Visitors can explore Overtown's rich cultural history by visiting sites such as the Lyric Theatre. But to see the neighborhood's prosperous future, they can head to the Urban. A 58,000-square-foot open-air venue in the heart of Overtown, it's ground zero for a new chapter of commerce and culture in the community. Last week, Urban Philanthropies launched Overtown Marketplace in the Urban, a weekly two-day curated event featuring local artisans, one-of-a-kind items, culinary treats, and entertainment. The Urban, Keon Williams of Urban Philanthropies says, is a platform that "begins to change the narrative" of Overtown.
The neighborhood was once known as the "Little Broadway of the South," hosting black entertainers, intellectuals, and sports players such as Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jackie Robinson. Black-owned businesses and social organizations grew in that fertile environment. But by the turn of the millennium, after highway construction and other developments had fractured the neighborhood, the median income in Overtown fell to $13,211.99, well below the national average. In those bleak times, the community came together to preserve its past.
In 2002, a group now known as Urban Philanthropies was founded by the Collins Center for Public Policy. The group advocates for residents in a variety of ways, but most notably by boosting civic entrepreneurship. With the Urban, the organization is building up the community through events such as food festivals, weddings, pool parties, and family reunions. It's providing local businesspeople a gathering spot to sell their wares and for food trucks to set up shop.
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"I think for a long time the people of Overtown have been wanting something to come where not just one group of people benefit, but everyone benefits," Williams observes. "I think the Urban provides something for everyone — whether you want to come relax, listen to music, smoke a guitar, laugh with friends, everyone." During Art Basel Miami Beach, Urban Philanthropies set up a high-profile activation at the Urban, "Welcome to the AfroFuture," which featured, among other art and performances, murals of Overtown heroes such as Purvis Young and Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields.
"Soulfully curated cocktails" and requests to "support local" are part of a larger plan for the neighborhood. One of the goals is to bring to Overtown the tourist economy that thrives elsewhere. "To activate the community economically, you have to do things on the regular," Williams explains of their plan to build this local economy. "Our main mission in Overtown is to transform, empower, and preserve. We want to take a distressed community like Overtown and develop entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. The Urban gives a platform for those vendors, curators, not just for art, but those in entertainment too.
"We talk about the hope of a community — how to activate a community from an economic standpoint, you have to have some of these elements in place to make people say, 'Oh, wait. I didn't know I could get a drink over here; I didn't know I could get lunch here. I didn't know that when I'm leaving downtown, [I can] catch a happy hour here,'" he says. "When those micro-activites start combining, what you often end up with is people staying in the neighborhood longer who've never been. They find other locations." Look at what built Wynwood, he says: Small, consistent traffic leads to more arts and excited visitors who want to return. In addition, the Urban is providing jobs and paying a living wage to locals working at the space and generating more employment through the popularity of food trucks onsite.
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One such business is gourmet hot-dog vendor That's My Dog Foodtruck. Founder Tiffany Hamilton went through Urban Philanthropies' Overtown Vendors Bootcamp. Williams says that her business is thriving and that she has hired two additional employees. "Talk about coming full circle," Williams says of her launching her venture at the Urban. Hamilton, too, is psyched. "We are so excited to be a part of the Urban," she says. "The venue right here in the heart of Overtown, bringing positive vibes, great food, and awesome people together — opening doors and allowing small black businesses to grow."
Other vendors include Rum Cake Factory, which sells the popular cake you can pick up at Whole Foods, and Creole cuisine such as jambalaya. "They brought that New Orleans flavor to Miami," Williams says. He also mentions Suite 110 Urbanwear, which sells clothing branded with Overtown history highlights — another bootcamp success story.
Overtown Marketplace is a great place to buy fantastic food and crafts, but it's also a seed planted to grow a more sustainable, expansive community.
The Overtown Marketplace. 4 to 9 p.m. Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays at the Urban, 1000 NW Second Ave., Miami; facebook.com/theurbanmia. Admission is free.