A Trip To Old Overtown To Understand Today’s Problems

By Troy Duffie

We’re going on an extraordinary trip.  But don’t prepare to travel because it doesn’t require a car, train, or any conventional transportation device. It only requires your mind for we’re going on a trip back in time.

The winds pick up as we travel back to Miami circa 1950, a few years after the end of World War Two. We’re moving quickly past fishing boats and the Jungle Queen tour boat at Pier 5, past the Bayfront Park Bandshell, and even past the Olympia Theatre, finally stopping in “Colored Town”.

You may hear the sweet soft echoes of Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald as you make your way down NW 2nd Avenue. You should feel the summer breeze on you cheeks, and savor the smell of fresh fruit in the air.

The crowd you see off in the distance is being let out of the Lyric Theater after watching the latest performance of the hottest play in town. If you turn westward, you may see three buildings hanging above the small houses between NW 2nd Avenue and NW 3rd Avenue. Those buildings are home to St. John Baptist, Mt. Zion Baptist, and Greater Bethel AME, the three churches that anchor this community.

This is the legacy of our nation’s urban policy. This is the legacy of poor race relations in Miami and in America. 

Wind begins to pick up speed as we move forward through time. You slowly, then with some consistent pace begin to see houses disappear. Construction trucks pile in, trees are cleared and the earliest version of I-95 is built where those houses were.

As you turn your face northward on northwest second avenue boards go on business windows, buildings are torn down, and frustration rests on the faces of those who’ve called this place home for years.

The wind picks up speed as we move faster towards the present and when you open your eyes again, what you saw on our trip twenty minutes ago is gone.

It’s been replaced with apartment buildings, homelessness, and poverty. The land that held culture and hosted Joe Louis, WEB Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston, has been reduced to dirt, sidewalk, and abandoned buildings.

What you see is modern-day Overtown. A land who’s pride was carved out by urban renewal and the interstate that looms over its residents. This is the legacy of our nation’s urban policy.

This is the legacy of poor race relations in Miami and in America. Communities of color are not inherently poor, or crime infested.

They simply aren’t aided the way they should be. So let’s make that effort to stand up for those communities and give everyone a fair shake.

Let’s make the effort to find ways to “improve” our cities without trucking out people of color. Let’s find a way to expand our skyline without destroying history and culture that spans 40+ years.

Let’s attempt to make communities of color better by improving education, attracting small businesses, and creating resources before we attempt to gentrify.

Let’s adjust this broken urban policy so situations like the one in Baltimore are unlikely to happen across America. Miami’s history can serve as a guide to solve this problem.

Troy Duffie is a Miami native who is a student at Howard University. He is also an ordained minister in Overtown.

Cover Photo Credit: Phillip Pessar/Flickr

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