Places have character, just like people. Like people, they are affected by both human and natural forces. And also like people, they can change over time. The goal is to change for the better.
Enter the deliberate practice of Placemaking. Placemaking is “a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.” Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy, and incorporates urban design principles to make places human-centric, rather than car-centric. According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking, “shows people just how powerful their collective vision can be. It helps them to re-imagine everyday spaces, and to see anew the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings.”
The rise and fall of Overtown, one of Miami’s oldest black communities, is an example of how placemaking, or the lack thereof, can greatly influence a place’s trajectory and the destiny of its people. Overtown was established even before the city of Miami was incorporated in 1896. The residents of Overtown, which was then called Colored Town, built many of the railroad tracks, highways, and hotels of the city of Miami.
In the early 1900s, Overtown thrived as an “economic and cultural Mecca for people of African descent.” It had a popular nightlife scene with theater and music that also drew the white community. Overtown hosted black intellectuals, entertainers, and sports heroes who had come to perform but were denied hotel housing elsewhere in Miami due to their race. Among the black historical figures who spent time in Overtown were: Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis. Overtown was the “Harlem of the South,” both commercially and culturally successful while also bridging racial barriers.
Fast forward to today, Overtown is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S.
What happened? Overtown reveals what can happen when there is no Placemaking available to the community. In the late 1950s and 60s, two expressways – the I-95 and the 826 – were built through the heart of Overtown, displacing more than 20,000 residents and dramatically changing the character of the neighborhood. Many iconic spots disappeared. Overtown began a steep decline in median family income, sustainable housing, and youth programming.
In 1982, the Southeast Overtown / Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, or the CRA, was created to “promote and encourage the redevelopment” of Overtown in ways that “accomplish beneficial revitalization within its boundaries.” With the help of the CRA and the Knight Foundation, Overtown has been re-establishing itself. Here are some cultural and economic highlights that draw people from throughout Miami, the U.S., and the world to Overtown:
- The annual Overtown Music and Arts Festival which celebrated five years this past July
- Soul Basel which showcases art exhibitions from the Caribbean and African diaspora during Miami Art Week
- “Restaurant Row” along NW 3rd Avenue between 7th and 10th Streets
- The Lyric Theater, which opened in 1913, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The theater hosts a monthly talent competition called Lyric Live
- Folklife Friday which occurs the first Friday of every month to showcase the food, crafts, and clothing of Overtown vendors
- Street murals painted by local Miami artist, studio owner, and educator Addonis Parker
- Co-working spaces: husband and wife team Felicia Hatcher and Derick Pearson opened a co-working spacefor black entrepreneurs this past April
This kind of revitalization comes from the residents of Overtown and its allies, and honors the rich identity of the residents. As Overtown continues to create communal experiences and promote the arts, the hope is that it regains some of its previous glory while also preparing for the challenges of the future. All of Miami will be better for it.