Overtown Anger Bursts Into Flames as Construction Site Is Targeted by Arsonist

For months, tempers in Overtown have been simmering. Residents complain they've been cut out of the nearby Miami Worldcenter mega-construction project. Meanwhile, developers have begun to swoop in, evict tenants, and demolish apartment buildings in anticipation of the neighborhood's gentrification.

This past weekend, that anger seems to have ignited. Construction equipment outside a recently demolished apartment building was set on fire. Cops, and at least one community activist, think it was arson.

"People just can't take it anymore," says Edduard Prince, who posted a video of the charred excavator on YouTube. "The community is completely frustrated, and the frustration is growing."

See also: Activist Fights Overtown Development Project, Wants More Benefits for Local Residents

Police say the suspected arson was reported at 6:27 p.m. Saturday. Officers are on the lookout for a black Nissan with Miami Heat paraphernalia.

Prince believes the attack is connected to the rising level of anger in Overtown.

First, residents feel like they were fed false promises about jobs from the Worldcenter project by local politicians, he says.

Last Thursday, a community meeting at St. John's Baptist Church descended into chaos. Residents criticized Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon for brokering a deal that promised locals jobs but included few guarantees. A fight broke out inside the church, and the cops were called.

"People want to get a piece of the Worldcenter money and are doing it through Overtown," Prince says. "The thing that happened at St. John's was all about that."

Locals aren't just getting used, he says; they are also getting abused.

The suspected arson occurred at 1160 NW Second Avenue. Prince points out that the 24-unit apartment building was one of several buildings in Overtown to be purchased and demolished by developer Michael Simkins.

Simkins and his company, Lion Financial, have purchased at least ten properties in Overtown in the past year. He is also a partner in a proposed 647-foot-tall high-rise near the Worldcenter.

Reached by phone late Monday night, Simkins said the building was in terrible shape and had to be torn down.

"It had really been neglected," he said. "There were some squatters who were living there. Didn't have power or water or anything... It was a hazard."

Simkins said it's possible one of those evicted had targeted his company.

"It could have been one of those individuals that was in there," he said. "Or it could be teenagers. I'm really not sure. Either way, it's unfortunate. Thankfully no one got hurt."

Simkins said he intends to eventually turn the lot into "affordable market-rate" housing. "Workforce housing," he clarified, "not affordable housing." He said his company is working with the community and the CRA.

"Overtown is really one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Miami," Simkins said. "It has history going back 120 years. It's an African diaspora community. And I think it's important that it maintains its historical roots and its cultural identity. That has to be celebrated."

Prince isn't celebrating. He says a number of locals were recently evicted from the building and might want to exact revenge.

"The building where the backhoe was burned, [Simkins] put everybody out on the street," Prince says. "He made a bad impression."

[H/T to Crespogram]

Send your tips to the author, or follow him on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.