Longform

The View from Buddy's

Page 3 of 6

In 1936 Pflueger moved his shop from NW Twelfth Street into the old Citizens Bank building. He put his workshop upstairs, turning the vault into a walk-in refrigerator where he stored freshly caught fish awaiting his handiwork. Pflueger's son, Al, Jr., fondly recalls spending time as a boy on North Miami Avenue, hanging out at the Standard Oil station across the street and dining at the Royal restaurant around the corner. "I used to hitchhike downtown to Flagler Street," recalls the younger Pflueger, now in his sixties. "I knew everyone and everyone knew me."

By his own estimate, the elder Pflueger mounted more than half a million game fish in his lifetime, and he was known in the marine-science field as one of the leading authorities on fish identification. He decided to share his knowledge with the public by setting up a marine museum on the first floor of the bank building. According to a 1941 guide to Miami, hundreds of mounted fish lined the walls. Large glass cases were fitted between the lobby columns, each painted with a reef scene in the background. "Running the gamut of rainbow colors," the specimens included "parrotfish, four-eye butterfly, angel, trigger, tang, and file." The museum was open every day and admission was free. "He had all the large fish indigenous to the area," confirms his son, who took over the business after his father died. "There were big rays hanging from the ceiling, whales, fish of all kinds. People were going in and out of there all the time."

In 1949, when Pflueger needed more room for his growing taxidermy business (which at its peak was turning out 15,000 mounted fish each year), he moved up north to then-pastoral NE 159th Street. The younger Pflueger later sold the business and dedicated himself to big-game fishing, ocean ecology, and sport-fishing photography. He now lives in South Dade and has had little occasion to visit the downtown neighborhood he rambled as a boy. "I'd be afraid to get out of my car," he admits matter-of-factly.

One person who never entered the marine museum was Leroy Smith, although he would have liked to. "That was a place that I always admired," Smith recalls. Now 72 years old and retired, Smith was one of the first black sergeants on the Miami police force. Later promoted to lieutenant, he patrolled Overtown for 27 years, and zealously campaigned for the rights and recognition of the black members of the force. "The taxidermist's was really a place of art," Smith proclaims. "I never got to go in there but I always used to peek in the window when I walked by." As a young black boy in a white neighborhood, Smith says, he wouldn't have felt comfortable walking in alone.

Smith grew up just a few blocks from Pflueger's store, on NW Third Avenue and Twelfth Street. Driving through Overtown on a recent morning, he points to a scruffy field where his family's wooden shotgun house once stood. Down the street was the grocery store where he worked as a delivery boy, and the real-estate office where his mother paid their $2.50-per-month rent. Nearby was a strip of hot nightspots, including the Zebra Lounge and the Harlem Square Club. Driving past rows of squalid apartment buildings and garbage-choked vacant lots, Smith can't help but grin. "Overtown was it!" he exclaims.

Despite segregation whites would slum it to Overtown on weekends in those days for the glamorous nightlife. Like other Overtown residents, Smith frequently crossed the tracks on errands for his mother. He regularly walked over to the Florida Power and Light Ice Department on Fourteenth Street and NW Miami Court to pick up a block for the ice box.

Often Smith would venture farther east on Fourteenth, past the firehouse, where some days he'd be lucky enough to spy the firemen sliding down the pole. He'd pass Pflueger's place on his way to Sears. "A lot of the black families had charge accounts there; my mother did," Smith says. "If you wanted to buy clothes, you'd go over to Sears, Roebuck. Back then that was what you called the mall."

Smith says he never felt uncomfortable walking on the east side of the railroad tracks. Although it was ostensibly a white neighborhood, there were few residences, therefore few residents to complain about his presence. "I was never told to stay on my side," Smith stresses. "[Segregation] was just something you understood since the day you were born." He learned quickly that blacks could shop at Sears and other stores, but they could not use the bathrooms. He recounts a vivid childhood memory of being taken to the courthouse by his mother on their way to shop on Flagler Street: "It had a restroom facility for Negroes in the basement, but in the stores, it was white water or no water."

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Judy Cantor