Overtown’s past meets Overtown’s future

In Overtown, a battle over the neighborhood’s future has been brewing since the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) voted in late December to give potentially more than $100 million in tax incentives to the developers of Miami Worldcenter, a 27-acre complex of high end shopping, luxury condominiums, and hotel rooms that will cost more than $1 billion. In comparison, the CRA spent a total of roughly $6.5 million on community redevelopment for the entire year of 2013, less than 7 percent of what’s being proposed for Worldcenter.

Losing so much revenue that could have been used for other projects doesn’t seem right to many Overtown residents. Religious leaders, along with housing rights and labor activists, have been sharply critical about the agreement.

“Why do developers think that when they come to the city of Miami that the CRA checkbook is going to be open to subsidize their projects?” asked Frank Schnidman, Florida Atlantic University professor of urban and regional planning. One of the project’s sharpest critics, Schnidman and his students have studied CRAs around the state and found the CRA practices in Miami-Dade County in general to be the most “off base.”

Pastor Rhonda Thomas, whose family’s roots go back generations in Overtown, has her own concerns, “It’s not like I hate developers. Let’s just be fair and include the community that you’re coming into.”

For his part, CRA Chairman and District 5 Commissioner Keon Hardemon has adamantly defended the agreement negotiated with Worldcenter developers. “When it comes to the agreement that we’ve inked with Miami Worldcenter, this was the very first time that you’ve ever had an opportunity to discuss and get the wages we deserve,” Hardemon told county commissioners last month. “This agreement has taken monumental steps forward, and we cannot take any steps back.”

And for Overtown, the second oldest neighborhood in Miami, there have already been too many steps back. Once known as Colored Town, Overtown was built by the same black laborers who also helped build the rest of Miami and the county’s section of the Florida East Coast Railway. As in most Southern cities around the turn of the century, blacks were not allowed to live in the same neighborhoods as whites, so they built their homes on the less desirable side of the tracks of Henry Flagler’s new railroad.

As historian and professor Marvin Dunn wrote in his book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, life in the early years of Overtown was rough:

Handicapped by the lack of even basic city services, Colored Town was a squalid, congested district characterized by unpaved streets lined with rickety houses and shacks. Fire was a constant threat, [and] the lack of adequate sanitation facilities caused chronic epidemics of influenza, yellow fever, and even small pox.

Despite helping to incorporate the city, comprising 168 of the 362 men who voted to create Miami in 1896, blacks at the time remained “politically impotent,” struggling under Jim Crow laws and unable to obtain home loans. And the Klu Klux Klan made their struggles even harder, with lynchings and bombings terrorizing the neighborhood.

Despite segregation, early Overtown prospered in many ways. The economic and social isolation created a cohesive community where a real black middle class arose, and some Overtown black business owners became relatively wealthy.

Overtown soon became a cultural hub for the entire region, with famous black entertainers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and B.B. King, among many others, performing frequently at popular clubs along Little Broadway, the nickname for NW Second Avenue at the time. Even Sammy Davis Jr., at the height of his career, made time to visit Overtown when he came down to perform at an upscale hotel in South Beach.

By the time Davis spoke at Overtown, the neighborhood had been in peril for years. In the late 1950s, public officials and engineers began talking about the construction of I-95 as having an added benefit — as “a complete slum clearance” program for Overtown, according to Shadows in the Sunshine: Race and Ethnicity in Miami by Raymond A. Mohl. The construction of I-95, along with the construction of the interchanges, resulted in numerous households being removed by force. It brought about the fragmentation of Overtown, one of the most powerful epicenters of black culture in the region. And it was a sadly common practice at the time. As Dunn wrote, purposefully using urban renewal funding to displace inner-city blacks was a nationwide trend.

Overtown has faced continual declines since desegregation, as drugs, crime, and extreme poverty took hold. In the past 50 years, the historic neighborhood has seen its population dwindle from about 40,000 at its peak, to fewer than 7,000.

Many of the poor and working class who have suffered from years of disinvestment see the Worldcenter deal as just another way to displace even more residents who have called the community home for generations.

However, Miami’s staggering growth can’t be denied, or confined to a single neighborhood. And the Worldcenter developers and CRA believe the tax incentive package will provide substantial benefits to a community in need. “Miami Worldcenter and the Southeast Overtown/Park West CRA have diligently worked to create a robust community benefits package that grants priority hiring for local residents, opportunities for neighborhood businesses and hourly pay in excess of living wage,” Worldcenter managing partner Nitin Motwani said in a statement.

Miami Worldcenter

Yet the Worldcenter promise of jobs is not satisfying critics, who say the provisions in the agreement are unlikely to lead to gainful employment for Overtown residents, and that the penalties for not living up to the promises are only a small fraction of the total subsidy. A study of the agreement by the Research Institute on Social and Economic Development at FIU has pointed out that it “contains no living wage requirement for the permanent workforce,” as well as failing “to narrow the defined area for local hiring for construction jobs in a way that will ensure that the residents closest and most affected by the project will benefit from the jobs.”

Others have criticized the lack of real teeth to enforce the agreement. “Even if Worldcenter doesn’t perform, the penalties are so small that it’s ridiculous,” argued Schnidman. “They could basically write a check and not do anything and they’d be extremely well off.”

Despite plans to start construction in the coming months and an extensive marketing campaign touting its benefits, Miami Worldcenter is facing yet another lawsuit questioning both the process and equities of the tax incentive package. Last month, developer Martin Margulies, an art collector and long-time Overtown benefactor who helped build the Overtown Youth Center, filed a lawsuit against the city and the CRA challenging the legality of the public notice for the CRA agreement. Margulies told Law 360 that the agreement “provides a massive tax break to developers for a project which will displace the poor and gentrify the area.”

Overtown, which has a proud history as a cultural Mecca for the black community in Miami, has faced decades of segregation, exploitation, and fragmentation. Now, critics and residents fear the changes that luxury developments like Worldcenter may bring could mean the end, or at least the complete transformation, of a culture that spans generations, back to the pioneers who first helped build Miami. “All of this is gonna disappear,” predicted resident Lewis Height, pointing west of the railroad tracks, in the direction of Overtown. “It’s disappearing now.”

Looking down the tracks toward Overtown’s future.