neighborhood while doing little to ensure poor residents a place in the new order. Another valid concern was the city's extremely generous offer, which results in a basic exchange of the land and tax subsidies in return for 50 condo units it can sell to low-income folks (the estimated income range is $26,350 to $42,150 for a family of four). The developer also has to offer a total of twenty percent of its condo units to families earning roughly $42,000 to $63,000 a year -- either way, out of the league of most current residents without heavy subsidies. "It's criminal that our city is on just a giveaway binge," criticizes Denise Perry. "Our city is giving away all our resources to developers instead of demanding more value. It's bad negotiation."

Maverick developer Glen Straub, who bought the Miami Arena last year, agrees with Perry. He offered to make the city a better deal, worth an extra three million dollars. When the commission approved Crosswinds anyway, he promised to sue the city. If he does, expect lengthy delays. In voting for the project in January, commissioner Johnny Winton explained that Crosswinds, while not the perfect solution, would become a catalyst for more development. "No one project is going to cure the ills heaped upon Overtown in the last 100 years," he said. "Ain't gonna do it. Not this one or any one. [But] this creates an anchor, some new hope, and some job opportunities."

Former commissioner Art Teele, who is charged with taking kickbacks from contractors who got work from the city's CRA, had questioned the Crosswinds proposal in terms of how well it met resident needs. He also framed the deal as a land grab by Anglo and Cuban business interests. The center's eloquent, nattily dressed Philip Bacon acknowledges that the sordid history of official Miami's interaction with Overtown has created a legacy of mistrust about anyone with big plans. Bacon does have a vision of redevelopment sweeping the neighborhood and sees his role as coordinating, cajoling, and pushing public and private interests into a loosely collective effort. "There was a void," he argues. "Many visions, so there was no vision. Our job wasn't to be liked. Our job was to be effective. Some people love us, some people hate us. But two years later, people are doing stuff."

He continues: "If you don't connect the dots, then what you have is a lot of unconnected initiatives not focused on anything. You end up with years gone by, millions spent, and nobody can figure out what happened to the money."

Teele did manage to pare down Crosswinds' original plan for 1500 residences because one parcel of land was not part of the lawsuit. He got the city to put that property, which lies behind the historic Lyric Theater, out to bid. A handful of developers responded, including Crosswinds. One developer out of Connecticut formed an alliance with a local group composed of three Overtown-based community development corporations (two with spotty development track records) and a couple of businesses that specialize in connecting minority contractors with work. The local group would get about ten percent of the profit for being the beard. But the prize went to a third group, a composite of Brickell Ventures, the Overtown Folklife Village Development Corporation (run by Black Archives foundation director Dorothy Fields, also doing the Lyric Theater expansion), and the Carlisle Development Group.

Last week Miami commissioners acting as the CRA gave initial approval to this group's $93 million proposal, to be called Lyric Promenade. To make it happen, the City will sell the property it owns next to the theater for $3.5 million. The plan calls for a mix of condos, apartments, restaurants, retail, and a scaled-down Hilton hotel.

Overtown is a neighborhood of fewer than 9000 people, but within its boundaries are several mini neighborhoods. Some parts are a post-apocalyptic nightmare, full of seedy tenement housing, trash-filled vacant lots, hopeless people, and rampant entrepreneurialism of the highly illegal sort. But there are also bright spots: old single-family homes and small businesses that have managed to weather the years. There's Town Park, which is a collection of phased home and townhouse developments from the Seventies.

There are a number of projects in various stages throughout the neighborhood. Several of the historic churches have formed CDCs for the purpose of creating affordable housing. St. Agnes Episcopal's CDC is building 80 candy-colored homes along NW Third Avenue and is planning to locate its offices in a seventeen-story office/retail/garage tower the county is building on NW First Court, called Overtown Transit Village.

Greater Bethel A.M.E.'s CDC has probably built the most housing in Overtown through the years, mainly apartments, although it has had its share of problems with funding, construction, and navigating government bureaucracy. For instance, its 40-home New Hope project on NW Seventh Street has been stalled in half-completion for years. St. John the Baptist's CDC has an extremely mixed record of building housing. Last year, it ended litigation with the city over one failed development but still has plans for more. The odd thing about all these projects, especially when compared to a megadeal such as Crosswinds, is that they don't really fit together. There is no master plan, which may end up being the saving grace of what bits of character remain, or which could become the basis of the next wave of redevelopment.

One of the claims Crosswinds executives and city officials made in selling their idea is that the project will attract former residents, who are now middle class and living in the suburbs. But that is an uncertain prospect, given the abysmal state of the area's public schools and the ages of those former residents who remember the glory days.

Jackie Bell is a soft-spoken woman fond of hats who possesses a large stock of sharp looks and a long memory. She runs the New Washington Heights CDC, which has been around since 1973. The CDC spent more than a decade trying to get a hotel built on top of a parking garage on NW Fifth Street and First Avenue, but in the end, couldn't get enough investors. The group hasn't managed to get much of note going in Overtown since, which is more typical than not for the various CDCs operating there. Bell, whose corporation is part of the local component bidding on the property, believes the Crosswinds deal was a betrayal of the city's original intent for the land, which was to include much more participation by the community. She's got 25 years' of documents to back up her claims of promises broken by many city administrations. "It's truly unfair," she complains. "What is at stake is the economic history of the community. There's no leadership to make it happen. This is a rent-an-African-American community. Once Overtown goes, the rest of the community goes."

In the meantime, as the blueprint of change unrolls, does government have a commitment to current residents? The Florida Department of Transportation is currently noodling plans to widen Fourteenth Street from Third Avenue to just west of Seventh Avenue and build an on-ramp to I-95. The proposal would likely have to shave a bit off the entrance to Booker T. Washington High School and the gardens Marvin Dunn and his students planted next to the overpass. Just a quick look at the plan makes it clear that it is not designed to connect the Overtown of today to the highway so much as it anticipates the new growth and merging of tomorrow's Overtown with surrounding neighborhoods.

Slain Slob's shrine is hardly the only one in the neighborhood. Residents have various opinions about the police, many of them negative. At one public meeting in January, a resident complained to city officials that people in Overtown don't know the chief. Chief John Timoney, engaged at that very moment in walking off the stage, paused briefly, fixed the lady with an annoyed look, then resumed his stroll.

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."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >