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Harlem of the South

Harlem of the South
Written by Ana Sofía Peláez | Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

Once a neighborhood that played host to the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Miami’s Overtown is getting its grove back

The thing about living in the past is there’s no future in it. For decades, it seemed like Miami’s storied Overtown community, reeling from decades of urban blight and civic neglect, would be forever caught in this limbo. But in recent years, under the stewardship of longtime residents and community-based organizations, Overtown is attracting new businesses, creating jobs, and staking its claim in Miami’s tourist economy. The neighborhood once known as the “Harlem of the South” is poised for a renaissance and the changes taking place are inspiring anticipation and anxiety in equal measure.

Overtown’s geography—just minutes from the Brickell business district, downtown’s museums and theaters, the galleries and cafes of Wynwood, and the Design District’s luxury retail—makes it vulnerable to a well-worn pattern of gentrification and displacement. It also sits on a high ground in a city concerned with sea level rise.

Starex Smith, creator of the popular food blog Hungry Black Man and champion of local, black-owned businesses, is cautiously optimistic about newcomers working to restore the neighborhood to its former glory. “It’s a matter of if the people who are coming back have the cultural intelligence to help the community sustain and reestablish what it was,” he says.

The original facade of the historic Lyric Theater.

The Rise and Fall

Founded in 1896, the area designated as the Central Negro District or “Colored Town” was home to African-American migrants from Southern states and immigrants from the Caribbean, largely the Bahamas, who came to work in the railroads and tourism industries. Churches, schools, and businesses flourished to serve a segregated and self-reliant community.

In 1913, the Lyric Theater opened its doors, becoming the entertainment hub of Overtown’s own “Little Broadway.” Intellectuals and writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, flocked there. During the post-war tourism boom, African-American performers who couldn’t stay on Miami Beach because of Jim Crow laws would go “over town” to stay in the neighborhood’s hotels. Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald played after hours in its clubs and restaurants.

Then, in the 1960s, all progress stopped so the rest of the city could pass through. The creation of Interstates 95 and 395 divided the community. Land values plummeted and businesses closed. The passage of the Civil Rights Act allowed affluent families to resettle in other parts of the city. Those who remained struggled with endemic unemployment, rising crime rates, and the inflow of drugs as essential resources were siphoned off. “The people that were financially able to move out, moved out,” explains Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida. “You begin to kill a neighborhood that was once vibrant. You take people that have lost hope and you give them a false hope in drugs. So, you essentially begin to destroy a neighborhood systematically and redline that community and label it slum.”

Bright Spot

Throughout these turbulent times, there was always Jackson Soul Food. Jesse and Demas Jackson opened the restaurant, originally called Mama’s Cafe, in 1946. For decades, their boiled fish soup, catfish and biscuits, smothered liver, and collard greens have drawn the post-church crowd. Politicians, fire captains, professional athletes, and celebrities lobby for booths surrounding a horseshoe counter. There’s a democratizing effect when you walk through its doors: No matter how important or famous you are, you haven’t been doing anything as long as the Jackson family has been serving soul food in Overtown. “Buildings come up and down and we’re still here,” says Tammy Starr, a waitress who has worked with the family for more than twenty years.

In 1995, daughter Shirlene Jackson Ingraham opened the current location on the main stretch that leads into the historic center of Overtown. Shirlene’s son, Lataurus “Butch” Ingraham, now manages the Overtown location with his wife, Ayesha, while she splits her time between a second location and two concession stands inside Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. Shirlene’s youngest son, Travis, helps out wherever he’s needed. “You’ve got love in here and everyone that comes in is family,” explains Travis during the brief lull between the lunch rush and dinner service.

The Comeback

While Jackson Soul Food was becoming an Overtown institution, cultural organizations were working to preserve its landmarks. In 1988, the Black Archives acquired the long-shuttered Lyric Theater and waged a successful campaign to have it added to the National Register of Historic Places alongside five other Overtown buildings. “Those cultural institutions—like the Lyric Theater, like your Bethel AME Church, like your Mount Zion Church, like your Clyde Killens pool hall, your DA Dorsey House, the Ward Rooming House—are going to be the monuments that stand the test of time to constantly remind people what this community was like, what this community was about,” Barber says.

