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Miami Herald April 8, 2001

Brickell area bursting at its seams, but black residents abandoning city

Andres Viglucci

The heralded residential boom along Brickell Avenue, combined with an influx of new residents in western Little Havana and Allapattah, helped Miami offset a sharp drop in its black population during the 1990s, recently released census figures show.

The 2000 Census numbers represent encouraging and worrisome news for South Florida's signature city, at 362,470 people the second largest in Florida after Jacksonville.

An analysis of the figures shows minimal overall growth of 1 percent for the city, accompanied by a shift in where people live -- away from decaying inner-city neighborhoods and into the gleaming luxury high-rises of Brickell, as well as older but stable working-class and immigrant enclaves such as Flagami and Little Havana.

In the bayside Brickell district, including the Brickell Key development on Claughton Island, the population soared 43 percent, solidifying city leaders' hopes for a downtown revival.

There were much smaller gains in West Little Havana, Flagami, eastern Coconut Grove, Allapattah and the Coral Way corridor, while East Little Havana and Wynwood showed small losses.

The growth in Brickell and adjacent Coconut Grove, where the city's white non-Hispanic population is concentrated, appears to have arrested a longstanding trend of ``white flight'' out of the Hispanic-majority city. The white non-Hispanic share of the overall Miami population has held steady at 12 percent since 1990. In contrast, the white non-Hispanic population plunged 35 percent from 1980 to 1990.

The Brickell surge is nowhere more evident than in Brickell Key, which 10 years ago was just under way and housed 569 residents.

By 2000, a spurt of high-rise luxury condo and rental construction brought the island population to 2,189, according to the census -- a figure the project's developer says may be low.

Swire Properties' own survey shows about 600 more year-round residents than the census, said Megan Kelly, senior vice president.

The gap illustrates the difficulty of pinning down Brickell's precise population, which the census put at 9,166 -- and which developers and city planners believe may represent an undercount.


They say the district's luxury projects have drawn Latin American buyers looking for investment properties or second homes.

But those fleeing turmoil in Venezuela or Colombia may be unwilling to tell the government they are now living in Miami.

``I suspect that 9,200 souls is a somewhat conservative number,'' Kelly said.

There is only more to come. Several massive residential high-rises are planned for Brickell, including two towers under construction in Brickell Key.

But the census paints a diametrically opposite picture of Miami's black neighborhoods, where many residents appear to have abandoned the city entirely during the '90s.

Overtown, Little Haiti and the Model City area -- the part of Liberty City that falls within city boundaries -- all bled residents, losing from 11 percent to 14 percent of their populations. And there is little on the boards to suggest the trend will soon be reversed.

Counting all those who identified themselves as black on the census form, either alone or in combination with another race, an option available for the first time in the 2000 Census, the city lost 18 percent of its black population. City officials say the extent of black population loss was unexpected.


``That's very perplexing,'' said Karen Coplin Cooper, administrator of the Model City Neighborhood Enhancement Team office, referring to the area's 3,000-person drop. ``That number is just too huge.''

Community leaders, however, were not surprised. They say many Model City residents and Haitian immigrants left their deteriorating city neighborhoods for burgeoning suburbs and smaller municipalities in North Miami-Dade County.

Census data support the contention: Blacks' share of the population rose sharply in cities such as North Miami Beach and northern unincorporated areas like Ives Estates and Golden Glades.

``There is no doubt about it. All one has to do is ride up in North Miami and other places where 10 years ago you saw few people of color, if any at all, and many of those areas are now colored in,'' said T. Willard Fair, longtime director of the Urban League of Greater Miami.


In Overtown and Model City, in particular the poor and crime-stricken western corner nicknamed Germ City, condemnations and abandonment of decrepit apartment houses have forced many people out, community leaders say.

Little new housing has been built in the meantime to make up for the loss or lure new residents.

Those who could afford to have moved to moderately priced and welcoming new developments just north of the city or into older homes formerly occupied by white non-Hispanic retirees, Fair said.

``Kids who grew up, whether they wanted to or not, could not find housing in Liberty City. But people who are working are now able to move out of Liberty City, to neighborhoods where there is more of a choice in terms of affordable housing, in all kinds of price ranges, from condos to gated communities,'' Fair said.

In long-suffering Overtown, where the population dropped below 10,000, community leaders hope things have reached bottom. They are counting on Overtown's proximity to the reviving downtown to provide impetus to a plan that would transform it into a racially mixed residential and entertainment district.


``We have a rich past on which to build,'' said Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Center. ``With so much vacant land and so many boarded-up buildings, and so little housing available, almost a Marshall Plan is needed. We have bits and pieces of that. Funds are available now.''

In Little Haiti, by contrast, the story is different. Haitian immigrants are leaving as they climb up the income ladder and buy first homes in North Miami, North Miami Beach and other growing Haitian enclaves.

At the same time, few new arrivals from Haiti are replacing those who leave Little Haiti, said Jean-Robert LaFortune, a county social worker and chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition. The illegal traffic of migrants from Haiti has largely dried up, while many of those established enough to sponsor the legal immigration of children or parents now live outside Little Haiti -- meaning new Haitian immigrants are now bypassing Little Haiti.

``It's like a step that has been broken,'' said LaFortune, who has been living in North Miami since 1989. ``Little Haiti was a springboard for Haitians, but not many are using it this way today.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.