Longtime Overtown residents and Miami historians will both tell you that highway overpasses destroyed the neighborhood. The formerly segregated community, which used to be called "Colored Town," was full of renowned clubs, brightly colored homes, churches, and a thriving mix of Caribbean and African cultures that played itself out in city streets each day.
Until local officials drove a bevy of highway overpasses through the dead-center of the neighborhood in a move that shuttered businesses and bottomed-out home values almost overnight. The area never recovered.
Given that history, it's quite odd that All Aboard Florida, which is trying to build a privately run train line from Orlando to Miami, would plunk a huge wall right between Overtown and the rest of downtown Miami. The multistory wall, which is still under construction, stretches down NW First Avenue from the I-395 overpass to the corner of NW Eighth Street. (The wall will eventually end around NW Third Street.) One break in the barrier, along NW 11th Street, is just a few hundred feet from the city's famous clubs, like Space and E11even. A few splotches of graffiti have been sprayed along the wall already.
"It’s crazy," longtime Overtown activist Edduard Prince tells New Times. "They’re destroying the community."
The wall is popping up right as negotiations for soccer star David Beckham's plans to build a huge stadium in Overtown are coming to a head. Last night, the city held a meeting to discuss the athlete's vision of a gleaming stadium in one of Miami's poorest communities — and residents were not universally pleased.
Calls to both All Aboard Florida and City Commissioner Keon Hardemon's office were not immediately returned.
Prince says Overtown residents weren't properly warned that a gigantic wall was going up that could cut many of them off from downtown. Brightline received more than $17 million from the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency — the group tasked with funding "revitalization" projects in the neighborhood — according to Prince. The activist doesn't see how a gigantic wall splitting Overtown from Biscayne Boulevard helps anybody.
All Aboard Florida, a group owned by the long-established Florida East Coast Railway, is currently building a massive train hub near Miami-Dade County Hall that is set to include luxury food courts, office space, and high-end apartments.
"Originally, they just told us it was going to be a 'ramp,'" Prince says. "But the wall starts and stops where Overtown stops. The wall is just at Overtown; then it turns into, like, the same way the Metrorail is, with open space underneath."
Last month, the Miami Times, the newspaper serving the city's black community, officially called the project the "Great Wall of Overtown" and quoted multiple activists who said the wall upset them.
"The real deal is when the design was put together our CRA should have … looked at that and saw where it blocked us off from the other side of the community. Metrorail didn’t do that,” local activist Jackie Bell told the paper.
According to the Times, representatives from both All Aboard Florida and the Overtown CRA maintain that the project was properly vetted before it was built and that the so-called "wall design" is necessary to support a train platform that will handle more than 30 trains per day.
"It’s not a wall," Overtown CRA director Clarence Woods told the Times. "It’s a platform for the rail."
Astoundingly, the project originally called for the closing of NW 10th Street, which provides an easy on-ramp to I-95. The wall was eventually modified to ensure that it didn't block any roads, but the structure itself still blocks residents from seeing most of downtown and parts of the skyline.
A spokesperson for Brightline, Ali Soule, told the paper that Brightline is "committed to the Overtown community. We weren’t going to close any [roadway] crossings so that we would not cut off access into Miami."
But Prince tells New Times that he — as well as other residents who live near the wall — doesn't get why the so-called platform"had to be crammed into Overtown, an area with such a historically awful relationship with transportation projects. Gigantic walls like this rarely, if ever, turn up in wealthier or majority-white neighborhoods.
"'It's not a wall; it’s a platform'?" Prince asks rhetorically. "That’s not even a debate. He should have said, 'Oh, it's not a wall; it's a bunny rabbit,' so we could at least have had something to talk about. But this is not even a debate."
On the Overtown side of the wall, Prince also added that Brightline will be adding a cargo train hub, too.
"It’s just an eyesore," he says. "It's whatever bad you can say about a cargo train coming through the community. We're going to have close to 80 trains coming through Overtown at that point right there — it's going to be 32 passenger rail trains, 20-something Tri-Rail trains, 22 cargo trains."
As the sun started to set late yesterday afternoon, the wall cast a westward shadow into Overtown, smothering a dilapidated-looking apartment complex in darkness. A pink Fisher-Price tricycle sat motionless in the complex's parking lot.
The new low-income housing complex Beacon sits next door. The wall casts those units in shadow in the afternoon as well. A woman with braided hair walked out of the Beacon complex around 6 p.m. yesterday and unlocked a bike from a nearby signpost.
"I guess the wall doesn't bother me," she said, shrugging. "I suppose it's just part of the train."
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