Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
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 with flair.

''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 Societies.''

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 hard-to-overcome stigma.

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 leave.

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 out easily.

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 for $33,000.

''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 day.

''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.''



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