Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored how longtime and younger members of the Overtown community have shaped it into the neighborhood we know today. But long before those new restaurants and community events came to be be, there was one big construction project that changed the face of Overtown, and Miami, for generations to come.
The expansion of Interstate 95 in the 1950s and 1960s went right through the heart of Overtown and displaced thousands of residents. You asked us to explain how and why the expansion happened in this historic neighborhood, so we spoke with some local historians to find out how this momentous decision happened.
So how did it happen?
The idea to expand Interstate 95 was part of a national urban-planning idea that used President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act as a way to remove what was perceived as blight in big cities — particularly in minority communities like Overtown. So federal, state, and local leaders began discussing an expansion of I-95 and settled on two ideas.
The first idea, proposed by the City of Miami planning department, would have extended I-95 along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, east of Overtown. But that idea was opposed by downtown businesses and the city’s chamber of commerce.
So a second idea, to build near Northwest Seventh Avenue and through the heart of Overtown, started to gain support. And by 1956, according to Raymond Mohl’s book “Shadows in the Sunshine,” it was ultimately chosen as the route for expansion.
Miami historian Marvin Dunn, author of the book “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century,” said that white local officials knew that tens of thousands of residents could be displaced by the project, but the plan still went forward.
Was there any opposition?
Outside of some vocal concern from the local NAACP chapter and a few black ministers, Dunn says there was no real opposition to the expansion through Overtown — because no one asked the neighborhood’s residents for their input.
“There were was no black political influence. The black community was not an entity in this decision,” Dunn said.
Historian Dorothy Fields, an Overtown native and founder of Miami’s Black Archives, said that residents were told to move with no real warning.
“By 1961, Overtown families began receiving surprise letters telling them they were expected to uproot and relocate from their homes within six to eight weeks,” Fields said in an email. “No mention was made of any appeal process, and ‘the rest is history.’”
How did the “Harlem of the South” become so overlooked?
Despite the neighborhood’s reputation for attracting world-renowned talent like Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong, it consistently struggled with poverty and crime, Dunn said.
So as the nation’s big cities moved to push black residents out of inner-city communities to make room for new infrastructure, it became an easier target. Political leaders didn’t offer any real assistance as I-95 — and Interstate 395 — ate up more and more land and pushed residents into other neighborhoods. Many moved into Liberty City, while other residents moved to areas like Brownsville and Richmond Heights.
“What do you do with the people that are displaced when you remove blight? That wasn’t considered,” Dunn said.
So, what does the future hold?
Even decades later, development from Downtown Miami continues to encroach on Overtown. Construction continues on the massive Miami Worldcenter shopping center and residential complex, while the Brightline train station, steps away from Overtown landmarks like the Lyric Theater, was completed recently.
But many people believe “Miami’s Harlem” is experiencing its own renaissance. Hoping to recreate the spirit of Overtown’s heyday, locals have stepped in to open venues like The Urban event space and the Copper Door B&B.
“We take pride in knowing that we’re bringing this resurgence of art and history and culture and entertainment back to this area,” said Keon Williams, assistant director of Urban Philanthropies. “Because this is our heritage.”
Thanks to reader Stephen Keppel for posing the question and to all of you who wrote in with questions of your own. Stay tuned as we explore other South Florida neighborhoods this year.
This story has been updated.