Beginning in the early aughts, the Archives initiated a multi-phased restoration of the space while holding jazz and poetry nights at the theater’s outdoor plaza and inside the Ward Room Gallery, a former rooming house turned artist residence and exhibition space. The Lyric officially reopened in 2014, becoming the Archives’ permanent home. In 2017, the Overtown Performing Arts Center began hosting art, music, and dance performances in the newly renovated, state-of-the-art facility inside the former Ebenezer Methodist Church. “I think that the daytime aspect of Overtown was good and the night time was questionable,” remembers Barber. “Having those night events began to remind people that you can come to Overtown at night.”

The Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex reopened in 2014.

Finding a place to eat out was more difficult. The neighborhood’s counter service spots like the Caribbean-inflected Two Guys, Mattie’s Soul Food, and House of Wings have loyal followings, but there were no dine-in restaurants that stayed open late until Nicole Gates and Karim Bryant opened Lil’ Greenhouse Grill in 2017. “This was a food desert,” says Gates, who was new to the neighborhood. “You had to go into Wynwood, which is very expensive.” She met Bryant in 2012. He had spent most of his life in Overtown, where he owned a home and served on several community boards.

They started out with a small stand in Overtown’s Gibson Park, serving kids meals like hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken breasts with wild rice. It drew the attention of developer Michael Simkins, who owned an adjacent building and asked them to submit a proposal. “He asked me if people from Brickell and downtown would come to Overtown to eat, and I just believed people would,” Gates says.

She manages the front of the house, mentoring and training the young staff they hire from within the community. Byrant, a certified butcher who worked his way through downtown’s high-end, high-volume steakhouses, runs the kitchen. The shrimp and grits float inside a delicate white wine sauce and the ribs are rich and sticky. They were hitting their stride after a successful first year when the building sold, and the relationship with their new landlords deteriorated. Their neighbors rallied around them, attending fundraisers to offset legal fees and bringing them as much new catering business as they could handle.

Gates credits the good will they’d built within the community with helping keep their doors open. “At first the community was apprehensive,” she says. “Were we really here for them or were we just another posh restaurant coming to town that excludes them? They had to believe that this was built for them to bring their families to have dinner at night.”

Newcomers Jamila Ross and Akino West, owners of the twenty-two-room Copper Door Bed & Breakfast, which opened last summer, weren’t considering Overtown until their partners at the Barlington Group showed them a shuttered gambling den and convenience store. The Art Deco molding and mint-colored terrazzo floors had possibilities, Ross thought. (In fact, the post-war building had actually started out as the Demetree Hotel.) “It had the charm that a bed and breakfast needed, with a modern touch,” she says. “Overtown and the community and the story behind this building found us before we found it. I’ve never felt such a sense of community in my life than I’ve had here.”

Copper Door also brings much more than basket of muffins and lukewarm coffee to the B&B table. There’s been apple-glazed cardamom donuts, fried green tomato benedicts, and chicken and waffles drenched in fig syrup. Though breakfast is for guests only, they’re developing a cafe concept that will welcome the public. In the meantime, they’ve hosted vintage pop-up stores and community dinners, music nights, and film screenings. A temporary exhibit of renowned Overtown artist Purvis Young hung in the lobby during Soul Basel last winter, a satellite to Miami Art Week that celebrated art of the African diaspora.

And more restaurants are in the works. The Urban, an outdoor venue featuring cultural and culinary concepts, opened this winter and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has announced plans to open a restaurant in neighborhood in the coming year.

“There’s a sense of black community in general, in wanting to promote one another,” Ross says. She acknowledges that things aren’t perfect, but is hopeful about the direction of Overtown. “This is our neighborhood and it’s a beautiful neighborhood.’”

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