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Miami Herald - 12/31/04 -

Seventh Avenue: Corridor is I-95's neglected stepchild
Superhighway overshadows stagnant avenue

By Nicholas Spangler

This is the fourth installment of a series on Miami-Dade County's Seventh Avenue corridor.

Seventh Avenue begins in East Little Havana and ends 10.7 miles north at the Golden Glades Interchange.

In its grander incarnation -- U.S. Route 441 -- it shoots up to Royal Palm Beach, doglegs west to the coast of Lake Okeechobee and forges on 900 miles to Lake City, Tenn.

You would not imagine this, heading north out of Liberty City. The avenue does not stretch out as far as the eye can see, or roll gently. It offers no vistas, only a few empty lots.

It is a dirty, unromantic conduit for travel between downtown Miami and Broward County. Thirty-six thousand vehicles use it every day. You take it because you're trying to get downtown to work or because you're headed north to the suburbs, home. You wouldn't take it at all, but Interstate 95 is jammed again.

The storefronts of Liberty City fall away after 79th Street, replaced by used car dealerships, stand-alone car repair shops, shops for mufflers, brakes and oil changes.

Scattered among the automobile shops -- almost 40 between 79th and 119th streets -- are a few haggard beauty parlors and fast-food joints.

But it's the superhighway that dominates the landscape: huge, beige, rumbling. It runs parallel to the avenue, just one block east, until the two diverge at the Golden Glades cloverleaf. Its noise never stops. The buildings on the avenue aren't tall enough to block it out.

The superhighway came in the 1960s. It famously destroyed Overtown. Its influence is less obvious up north, but it sucked traffic off the avenue and changed the character of the neighborhoods it skirted.

''It took a lot of business off the avenue,'' says Paul George, a historian at Miami Dade College. ``Bigger businesses just left -- it made no sense to invest in the area if your customers were bypassing the whole area.''


Step a few feet off the avenue and the street itself and all its sounds vanish as a neighborhood unfolds, just below the northerly bend of Little River.

People who live there call it West Little River. A shade south they call it Arcola, after the small lake at 83rd Street. Or they call it Pinewood, after the Norfolk pines farmers planted as wind blocks a century ago, when the land bore beans and tomatoes and pineapples.

It is a place with low-slung houses and shrubs and men who spend weekend mornings puttering around lawns. '' '66, we moved in,'' says one of the putterers, Samuel Rahmings. He's 60, retired, doesn't plan on moving anywhere, does not care to boast about what is far and away the lushest lawn on 84th Street.

He was an Army veteran who had just begun a career as a letter carrier when he and his wife moved in. They had been raised in Liberty City but they wanted their children to have their own bedrooms and a yard to play in. They took a $13,900 mortgage and chipped away $108 a month.

The neighborhood was working-class Anglo when the Rahmings moved in, almost entirely black three years later.

There's an ambivalent history here and it goes back to the late 1950s when Overtown, the densely populated, historically black neighborhood just north of downtown, was gutted to make way for I-95.


Liberty City became a second home for those displaced. But housing there was -- and remains -- often cramped and shoddy. City leaders designated the Seventh Avenue corridor for northern expansion of Miami's rapidly growing black population.

West Little River, just blocks north, was one of the first neighborhoods for blacks who could afford to leave Liberty City. A middle class of professionals, civil servants and returning veterans moved in. Whites moved out.

''All I wanted was a nice house,'' Rahmings says. He doesn't spend much time on the avenue -- ''a mess,'' he calls it, with all the traffic. The stores don't have anything he wants to buy, anyway: He doesn't frequent beauty parlors, doesn't need a car or a load of plexiglass. His wife does most of her shopping in Aventura.

The New Jerusalem Primitive Baptist Church sits a few blocks north, across from the pornography shop on the east side of the avenue, just off the superhighway. The Rev. Kenneth Duke has an unexpected perspective on this:

''I want that property,'' he says. ``Think of the visibility.''

Hundreds of thousands of commuters, not to mention the church's 2,000 congregationers, get an unimpeded view of the ''MegapleXXX'' sign as they pass.

In a few years, if the pastor has his way, those commuters will see a sign for his church there. A thrift store will take the place of the pornography shop. The pastor also wants land now occupied by Finlay's Shipping, for senior citizen housing. He wants the half-vacant shopping center now anchored by Sav-A-Lot, for a banquet hall, pharmacy, laundry and revamped supermarket. He wants, finally, the parking lot in front of his church for a midmarket seafood restaurant.


''This church is going to be part of the renaissance,'' says the pastor. ``We are going to bring in the resources this community needs and turn the money over right here.''

This is a man who attracted 1,750 new congregants in six years. He has powerful faith and a comprehensive business plan.

The pastor has company. An $80 million plan for six new car dealerships on the west side of the avenue between 79th and 95th streets is under way, thanks to a Community Redevelopment Agency created last year.

''We are going to bring this place back to its old glory, or better,'' says Rick Glasgow, assistant director of the county's Office of Community and Economic Development.

Glasgow says the dealerships could bring 400 new jobs. He talks about a police substation to be built and all the ''downstream businesses'' that will grow on the east side of the avenue, across from the dealerships: ``groceries, dry cleaners, shoe repair shops, whatever the residents feel is necessary.''

Back out on the avenue Steve Pearl has doubts. ''People have left,'' he says. ``People who were here for years are gone and they're not coming back.''

Pearl has sold mufflers out of Mad Hatter Mufflers since 1981. Business dropped after a long stretch of roadwork in 1998. The state suspended emissions checks in 2000, eliminating what had been a dependable sideline for him. ''An auto mall isn't going to work up here,'' he says. ``We aren't Coral Springs.''

Pearl's shop is at Seventh and 100th Street. The street extends east for a few hundred yards before it dead-ends at I-95.


There are a few houses here. They are the last ones left, east of the avenue, abutting the superhighway.

There is a homemaker, Ann Quinones, who is 48 and has lived in the neighborhood all her life. She remembers standing on a picnic table in her front yard to watch President Lyndon Johnson's motorcade drive down the just-built superhighway. She remembers the avenue, when it had ``cleaners and fashion places, neighborhood stuff.''

She and her husband are thinking of moving to Pompano, to be closer to his job. She's not sure if she'll miss the old neighborhood.

''There are days it seems all there is is road construction and traffic,'' she says.

Up the avenue, near the 119th Street intersection, Family Bakery does brisk business selling nothing but Haitian bread.


Given its proximity to Little Haiti, Miami Shores and North Miami -- home to the bulk of the county's Haitian population -- this seems an inspired product line.

It's a tiny place, with space inside for no more than two customers at once, so the line out the door is long: 15 people on a weekend morning. And 15 people on a weekday morning. Nearly as many most afternoons.

A Haitian couple owns the bakery. Their daughter, Nadeige Sterlin, a junior at Florida State University, works the counter on holidays.

''It never slows down,'' she says. ``And people are crazy. Sometimes we haven't baked enough bread; they say we're keeping it for other people. Like we're hiding it somewhere back here.''

Seventh Avenue isn't any prettier here. Traffic never stops rolling off the Gratigny Parkway and the I-95 exit. There's noise and grit, just like everywhere else. But it's rare, on these 10.7 miles or any others these days, to smell fresh bread like that. It smelled of yeast and butter, so good you might actually stop, if you were walking past, to enjoy the smell a little longer.