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Miami Herld - July 27, 2003
Overtown's glitter a few blocks and a world away
By William Yardley
Development pressure is increasing on Overtown, with promises of new housing and
retail projects that will bring middle-class residents to downtown's historically
black neighborhood (story on Page 1A). But even as developers maneuver to remake
the area, Overtown remains the city of Miami's poorest neighborhood.
Fifty-five percent of people live in poverty.
Sixty-two percent of households are headed by unmarried women.
Only 10 percent of households are owner-occupied.
The census numbers take human form all around L.F. Ricks Jr.
''This is a slum area,'' he says. ``You know how slum areas is.''
Sitting on his front porch in central Overtown, the poorest neighborhood in Miami,
Ricks can look across the street and see a 27-unit building in the final stages
of renovation, including elegant palms just planted in the gated courtyard.
''They fix 'em up,'' he says, ``but it don't last long.''
Ricks, 58, owns a rooming house and two tiny ''shotgun'' houses on a lot just nine
blocks west of Biscayne Bay, but the distance between here and the waterside sheen
that is Miami's salable civic image is as extreme as demographers can measure. If
waterfront high-rises and Mediterranean mansions reflect a region of expansive wealth
and beauty, Overtown's persistent struggle is part of why Miami, according to the
2000 census, was the poorest big city in the United States.
Certainly, poverty extends beyond Overtown. There are aging Cuban exiles who cannot
escape rented flats in Little Havana. There are anonymous immigrants in Little Haiti
who slipped ashore in the middle of the night. There are Honduran families working
in laundromats by the Miami River, struggling to send money home. And there are
single mothers who grew up in Liberty City public housing developments and raise
their own children there now.
Miami is poor all over, but Overtown is where poverty began. It has always been
distinct from any other city neighborhood.
Because unlike Little Havana and Little Haiti, places whose adopted names evoke
immigrants and ethnicity as well as culture and exotic allure, Overtown began as
Colored Town the year Miami was born: created by whites to contain blacks who helped
build the city's early infrastructure.
Yet even as Overtown was segregated, parts of it thrived. Segregation forced it
to be the center of business and social life for blacks, and it served those purposes
''Colored Town Section of the City of Miami is a Thriving Community,'' read the
headline on a 1915 article Kelsey Pharr, secretary of the Colored Board of Trade,
wrote for the newspaper Miami Metropolis. ``Civic Pride is Strong in Colored Town
With Its Various Activities in Business, School, the Church, Fraternities and Other
At night the area could be electric, whether Count Basie was playing the Lyric
Theatre or, later, Sam Cooke was playing the Harlem Square Club, where he made a
live recording in 1963.
The decline came, perhaps with painful irony, as segregation was being dismantled
nationwide during the 1960s.
The construction of interstates 95 and 395 physically devastated the area in the
1960s -- replacing modest houses and commercial streets with a dark canopy of elevated
expressways. Frequent riots throughout the 1980s -- spurred by controversial police
shootings of black victims -- led to looted storefronts, abandoned businesses and
The highways and desegregation accelerated an exodus of middle-class black families
that had begun as early as the 1930s. Those who stayed often could not afford to
Despite promises of aid and rebirth, Overtown has yet to recover. Poverty remains
more concentrated here than in any other neighborhood. In retrospect, the early
segregated boundaries served their purpose tragically well -- creating an anchor
for poverty in an image-obsessed city.
Until now, maybe.
Civic leaders and developers say Overtown is the ''hole in the doughnut'' of a
surge in downtown redevelopment. Developers have big plans and grand drawings of
proposed mixed-income neighborhoods with lively streetscapes. Several projects are
being permitted. Construction already is underway in some parts of the neighborhood.
If Overtown does boom again, insist those pushing for its revival, it still will
have a place for working-class residents like Ricks. Not that he could be pushed
Ricks is among just a fraction of householders in Overtown who own what they live
in, which besides the rooming house, includes the two shotgun houses. He is rare,
too, because he is not an absentee landlord.
''I'll never tear them down,'' Ricks says of the shotgun homes. ``I just had $2,500
of work done on the roofs.''
The story goes that the simple shotguns -- found in much of the American South
and the Caribbean -- took their name because a bullet fired through the front door
would shoot out the back without striking anything inside.
Only a few survived demolition movements in Overtown from the 1940s through the
1980s, including 152 and 154 NW 12th Street, behind Ricks' rooming house. The oldest,
154, has remained remarkably intact for nearly 100 years -- longer than most buildings
in Miami that receive far greater attention.
Ricks moved to the rooming house in the 1980s, and for years he was the inside
man for the white Australian who had owned the property since the 1970s. Ricks made
sure tenants paid the rent, and he fixed what needed fixing.
Then, in January 2000, landlord Fred Loveridge finally sold Ricks the property
''The hassle, the aggravation, the dope dealing. You got to have muscle down there,''
recalls Loveridge. ``Ricks has cleaned it up pretty good.''
It was a minuscule transaction in the realm of Miami real estate, but it was important.
These days, Ricks' primary work is sitting on his front porch, watching out for
what is his. ''I'm always going to be right here,'' he says. ``This is my living,
man. I bought this because I worked hard on it. I set my mind to it. If you write
about it, tell how good I keep it.''
Sometimes he has a handful of tenants, sometimes a full house.
His room is the first one on the right on the first floor, the one with the best
view of the goings-on outside, the one with the satellite dish mounted outside the
window. It is where he keeps a boombox and all his CDs, an unlikely collection in
this rap-soaked world.
Thelonious Monk. Ella Fitzgerald. Hugh Masekela.
''This is the only corner you'll hear it,'' Ricks says, turning the volume up loud
one night. He plays each disc all the way through, one after the other, until the
sun is long gone and the air is sweet with the smell of marijuana and the arthritis
in his legs disappears. People passing look and nod. Ricks does this nearly every
''It makes everything go away,'' he says. ``For however long it lasts.''
One evening a man is measuring the exterior walls of the shotguns. He says Ricks
may hire him to put stucco over the white wood, completely covering the outside
walls of the two little houses.
Ricks explains later:
``It'll keep 'em from rotting.''
When someone suggests he would be hiding history inside all that cement, he says
he has an investment to protect. But he does worry about his role as caretaker of
the past, however troubled that past has been.
''I keep thinking about that,'' he says. 'The police say, `Strip the wood and repaint
it,' 'cause if I don't do that to it, they won't be the same no more.''
''It's not a sure thing,'' he says. ``I just want an estimate.''