Posted on February 22, 2021
Greetings from Overtown. I have to confess, I had never heard of Overtown until recently and I have lived in the US for about 20 years. One of the reasons is because I very rarely go down to Miami. I have been to Viscaya but that is really my extent of exploring Miami. I find it a huge city that I will easily get lost in.
What I learned this weekend is the little neigborhood of Overtown has such beautiful roots in History. Established in the Jim Crow era, Overtown was often referred to as the “Harlem of the south”. Back in the late 1800’s Overtown was an incorporated into Miami, mainly at the insistence of Henry Flagler. This railroad construction company’s workers had settled in what became a downtown Miami area and the neigborhood would house many of the black construction workers and their families. Overtown was effectively known in those days as “Colored Town”. Black people were segregated in Miami right up to the 1970’s. Interesting reading on that period of time can be found here.
Overtown is now the second oldest inhabited area in Miami and was home to many businesses. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Avenue G was a hive of entertainment, retail stores and hotels. The first African American hotel was developed in 1921 As we walked the streets of Overtown early one Sunday morning, we were one of the few out on the street. It was the opportunity to really embrace a different vibe to the neighborhood.
Amy’s initial thought was to take the Brightline down to Overtown, but since Richard is not well, my concern is always germs. Especially Covid germs, and so we drove down instead.
Leaving the parking garage, you realize that while the buildings around the parking garage are not historic, you are definitely walking to an older area of the city. Crossing at the crossroad, we are now in Overtown. I can visualize the night life of the 1940’s of Overtown back in the day, with jazz musicians, big bands and artists such as Count Bassie, Ella Fitzgerald and the late great Nat King Cole. All three have their names linked to the history of Overtown. My mom loved the music of that era so I can hear the beautiful melodies playing inside my head. If you listen closely, you may hear the strains of the trombone, a trumpet or the flute, soft voices singing out blues. I can imagine the ladies dressing up and the men looking dapper as they entered the various entertainment centers. Can you hear the excitement? The laughter? The joy? Overtown bustled in the early 1900’s.
Overtown is the home to the famous Lyric Theater (which I quickly resonated with having grown up with my own Lyric theater). The Lyric theater was owned by a black entrepreneur by the name of Geder Walker. The 400 seat theater was opened in 1913 and was described in 1915 as “possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by Colored people in all of the southland”
In 1989 the Lyric Theater was listed in the National Register of Historic places. Extensive renovations were done to the building.
As we walked past this beautiful old building we were drawn into the history of this amazing building, the folks that had visited, had played a part in the story telling culture of a lifetime of influencing culture of “little Broadway” The Lyric Theater served the community, was a place of culture and a symbol of the influence black folk had within Overtown.
As we continued to walk I enjoyed viewing the graffiti in Overtown, symbols of struggle, symbols of encouragement, symbols that share hero’s and history.
And yet there is this sense that the big city is encroaching on this historic block. Apartments such as the image below, are on one side of the street and the house above is on the other.
Below kind of depicts what I am feeling. Sure growth happens, but I am inclined to want to keep the old, to revel in this history and understand the stories of this beautiful historical area.
Economic depression happened, and in the 1950’s Overtown was not spared. Development, such as the expressways, cut up the neighborhood, and the population decreased. Progress stopped in Overtown and it became known as a ghetto. Businesses closed, and the neighborhood stalled. Social, economic and physical deterioration grew and contributed to the decline in the area. As we walked you could definitely feel that effect.
And yet there are signs, actually at our feet, that tell us that there is a stirring in the neighborhood to address challenges. Roots in the City established a community garden from an overgrown littered lot and it is florurishing.
The Overtown Preforming Arts Center was created as a community center. Originally this center was known as the Ebenezer Methodist Church, and still today has the outward feel of a church with it’s design. In 1988 it was declared a historic monument and they receive a grant of $3 million to begin the process of restoration. Inside you will find a stage, but this facility is for more than that. It is a gathering place, a place for meetings, a place for receptions.
Walking along the side walk we got a glimpse into an entrance way between Dunne Hotel (1947) and Josephine (1938). Both of these buildings functioned as hotels when the neighborhood was flourishing and blacks were not allowed to stay outside of Overtown. Sadly over the years the buildings fell into disrepair. In 2017 there were reports of potential redevelopment of these building, but it appeared to have been caught up in controversy. Looking further it does appear that the Dunn’s Josephine Hotel is now operational in the heart of Overtown historic district. According to the web page each room honors African American legends and will bring a style and era to the hotel. Suites you can find are the Aaron Douglas King Suite, Ella Fitagerald King Suite, Augusta Savage King Suite, Nicholas Brothers Double Suite, Gwen Bennett Double Suite, and the Nat King Cole King Suite, along with various others. If you head over to the website you can learn about some of the historical people honored by this hotel.
Walking further into the area we came across the mural below that featured themes from the heyday of the city. I tried to search who the artists were featured in the next two murals but was not having much luck. Above these beautiful paintings runs the highway the I95, bearing lanes of traffic, noise and pollution. We did not walk far enough. If we had gone to the other side of the traffic bridge we would have seen a sign painted on the side of the bridge that said “Welcome to Historic Overtown”.
We came across this wall in Overtown that resonated with both Amy and myself. World Peace is something that seems to be lacking of late, and something that both Amy and I would strive to achieve by loving.
And even more murals….
Besides the I95, one of the many developments that cut up the neighborhood of Overtown is the metro rail. Big ugly concrete pillars that scar the neighborhood. Such development leads to the displacement of residents in the communities and eventually the dying of a thriving neighborhood.
The Lil Trap House that we came across in Overtown is apparently a museum on wheels which has stopped in the city for about 6 months. The purpose of the museum is to showcase the cities trap culture. Are you asking yourself “what is trap culture”? You are not alone. So I did a bit of digging and discovered that trap music is a subgenre of hip hop music that includes rap, urban, and swag. This culture apparently originated in the South of USA in the 1990’s.
The image above is one of the murals on the house I showed earlier. Walking out of Overtown I saw this tree that had been cut. I could not help but look at the two images side by side. The second image reminds me of a vibrancy that is no longer.
This road feels like the cross road of Overtown and and the gentrification of the rest of the city. Large parking garages and high rise buildings, luxury condos are the backdrop to the once thriving, but seriously declined neighborhood of Overtown.
Overtown, a neighborhood vibrant in it’s heyday of the 1930’s to 1950’s has sadly become known as the getto of Miami. Destroyed by over the years by urban renewal development and neglect, Overtown sadly reflects this.
There have been some proposals for the redevelopment of Overtown that I read. There was one in 2009, another in 2015.
But it is 2021, and it was sad to see the neglect.
Thank you for walking through my 30 Minutes in the Life, and my impressions of Overtown. Blogs like this leave me feeling saddened that progress detracts from the beauty of culture and history.
If you’re interested on the 28th there will be a blog on the art district of Wynwood, Miami. It was a feast for the eyes, and hard to capture it all.
This is a circle blog. I would encourage you to take some time to visit my very talented friend Ceri of Ceri Herd Photography. You will definitely love what she shares. I am always inspired with what she has for us.
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