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Miami Herald - 12/26/04 -

Seventh Avenue:
Liberty City merchants struggle


This is one of an occasional series on Miami-Dade County's Seventh Avenue corridor.

Frayed cords lead from an old turntable inside Tommy Lattimore's locked office to a pair of monster speakers near the curb that fill Seventh Avenue with the swelling chorus of the gospel song I'll Take You There.

It's loud enough to peel the remaining paint from the tattered storefronts of a decaying street.

''I'm trying to spread the word,'' said Lattimore, leaning on his cane and raising his voice over the racket, ``to all the crackheads, all the bums on the street, all the kids with their pants down their behinds: There's only one way to come up. The right way.''

Seventh Avenue is the moribund Main Street of Liberty City, a string of woebegone storefronts holding out against eviction and gentrification.

The avenue hums with traffic. And yet, the Seventh Avenue corridor between Northwest 40th and 79th streets feels like a ghost town.

''Seventh Avenue is dead. There's nothing happening no more,'' said Ryann Lasster, one of the younger generation of blacks said to be fleeing Liberty City for the suburbs. He works on Seventh Avenue but lives in North Lauderdale.

Black developer Alonzo Kelly coined the term Liberty City in the 1920s for the subdivision Liberty City Homesite Estate, bounded by Northwest 12th and 17th avenues and 67th and 71st streets.

The heart of the community, at Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street, is defined by a riot. Black citizens revolted over three days in May 1980 following an all-white jury's acquittal of county cops in the beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance man. Liberty City never fully recovered.


Tommy Lattimore came down to Liberty City from Albany, Ga., in 1962 on an $11 Trailways bus ticket with 50 cents in his pocket. He grew up the youngest of 17 children on a farm, sleeping on a chicken-feather mattress on an iron bed beneath a tin roof.

He set up the car wash 35 years ago at Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street. A wash cost 50 cents then. It's $7 now.

Lattimore cooks barbecue in a steel drum on Fridays and Saturdays. Loud gospel music crackles from his record player daily. 'I don't play any rock 'n' roll or blues,'' he said. ``This car wash is a religious car wash.''

A message, painted in white against the red wall of the building, reads, Please Black people ask God to help us stick together and we will survive.

Survival is about the best any business owner can hope for here. Abandoned storefronts outnumber open shops by three to one on some blocks. A handful of longtime tenants speak not of bold plans or future prosperity but of just hanging on.

''This street right here should be booming with business. But it's not,'' said James ''Bobby'' Lasster, owner of Bobby's Gym, 5708 NW Seventh Ave.

Lasster, 58, opened his gym 15 years ago with 400 pounds of weights and two benches. Today, the gym is cavernous and hard-core: plain iron barbells; crumbling paint; no air conditioning. There's a photo on the wall of the one-time construction worker at age 27, buff, sporting a handlebar mustache.

Bobby charges $25 a month.

He lived off Seventh for more than 20 years. Lasster left the neighborhood seven years ago for North Lauderdale. Now he shops at the Broward Mall.

''I was just tired, just tired,'' he said. ``I would have moved my business. But I built this from nothing.''


Inner City Wings, an ambitious soul-food restaurant across the street, is shuttered. So is Times 2, a failed clothing boutique, and Mr. Muhammad's Dry Cleaning, down the block.

The nearest sign of life is outside the V&M Meat Market, where Muntaquim and Ayesha Muhammad sell cheap DVD copies and flea-market bric-a-brac beneath umbrellas.

Two decades ago, the Muhammads organized a Black Vendors Association and pushed for the government to finance an open-air market along Seventh Avenue. It didn't pan out.

Customers pull up every few minutes. ''Hey, man,'' one asks, ''You got Rude Boys?'' Later this week, Muntaquim replies.

''This is what's real,'' Ayesha Muhammad said, gesturing to the table of bric-a-brac.

''We need people on the street,'' Muntaquim said. ``It just brings the street alive.''

