Fireworks Over Overtown

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Who thought Democracy in action could be so entertaining?

On Tuesday night, Miami's Urban Environment League held a quaint-sounding discussion on the future of Overtown as part of its ongoing "dinner series" at the Miami River Inn. After a wine reception and a hearty pasta dinner, fireworks ensued.

"I might upset some people," Denise Perry began. The outspoken activist head of Power U Center for Social Change in Overtown, Perry was unapologetic in calling the housing crisis in Overtown and elsewhere in Miami "absolutely, knock-me-over ridiculous." Millions of tax dollars go to subsidize highrises for wealthy people here, Perry argued. Why is building low-cost housing such a Herculean task? As the next frontier in an expanding wave of gentrification, Overtown is in danger of losing its cultural identity as a historic black community, she said.

On the other side of the coin was Phillip Bacon, general manager of the Collins Center for Public Policy, a Tallahassee-based think tank. He called the idea that Overtown should have only affordable housing "offensive." The neighborhood needs to "attract other kinds of demographics," Bacon said in support of building highrise developments in the neighborhood. "You cannot rebuild the ghetto."

Pointing to a housing study the Collins Center recently completed, Bacon argued it would be possible to construct new apartment buildings and repopulate the area as it was before I-95 cut a swath through its heart and drove out longtime residents.

"That's not building a community," Perry shot back. "That's building buildings." Instead of focusing on "giant, huge, ugly buildings" out of sync with the neighborhood, Perry said, the city should focus on shoring up existing housing stock in Overtown, holding Section 8 landlords accountable, and creating jobs.

While the tone of the 20 or so in the audience was generally civil, one questioner accused Perry of favoring "a kind of Indian Reservation for poor people" and argued that Overtown's poor needed to be "camouflaged." After at least half-a-dozen glasses of red wine, one man seemed to have trouble blurting out comments, responding with exasperated sighs to Perry's comments. Someone asked Perry why she is so adamantly opposed to a condominium project called Crosswinds, which is planned for a vacant Overtown lot. Perry countered with a question, asking why she should have faith in the city after it had let the lot sit empty for two decades.

"Well twenty years have passed, and what the hell have you done?" --Rob Jordan

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Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Miami.


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