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Miami Was Built By Black People: Why We Won't Let It Sink?



In the beginning, Fisher Island was a wedge of land with coconut palms and mangroves that sat in Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher purchased it from Dana Dorsey, South Florida's first African American millionaire.


Fisher Island has been home to the likes of Oprah and Mel Gibson and is only accessible by ferry or boat, but most people don't know that Fisher Island was originally first owned by a black man –What was the free Black town in Florida? In 1738, when more than 100 Africans had arrived, the Spanish established the fort and town of Fort Mose (pronounced “Moh-say”), the first legally sanctioned free Black town in what is now the United States. The story of Fort Mose is a tribute to these courageous Africans and their pursuit of freedom.


Miami was built by Black people. Descendants of slaves and, Black Bahamians who settled in Miami—which is just 100 miles from Freeport, Grand Bahama—in the late 1800s and built many of Miami’s houses and buildings. About 21,000 Bahamians call the city home today, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. Most reside in Coconut Grove, a waterfront neighborhood south of downtown Miami that hugs the Biscayne Bay.


Overtown was Miami's Black Wallstreet. Overtown was the epicenter of thriving Black wealth, culture, arts, and businesses. The historic Overtown neighborhood was known as both the Black Wall Street of Miami and Harlem of the South, frequented by legends like W.E.B. Du Bois, Sammy Davis Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali. The same goes for its legendary Lyric Theater, whose stage was graced by musical icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.Despite unwarranted setbacks, such as Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation and the destruction of Overtown’s entertainment district with the I-95 overpass (putting in Highways is still a tactic the US Government uses to disenfranchise black communities), the Black community continued to be a force in the city, innovating and growing Miami’s collective culture.


At the turn of the 20th century, Henry Flagler didn’t just bring his railroad down the East Coast of Florida; he also brought the enslaved that built it. The workers were responsible for building the railroads, streets, and hotels and improving transportation in the local area.The northwest section of the city was the designated settlement area for the Black population, and where Overtown got its original name, “Colored Town.”


Despite the limitations, it was a place where the Black community could seek refuge from racism and discrimination. It did not prevent the community’s development as the neighborhood grew to become the epicenter of Black wealth in Miami. Overtown became the Black community’s beating heart, thriving with Black-owned businesses, including hotels, doctors’ offices, arts, and cultural venues.


Legends like Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday stayed at the boutique hotels in Overtown because they weren’t allowed to stay in Miami Beach. The neighborhood soon became known as Miami’s Black Wallstreet and the Harlem of the South. This all changed when the 1-95 highway was constructed, slicing the neighborhood in two, and displacing over 40,000 Black families. The highway went over the community without any exits, hence why it is now known as Overtown. Construction of I-95 in Miami required the forcible relocation of over 12,000 residents—nearly 100% of them black. In the 1960s the government used eminent domain to seize buildings across the heart of Miami's black community in Overtown in order to build the highway.


Although Overtown has gone through years of neglect, a second renaissance is in the works with events like Overtown Folklife Friday and establishments like The Copper Door Bed & Breakfast and Red Rooster. Especially promising is 2023's Green Infrastructure launch bringing an economic resurgence to the neighborhood. Among the improvements will include the Overtown. Greenway, an urban streetscape corridor. The city has plans to spend over 200,000,000 in construction fees alone. How much of this money is actually going to black owned businesses and construction companies is yet to be seen.Underdeck – the 33-acre public space to be built underneath a reconstructed I-395 – is now formally in the hands of city of Miami officials.


The Underdeck committee, composed of Overtown community members and lead stakeholders that were charged with developing recommendations for the space’s design, operation and funding strategies, submitted a full, 443-page report to the Miami city manager last month. Representing the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work, the report pushes for community involvement even beyond the initial planning stages, advocates for economic opportunities on behalf of local businesses and artists, and outlines specific environmental concerns in line with building a green infrastructure.


The currently proposed design for The Underdeck shows a one-mile, 33-acre open space landscape beginning in Overtown near Gibson Park and extending to Biscayne Bay. Then there’s the name. Finding a suitable name to represent the Underdeck has long been a point of contention for residents of Overtown, whose neighborhood was ripped apart by the very highway in question decades ago. For them, the new development poses an opportunity to enforce their legacy and right an old wrong. As such, the recommended name for the city commission to consider is “Overtown Miami Greenway” with a tagline that reads “The Heart of the City.”


The currently proposed design for The Underdeck shows a one-mile, 33-acre open space landscape beginning in Overtown near Gibson Park and extending to Biscayne Bay. The name was narrowed down several times over as a result of continued public surveys and community meetings, most recently led by Jacober Creative, a consulting agency that was hired by the committee to generate the final recommendation.


“Overtown Miami Greenway” beat out other potential names that nearly made it to the homestretch, such as “Heart: From Overtown to the Bay” or “Miami Overtown Downtown Mile.”

The chosen name, which could be abbreviated to “OMG,” fulfills one recurring wish: that it makes mention of Overtown. According to Jacober Creative’s final report, the name is also attractive in that it alludes to shaded, green space, which is preferred over the concrete pathways that currently plague predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods like Overtown.

T

he newly recommended design for the Underdeck (top) shows increased amenities and green space when compared to an original plan approved in 2017 by the state. In line with that concern, the recommended design includes 55% softscape and 35% hardscape – an improvement from the original plan that was submitted through a joint venture between engineering groups Archer Western and de Moya in 2016. That plan, previously approved in tandem with the ongoing I-395/SR 836/I-95 design-build project, called for only 30% softscape and 70% hardscape.


Softscape is defined in the report as lush green space, either in the form of trees, ornamental gardens or turf lawn. Hardscape comprises solid surfaces like parking areas or concrete pavements. In addition, the new design is separated into four “character zones” that together include a dog park, a multi-use court, a performance stage, water features and more – all extending from Gibson Park in Overtown to Biscayne Bay.


But those additional amenities have jacked up the price of execution considerably. The design that was devised by architectural firm Hargreaves Jones in conjunction with the Underdeck Committee and subsequently sent to the city is estimated to cost anywhere from $53 million to just upwards of $56 million, whereas the original plan was under $30 million. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which is for now the leading entity in charge of bringing the Underdeck to fruition, has agreed to cover 30% of the cost. The city of Miami, to which FDOT has delegated the operational responsibilities, will pay 20% of the cost.


The Underdeck Committee has its fingers crossed that it could secure the remaining half of the cost in federal dollars through the Reconnecting Communities Grant. But, the committee’s report admits, $26.5 million is a big ask, and the city may only receive partial funding, if any. The report outlines other potential sources to cope with that risk, which include CRA money, help from the Miami-Dade County budget, or state or federal funding in the 2023 legislative cycle.


The committee will have to secure the needed funds by 2024, when construction is slated to begin.

Keeping the ball rolling. As comprehensive as the Underdeck Committee’s work has proven to be, its reality is preliminary at best and wishful thinking at worst. It’s now up to the city to review and finalize the recommendations report before sending it off to FDOT, which will have the final say.


Part of the report advises on the Underdeck’s governance once the infrastructure is in place. The leading team as recommended by the committee would include representation from the county, the city, its affected districts and the committee itself, as well as five community representatives. In the end, a fine majority of the governing body – roughly 17 people – would be community members or leaders chosen by the committee.


“The Underdeck Committee is the community,” said Lisa Martinez, the lead facilitator of the group, “and every day, we’re trying to be able to make sure that we broaden the table for more members to be contributing to the future of this work.”



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