Longform

The View from Buddy's

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In fact, although blacks and whites in the area coexisted peacefully, the Overtown "border" kept white businesses located near North Miami Avenue -- such as Pflueger's taxidermy business -- from expanding westward.

Others in the neighborhood remember relations between blacks and whites as cordial, if far from equal, during the segregation era. "The Negroes were 'Yes, sir and no, sir' in those days," says the owner of the Fourteenth Street Fabric Bazaar, an elfin man who gives his name only as Mr. Schwartz. "Overtown was like the border between blacks and whites. They didn't come over here too much."

Joe Carlin wasn't toting a gun when he bought Buddy's Bar in the early Seventies. He was living in Broward County and working as a wholesale liquor salesman when Robert McCready offered him the place on North Miami Avenue. McCready, a.k.a. Buddy, opened the bar in 1959 in a space formerly occupied by a film distribution company. "It was a bar and restaurant for local people," says Carlin, who sold liquor to McCready before taking over the establishment. "The area was all built up then. You could really walk the streets."

Although it was never particularly grand, the neighborhood slid into seediness during the Sixties. Since the Twenties the small apartments in the Leslie had been home to working men and young couples, and served as pieds-a-terre for businessmen going back and forth between Havana and Miami. By the Sixties, according to a 1976 Miami Magazine article, the building was a "semiflophouse," offering faded, furnished rooms to transients.

William Somersett, known to Miami police as "Agent 88," lived in apartment 38 with his wife Peggy. On November 9, 1963, he ensured the building a place in Miami history. That afternoon he recorded his conversation with Joseph Milteer, a Southern racist and political extremist who hinted that while visiting Miami later that month, President Kennedy would be shot from the window of an office building while being driven through downtown. The motorcade was canceled for other reasons and JFK ended up taking a helicopter to Miami Beach. Less than two weeks later he went to Dallas. Reporters and various assassination buffs who've thumbed through the file on the episode at police headquarters have turned up at 1334 North Miami Avenue periodically over the years. Somersett died in 1970. The apartment building just kept deteriorating.

When Carlin took over Buddy's Bar in the early Seventies, the apartment house had a new owner and name: the Riomar. Most of the apartments were occupied by older people who had been there a long time, or people who couldn't afford any place better. Former residents who had a choice had long since left the inner city. (Carlin himself still lives in Broward County.)

The decline of the area around Buddy's was hastened by the construction of Interstate 95 in the Sixties, which severed Overtown and effectively obliterated its vibrancy. The population west of the railroad tracks dropped from 40,000 to less than 15,000 in a few years. Poverty and crime overtook the black neighborhood, and much of the area west of Biscayne Boulevard became a wasteland.

"That abandonment [of the inner city] is part of a national trend," historian Paul George says. "You see a similar situation in Jacksonville or Atlanta and across the country. Basically it's an American problem."

In 1979 the owner of the Riomar vacated the tenants from the building. Refugees from the Mariel boatlift and other squatters moved in. (It was later sold and renamed the Vera Hotel, but it remains vacant.) "Things changed when the Mariels came," Carlin remembers. "It got so that if you had an open door, people would come in and rob you." Carlin's former clientele of old-timers and laborers disappeared. He closed the bar and coffee shop and set the whole place up as a package store, gradually installing more alarms, gates, and wire to create a bunker against crime. "I did a big business with the blacks from Overtown in the package store," he says. "I looked after them. The older men, the older women, they needed [the liquor]. Drinking was something that helped get them through [the day]."

Carlin also brought in customers by cashing welfare checks. He proudly notes that he sold no cheap swill. There was no loitering in the parking lot, and prostitutes were not welcome at his store. "It was nothing great," he says with a shrug, "but it was lucrative for a while."

It didn't last long. There were days when the area was a war zone. In the winter of 1982, after a policeman shot and killed a black teenager in a game room on NW Fourteenth Street, Overtown residents rioted, looting and burning businesses. Smoke hung in the air for days. In 1989 Miami Police Ofcr. William Lozano shot at a motorcycle speeding down an Overtown street, resulting in the deaths of two men, both black. Rioters overturned cop cars in the streets. Carlin says he stood outside his store with a shotgun preparing to defend himself as a furious crowd moved toward him. Only the arrival of more patrol cars sent them in another direction. Carlin was shaken, but he kept the store open.

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Judy Cantor