Shopkeepers say the avenue needs landscaping, new sidewalks and palm trees. They keep hearing about government grants and wonder why none of the money reaches them.

Inside the Seventh Avenue headquarters of the redevelopment group Tools for Change, urban-renewal expert John Mills tells a more nuanced story.

Seventh Avenue shopkeepers mostly operate without formal business plans, without cash reserves, without decent credit. If the shopkeepers, individually or collectively, came forward with a credible plan to improve the street and offer a well-reasoned service to the community, they'd get the money.

They seldom do. Federal money earmarked for Liberty City is routinely redirected to other causes, Mills said, for lack of an organized merchant community. ''They look to the government to back them,'' he said. ``That's not the right approach.''

Tools for Change has surveyed businesses up and down Seventh Avenue. They've found mostly tragedies.

Take Jack's Rite Taste. The Jamaican fish restaurant once netted $30,000 a month, Mills said, on foot traffic from nearby housing projects. The projects shut down, the tenants moved away, and now the restaurant sits virtually empty at the peak dinner hour.

''I don't have an answer to it,'' said Jack Sherwood, standing by the doorway in his chef's apron at lunchtime with nothing to do. ``I only have the good days to remember.''

But there are some success stories: Cafe Nanking, a popular eatery at 65th Street with clean tables and large portions, and Esther's Restaurant, at 46th Street, a successful soul food restaurant that has prospered despite a shooting in 2000 that killed one employee and wounded two more.

Esther's began in 1960 as a traditional Cuban cantina, delivering boxed dinners. Today the clientele is predominantly black.

A prominent sign reads, No refunds or exchanges without your food. Food is served cafeteria-style from large steel tubs: oxtail, liver and onions, BBQ short ribs, nothing over $7.48.

''Cuban soul food,'' joked Tony Suarez, co-owner of the chain. His family learned from an African-American cook to blend Caribbean spices into the traditional Cuban sauces, and to add ''a bit of grease and black pepper'' to the soul food.

The restaurants serve 600 pounds of oxtail a day.

''They know their food,'' said Dennis Lewis, waiting in line on a recent morning. ``Everybody loves it.''

The best-known black-owned shop on the avenue is Afro In Books & Things, at 56th Street, nationally known for literature by, for and about blacks. Opened in 1978 by two Dade school administrators, Afro In remains a thriving cultural center.

Inside, the shelves brim with books about African-American icons -- Spike Lee, James Brown, Tiger, Ali.

''I was so idealistic,'' recalled Eursla Wells, co-founder of Afro In. ``We had a little sofa in there, a little love seat, and people just started coming in.''

Wells recalls a time when every storefront on the block was filled.


What went wrong?

Apathy. Shopkeepers, those who remain, are ''mostly resigned'' that gentrification will ultimately force them from the neighborhood, said Mills, the redevelopment official.

Flight. Younger, upwardly mobile blacks are leaving for the suburbs, the elders say, and those who stay find somewhere else to shop.

Edison Plaza, once home to a Winn-Dixie supermarket, sits mostly empty now, awaiting redevelopment. The supermarket opened with great fanfare in 1985, rising from the ashes of the 1980 riots and the looted Pantry Pride market. It closed four years ago.

''They messed up when they took the Winn-Dixie away,'' said Profairo Black, 32, a local man hanging out at a meat shop on a recent afternoon.

But the most profound adversary faced by Seventh Avenue may be parking.

The avenue is an official diversion route for Interstate 95. All four lanes of traffic must, in theory, be kept clear at all times in case of gridlock. Police bent the rules for years, allowing customers to park at the curb for a few minutes. Last year, they cracked down. Business owners raged. Most stores have no designated lots.

A compromise, reached last summer, allowed shoppers to park along Seventh Avenue storefronts except during rush hour. The compromise is considered temporary; eventually all parking will be prohibited.

Said Mills of Tools for Change: ``It will be catastrophic.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.