Longform

From Knight Manor to Nightmare

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Bouvier and Wiseheart altered their bottom line, and the history of all Miami, in 1951, when they decided to rent 215 empty Knight Manor apartments to blacks. It was the first time in the history of super-segregated Miami that blacks were invited to live outside their clearly defined borders.

To fight the change, angry white citizens mobilized into groups with names such as the Dade County Property Owners Association and the John B. Gordon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. White residents of Knight Manor held an "Indignation Meeting," followed by a motorcade in which they drove around the now-integrated project flashing their headlights. Some of the more law-abiding Klansmen obeyed a Dade County ordinance banning cross burning and instead ignited giant wooden letter Ks.

The consonant burning, and the subsequent bombings, did not prevent blacks from moving in. So strong was the demand for affordable housing that the boundaries of the black neighborhood soon moved beyond Knight Manor to encompass a larger (albeit still confined) section of Miami that is now known as Liberty City.

Despite the expansion, the black housing crunch never abated. White leaders continued to covet property in Overtown, the name by which Colored Town came to be known. One white activist even encouraged the wholesale relocation of the black neighborhood's residents. Such a grand social engineering project proved unnecessary in the late Sixties, when federal transportation officials steered the new I-95 expressway through the heart of Overtown's main business district. "One massive highway interchange alone destroyed the housing of approximately 10,000 people," wrote Raymond Mohl, an urban historian at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, in a March 1995 article in the Journal of Urban History. "Despite official promises, few replacement housing units were built, and those people who were uprooted got little in the way of relocation assistance."

The housing supply was further strained by the arrival of immigrants, whose movement into the cheapest apartments available elsewhere kept Miami's blacks confined to the same old areas. "Take the neighborhood where I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina," offers T. Willard Fair. "The blacks moved out into the cheap housing that was left in the white neighborhoods. In Miami those affordable houses are taken by the Haitians and the Cubans. The black people are trapped."

This shortage of affordable housing has been cited as a factor in every riot in modern Miami history, including the devastating 1980 outbreak that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat to death black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie.

Today Knight Manor does not look like a place in which anyone --white or black -- would stake a claim. Starting on the corner of Northwest Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street and fanning west and south in an inverted, eleven-acre L, it is an ugly shadow of a development. The missing window frames make even the few buildings that are still occupied look vacant and deserted.

Lawrence Levine found out about the Knight Manor property soon after Tacolcy lost its option to buy. Levine, a 51-year-old Bronx native who runs a law firm in Fort Lauderdale, also dabbles in construction, having built two condos in Broward. In Knight Manor he saw the potential to erect his first property in Dade.

It is practically impossible to develop in the inner city without government assistance. To build apartments or houses that are profitable for the developer and priced within the budget of the community, some construction costs must be covered, mortgages and/or rents heavily subsidized. The traditional path to public money passes through nonprofit community groups such as Tacolcy, and that is where Levine turned first.

Lorenzo Simmons didn't want much to do with the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, who lacked experience (any experience) developing with public money. "The credibility of these guys is a problem for me," says Simmons, who is quick to add, however, that he supports any and all efforts to develop in Liberty City.

Rejected by the top Liberty City developer, Levine apparently took a different tack. Javier Odio, the brother of Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, says the Miami condominium development where he lives and works is owned in part by a cousin of one of Levine's partners in the Liberty City venture. Odio says Levine approached him and, as a personal favor, he smoothed the way into the city bureaucracy. "I set up an appointment through my brother's office," Odio discloses. "They went in front of the commission. I just basically introduced them to everyone."

Like Tacolcy, Levine originally wanted to convert Knight Manor to apartments. But Javier Odio was aware that Dawkins wouldn't go for anything short of home ownership. At his urging, the developers crafted a rough plan to tear down Knight Manor and replace it with 70 to 90 townhouses. Perhaps owing to the sketchiness of their project, Levine's group had trouble raising public money. "First they went to Dade County, and then they went to Tallahassee, but they couldn't get any money," Javier Odio recalls. "Finally they went to the city. I basically did the introductions. We went to meetings with city staff, who suggested that [Levine] take his plan to Miller Dawkins."

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Robert Andrew Powell