Gabriela Lastra is currently a senior at the Florida International University Honors College, majoring in Criminal Justice and applying to law school. She spent the summer of 2019 traveling in Europe, first on a study abroad trip in Italy with Professor John W Bailly and then on her own in Spain. Having moved to Miami in middle school, she is unfamiliar with much of the local history of both the city and the state and jumped at the opportunity to learn a unique facet of it through Professor Bailly’s unique Miami in Miami course. She hopes to continue traveling and never stop learning about all the amazing things that are hidden on all corners of the world for those who look further than skin deep.
Overtown is the second oldest neighborhood in Miami. It carries remnants of its glory days in the early 20th century when it was the Black cultural center of Miami, dubbed “Little Broadway” for its numerous restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs which littered the area. The neighborhood fell into disrepair after the 1960’s and the building of the I-95 which runs straight through the center of the neighborhood. In recent decades it has begun to pick up speed in its redevelopment as well being recognized as a historic treasure. There is still an extremely long way to go however before this neighborhood can even begin to approach what it once was. Empty lots can be seen on every block and dozens of homeless men and women take shelter under the arches of the overpass. Residents who remember the glory days doubt that the magic of that era can ever be recaptured. Even if everything were rebuilt, you can never replicate the right people coming together in the right way at exactly the right time.
Overtown is a small neighborhood roughly bound to the West by the Miami River and the Dolphin Expressway (SR 836), as well as the I-95 after it intersects the Dolphin Expressway. To the East it is hemmed in by North West First Avenue and the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), likely on purpose considering the origins of Overtown and its direct history relating with Henry Morrison Flagler’s railroad. To the South, North West Fifth Street marks the boundary until it intersects with the Miami River on one side and North West First Avenue on the other. The Northern edge is roughly marked by North West Twentieth Street until it meets the FEC and the I-95.
On July 28th of 1896, Miami became a city. Before that, few people were living so far south in the swampy environment of South Florida. In 1892, Henry Morrison Flagler began construction in the Florida East Coast Railway. Years later when he and Julia DeForest Tuttle, an American businesswoman who owned the land Miami was built on, decided to have Miami incorporated they needed more votes by law. Since there were few people living in Miami and of those only men could vote, the solution Flagler proposed was this: the black men who worked on his railroad would be given the right to vote in this particular election. Thus, Miami was incorporated and one-third of the original inhabitants were black. At the time, however, it was illegal for black men to own or rent property in white neighborhoods. Instead, all the men who had been used to incorporate Miami were immediately segregated to an area west of the railroad tracks and adjacent to downtown Miami. This neighborhood became known first as Colored Town, and then later as Overtown. In this area settled the people who worked on the railroad, but also those who serviced the streets and hotels of the area. As immigration from the Caribbean began arriving in Miami, more Afro-Caribbean’s settled in Overtown. The Black community there thrived. Business owners ranged from general goods and services to doctors and lawyers. This was the area known as “Little Broadway”. Most businesses here were owned and operated by people of color. Other black people from Coconut Grove and Lemon City would come to Overtown to shop and enjoy the entertainment of the area as well as do business. It was a prosperous time and the hotels of the neighborhood hosted people like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal and W.E.B. Dubois, artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sam Cook, and many others. Overtown was a flourishing place with music and life bustling on every street corner. Famous black artists performed in hotels and clubs on Miami Beach but were not allowed to stay overnight. They would make their way over town, which is how we got the name, to Overtown to play and jam in the lively jazz clubs of the city before retiring to one of the many famous hotels the lined the streets. In this thriving time, where people came from all over to bask the in vivaciousness of the Harlem of the South, black musicians and business owners thrived. It was a moment in the sun, a musical mecca, and everyone who came to Miami knew that Overtown was the place to be. This golden renaissance came to an end in the 1960s with the building of the interstate.
In the 1950s and 1960s the government was pushing expansions of the Interstate 95 as part of a national urban-planning idea that used President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act. The original plan was for the highway to be built east of Overtown, along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. White business owners in downtown as well as the city’s chamber of commerce opposed this idea and instead pushed for it to be built along Northwest Seventh Avenue, right through the heart of Overtown. At the time there was hardly, if any, black political influence and of course no one asked for the neighborhood residents’ input on this idea. The plan went through with barely any opposition, even though local officials were well aware that they would be devastating the grand majority of the citizens in the neighborhood. Families living in this neighborhood would get surprise letters in the mail telling them they had 6 to 8 weeks to uproot their lives and get out of the neighborhood. Around 40,000 people lived in Overtown at the time. The government deemed the effects of the interstate project minimal when compared to profits and offered no assistance to those forced to relocate citing expenses as the reason. Over 80% of the people living in Overtown were forced to relocate. The bustling center of black culture and progress was devastated. The neighborhood fell into disrepair and neglect. The only building still standing from its Little Broadway days is the Lyric Theatre which was purchased by the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc., restored and reopened in 2000. Numerous projects have been undertaken to restore this low-income neighborhood of only 9,000 residents to what it once was. Although some little progress has been made in reestablishing Overtown as a place of rich culture and history, many residents who remember the glory days say you can’t ever recreate that magic of organic growth and the right people coming together at the right time.
