For a place that once pulsed with music, Overtown is eerily quiet. There are more vacant lots than buildings on the stretch of Northwest Second Avenue that gleamed with lights and life when it was Miami's Little Broadway 50 years ago. Now, if you stand in the cavernous tunnels under the highways that devastated the neighborhood, the only sound is the whoosh of cars overhead.
Miami has always tended to toss its history aside for the next well-hyped development. But when city fathers rammed the giant concrete pillars and looming span of two highways through Overtown in the 1960s, they also dug the heart out of Miami's black community and scattered it to the margins, destroying a vibrant music scene the likes of which Miami hasn't seen since.
''That was the place,'' says Clarence Reid, 69, who haunted Overtown starting in the 1950s, before becoming a lead songwriter for famed Miami disco label TK Records. ``It was so much fun. Ain't nowhere else. Now you got South Beach, yeah, yeah, yeah. But it ain't nothing compared to Overtown.''
Back then, national stars and their bands jammed with local musicians, trading riffs and ideas, lovers and companionship, day and night. Soul legends Sam and Dave started there; a young Lena Horne lived on the wrong side of Miami's tracks; Sam Cooke and James Brown made Overtown a second home; Flip Wilson honed his comedy there; and Ray Charles made his first records in Overtown.
People sang doo-wop on the corner. Jazz flourished, and the blues resounded. The area bustled with clubs: the Knightbeat, the Mary Elizabeth Lounge, the Harlem Square and many more. The action also brought in white musicians and music fans, creating a racial mix unique for the time in a segregated South.
`MECCA OF MUSIC'
''Miami was a hotbed, a flourishing mecca of music,'' says jazz saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, 67, who lived in Overtown in the early 1960s before going on to become musical director for James Brown. ``It was live and vital. It was vigorous.''
It was the sound of the Miami black community's moment in the sun. And five decades later, there is still bitterness over the loss of the Overtown music scene just as black music exploded into mainstream U.S. culture. Although the legend of those glory days survives in local, seldom-viewed historical archives, the excitement of the place lives only in the memories of the decreasing numbers of people who were there.
''It was a part of our lives -- part of us,'' says John Davis Johnson, 95, an Overtown-raised Harvard Law School graduate, who became the second black judge in Florida and whose law office was on then bustling Second Avenue. ``To see the Dorsey Hotel being torn down, and the Mary Elizabeth -- they were part of us. But then when all these changes were made, then we knew that all of that was behind us, and all we could do was tell our children and our children's children about what used to be.''
Ask people who were there about Overtown's heyday, and their eyes widen, and their hands flutter as if trying to conjure it back into existence. They inhale deeply, as if they could blow life back into a place that is so incomprehensibly dead after being so intensely alive.
''It was like if you go to Bourbon Street,'' says Sandrell ''Chief'' Rivers, 61, an event producer who lived in Overtown as a girl. When her mother would send her on an errand, Rivers wasn't in a hurry to return. 'It would be like `Just a second, there's a band playing in here,' then another band playing in here, then another band playing there. . . . I'd go home, and I'd be like, 'Girl, I done forgot what you sent me for.' And I'd have to go back out again.''