MIAMI - Tourists used to flock to Miami's Little Broadway in Overtown for its nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, jazz and blues in the 1940s. Decades later, the "Good Bread" alley was renamed the "Bucket of Blood" alley. And violence against tourists gave the area a frightening reputation.
Historians Timothy A. Barber and Dorothy Jenkins Fields have been working on changing that. As the executive director and the founder of The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation, they have been devoted to restoring The Lyric Theatre, 819 NW 2nd Ave. -- east of Interstate 95 and west of the AmericanAirlines Arena.
The theater opened in 1913. It stands just west of the rail tracks that once marked the beginning of "the ghetto," where the free descendants of former slaves lived. The foundation purchased it in 1988 and has been working on renovations ever since. Earlier this month, the theater reopened under the Park West shadow of the Biscayne Wall's skyscrapers that the bien-pensants view as gentrification giants.
"To the East of us, to the West of us, development is all around," said Jenkins Fields, who worked to get the theater listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. "We want our new neighbors. We welcome our new neighbors and we want them to know about us and about our achievements and our struggles."
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There was hope on Little Broadway Monday. The historians' efforts to re-brand the neighborhood as a tourist attraction welcomed Miami's popular Hop-On Hop-Off double-decker tour bus' new Overtown folklife stop at the theater. The buses' popular Uptown Loop route also makes stops at Midtown, Design District and Wynwood.
An information center for tourists will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. It "will provide visitors with a warm welcome" that will include "an introduction to the rich heritage," said William D. Talbert, III, of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. There will be brochures on attractions, maps, calendars of events and tours.
"People come to Miami for sun and sand, yes, but think of all the travelers that are cultural travelers that really want to see the heart and soul of the city," said Carole Ann Taylor, of GMCVB. "This is the heart and soul of the city."
Historians want tourists to learn about the days when Aretha Franklin, Celia Cruz and Ella Fitzgerald walked those streets. In 2002, Whitney Houston shot the video to "Try It On My Own" at the theater in honor of the black stars of the Chitlin Circuit, who used to perform in Miami Beach, but were not allowed to stay there because of segregation.
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"White tourists and white residents also frequented Little Broadway to enjoy the entertainment, exotic foods and music, especially jazz and gospel singing," she said. Some of the visitors, historians say, included members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The area lost popularity in the 1960s when Overtown, formerly known as Colored Town, became the scene of race riots. The construction on I-95 created a shortage on affordable housing. Businesses folded. The quality of education suffered. Crime became an option. Cocaine Cowboys' brutality arrived.
Mismanagement of public funds has also hurt the Little Broadway area. Most recently, the Daily Business Review's Eleazar Melendez reported that a city agency meant to create low-income housing was giving $500,000 to two nonprofits chosen without a competitive process. This was done without the knowledge of commissioners Frank Carollo, Marc Sarnoff and Francis Suarez, who are members of the agency's board.
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City officials are supporting a host of development projects that will create jobs in the area including the Miami Worldcenter, a retail and entertainment complex in Park West. But not too far, behind an abandoned building, there were people using crack. There were prostitutes looking for work. And there were vacant lots.
Across the street from the piano-shaped 400-seat renovated theater, there was a desolated warehouse. It houses the office of the Long Shoremen of Dade County, a predominantly male labor union for ship workers founded in 1936. A corner grocery store has a sign announcing that it accepts government assistance meant to target extreme poverty.
"The area was assigned and limited to black workers who built and serviced the railroad, streets and hotels," Jenkins Fields said.
The historian added that despite the commonality of race, there was a wealth of cultural diversity in the neighborhood due to immigrants who "arrived from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and other countries."
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