While visiting Overtown I spoke with Mrs. Beatriz Urdsneta, who has lived in Overtown for 5 years. She had much to say about the neighborhood and the people. When she first moved everyone told her it was too dangerous and that this neighborhood was a bad place to live. She has found that she disagrees. The people are nice and friendly. There is a lot of poverty and a lot of crime, but if you don’t bother people they won’t bother you. “The problema of this neighborhood are the problems of any neighborhood, people just see them more obviously here,” she said to me, “People here are a little rough but they’re good people. The public transportation is excellent. The schools could be better. It’s just a neighborhood like any other.”
As of 2000, the population of Overtown exceeded 10,000 people. The population of Overtown according to the 2010 census was just over 6,700 and was projected to continue dropping. The exact population is somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 people. It has always been and continues to be a predominantly black neighborhood, with anywhere between 60% to 70% of the population being of African-American or Afro-Caribbean descent, and around 20% are Hispanic or Latino. As far as gender, there is a roughly equal distribution of men and women, though the women outnumber the men by less than 1%. The median age in Overtown is a little higher than in the rest of Miami, hovering around 42 years old. The average income is around $13,000 per household with over 60% of the neighborhood earning less than 25,000 per household.
The Lyric Theater
Though it was first built in 1913 by Geder Walker, after his death in 1919 his wife Henrietta took over running the theater. At the time the neighborhood was known as “Little Broadway” for the numerous hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs that littered the area. For 50 years it was a symbol of pride and economic influence in the black community as well as the center of culture. When Overtown began to deteriorate in the 1960’s the Lyric Theater shut down, until 1988 when The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. acquired the theater and had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, it finally opened its doors once again to the public. It is the only surviving building from “Little Broadway” and is the oldest legitimate theater in Miami.
Dorsey Memorial Library
The Dorsey Memorial Library was built in 1941. It was the first city-owned building constructed for the specific purpose of being a library. The land on which it was built was donated by the person for which it was named, just 15 days before his death. Dana A. Dorsey was one of Miami’s most prominent black businessmen as well as a philanthropist. His library was only the second in Miami built for the use of African-Americans.
Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum
Miami hired its first black police officers in 1944 and due to segregation they spent six years struggling without a locale of their own. They were finally given their own precinct house, jail, and courthouse in Overtown. When Miami integrates in 1963 the precinct house closed down and became a historical landmark of the time of segregation. Now it stands as a museum that offers tours of this countries struggles with racism, which have yet to truly end.
Being so close to Downtown Miami there aren’t any parks of significant size with abundant nature in Overtown. There are however a couple of smaller parks of not. The biggest one is Gibson Park on NW 12th Street. It has a full football field as well as a baseball diamond and an Olympic size swimming pool. It has cute rainbow colored benches and was renovated in 2012. The other park of note is Henry Reeves Park on NW 10th Street. It is a small park just big enough for two small basketball courts and a small playground for children to play in. These places are gathering sites for the community and children and young adults can be found here by the dozen playing basketball games and enjoying the small green spaces found.
Transportation in this area is good when compared with the rest of the city. The Miami Metro has a stop right here, next to the Lyric Theater, and the trolleys run through the area with frequency and are free to everyone. There are buses that pass through regularly and the neighborhood is small enough that it lends itself to walking. Many residents can be seen biking, rather than driving, to grocery stores and local shops.
Soul food is one of the numerous treasures to come out of the African-American community. It is delicious and enjoyed in all corners of the country. Here in the Historic Overtown district, there is no shortage of delicious places to eat, and the influence of the people is certainly felt. Places of note include the famous Jackson’s Soul Food.
Jackson’s Soul Food is a family owned establishment dating back to 1946, where it started as Mama’s Cafe run by Jessie and Demas Jackson. Today, Jackson’s has some of the best soul food around. The place is small but the food is as scrumptious as it is filling!
Another notable place to eat is Lil Greenhouse Grill. Once again, its hard to get food like this outside of Overtown. With their homemade food and attention to hospitality, it’s impossible not to feel welcome in this small but amazing restaurant!
Overtown was once a mecca of music, bustling with jazz clubs and nightlife. Today, the businesses of Overtown are much more quiet. What you see most are little mini marts, liquor stores, and grocery stores. As efforts to revitalize the neighborhood continue, places like the Copper Door B&B hang on to bring back the Harlem of the South.
Overtown is an incredible neighborhood. It has so much history hidden away in its corners, and so much still to offer. Its Golden Age was cut short, but a Renaissance is in the works. Its public transportation is better than in most other areas of the city, and the work of the Black Archives to restore and revitalize the neighborhood is admirable. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without running into some new fascinating historical site. However, the neighborhood is more than just old and rundown. The social and economic consequences of the Interstate 95 are still felt deeply by this neighborhood. Schools in this area are some of the lowest rated in the city, infamous for their lack of quality. Driving under the overpass, there are whole streets filled with people huddled in tents and cardboard boxes with all of their belongings piled next to them. These people need help. A city can only be as prosperous as its least prosperous citizens, and that is where change should start.
Fornes, Rafael, et al. OVERTOWN MAP PROJECT. The Office of Community & Civic Engagement, https://www.cucd.arc.miami.edu/_assets/pdf/Overtown-Report.pdf.
Levin. “Bygone Days: The Sweet Music of Miami’s Overtown.” Miami Herald, Miami Herald, 1 Feb. 2009, https://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/jordan-levin/article1931267.html.
Dixon, Lance. “How Was Miami’s Overtown Neighborhood Chosen as the Place to Expand I-95?” The New Tropic, 24 Jan. 2019, https://thenewtropic.com/miami-overtown-i95/.