There was once a time when Overtown's nightlife could put South Beach's club scene to shame. It was the middle of the 20th Century, and Clyde "Glass" Killens reigned supreme by hosting acts such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin at the Knight Beat, the Harlem Square, and other clubs.
At the center of Killen's universe, who passed away of cancer in early 2004, was a NW Second Avenue pool hall. Today, the building is undergoing an $850,000 refurbishment courtesy of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and will be leased as a restaurant and entertainment hub. It is hoped the iconic space will help return Overtown to its glory days before the 1960s, when an interstate was dropped on top of the neighborhood, sending blight creeping out in all directions. The CRA put out a request for potential operators to lease the building in early January, and seven applied.
The top three ranked by the board, and first reported by the Miami Times, are the Marcus Samuelsson Development Group, helmed by the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised celebrity chef; Biscayne Boulevard's now-shuttered Crescendo Jazz and Blues Restaurant and Lounge; and Wynwood brunch favorite Morgans.
Other applicants included Yearlang’s Taste of Soul, A Game, Privacy, and Overtown Lounge, according to CRA spokeswoman Ann Marie Sorrell.
The CRA is slated to meet March 30, though it's unclear whether the members will take up selecting the final operator. Once the selection is made, the agency will enter into negotiations with the chosen operator and ultimately approve the proposed development concept.
Phone calls to the majority of those who applied went unanswered. The Samuelsson Group declined to comment. Its owner, Marcus Samuelsson, has been a longtime Harlem resident whose Red Rooster paid homage to a closed neighborhood hangout of the same name. Samuelsson was part of a wave of Harlem gentrification that, along with the Clintons, pushed the historically black neighborhood farther away from central Manhattan.
Yet such change in Overtown, if done well and considerate of the area's illustrious past and existing residents, would be welcome.
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During segregation, the neighborhood housed famed black artists who performed at high-profile Miami Beach venues but weren't allowed to stay on the island. It wouldn't have been a surprise back then to bump into famed thinkers and writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition to housing a restaurant, the space at 920 NW Second Ave. could be used as a lounge, cigar bar, sports bar,
jazz/blues lounge, or supper club, according to the CRA.
There's no doubt Overtown needs more than a restaurant, celebrity-driven or otherwise, to help it become the neighborhood it once was. It's already home to favorites such as Jackson Soul Food, House of Wings, and People's Bar-B-Que. Maybe another restaurant won't be a silver bullet, but drawing more visitors to the neighborhood can't be a bad thing.