Should Notorious Pork 'n' Beans Project Get Historic Protection?

For months, fiery debate has raged over the future of Liberty Square, the notoriously dangerous housing project better known as Pork 'n' Beans. Corruption allegations and fears from residents have swirled around Mayor Carlos Gimenez's ambitious plans to raze the projects and build new housing. 

Few have argued for saving any part of the projects. In November, residents interviewed by New Times described rodent- and bug-infested, moldy apartments in a bullet-riddled area. So more than a few heads turned at last night's county commission meeting when news broke that Dade Heritage Trust plans to ask the county for a historic designation for the projects. 

But if you consider Pork 'n' Beans' history, that's not as crazy an idea as it sounds. The idea for preserving it began with two former residents, says Dade Heritage Trust's executive director, Christine Rupp. The couple met when they were 5 years old, grew up together in Liberty Square, and have been married 50 years. 

"The history of this place is just amazing," Rupp says. 

Rupp's group is in the review process before officially petitioning the county for historic protection. But Rupp says they'll likely ask for a designation only for the community center in the heart of Liberty Square, not for any of the housing. 

"The building itself is art deco, done in the '30s, and it needs some work. But it's always been the center of the community, and it is still used today," Rupp says. "They want to at least preserve the community center. I think it's a lovely idea. The story of that history shouldn't be lost."

Liberty Square, in fact, is a living reminder both of Miami's deeply troubled racial history and of its better impulses to try to right those wrongs. 

The project grew out of activism by Father John Culmer, a black Episcopal priest and activist, who worked with the Miami Herald to show deplorable conditions in Overtown, where more than 25,000 mostly poor black residents lived in shantytown conditions. Those stories made their way to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, which was funding New Deal-era projects nationwide. Thus, Liberty Square was born.

But there was also a dark side to that birth. As New Times recounted in November, racist fears about diseased black servants getting sick in Overtown also boosted the deal. 

In their essay "Liberty Square," historian Paul George and sociology professor Thomas Petersen also argue another motivation was at play: whites' fears about contracting the diseases that ravaged their black servants. In one letter related to the project, Grambling complained of "this cesspool of disease [from which] the white people of Greater Miami draw their servants"; in an editorial from early 1934, the editors of Friday Night, a weekly newspaper, wrote, "The people who hire negroes in their homes should come forth with their protest" against allowing blacks "from bringing into their homes the disease germs that flourish in the present negro district."

Either way, Liberty Square was finished in 1936 and for decades was desirable housing for a growing black middle class. Again, from New Times' November story

Racist beginnings or not, the development was a revelation: hundreds of new rectangular row houses, freshly painted and spaciously laid out — nothing like the haphazard crowding in Overtown — and all with indoor toilets and kitchens. "There is sanitation and light and air and harmony of simple architecture," the Herald wrote in an editorial around the time of completion. "There is room to expand, room for children to play, provision for elemental community life." Somewhere along the line, the project also acquired its ubiquitous nickname, though no one is sure why — one theory is because pork 'n' beans was a common meal among residents; another is that the buildings' paint job resembled the color of canned food

So Dade Heritage Trust is absolutely right to highlight Pork 'n' Beans' historic role in Miami. In fact, only one housing project in the entire nation (Atlanta's Techwood Homes) was built first, and only by a few months. 

It's not clear exactly how a historic designation would affect Mayor Gimenez's $48 million plan, though; the plan as it stands would raze all of Liberty Square. 

Rupp says she thinks developers could easily carve out a space for the old community center, though. 

"It doesn't seem to me to be that much of a burden to fit that into the plan," she says.

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