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Black in Time

Rehabilitated apartment buildings are a great fit for historic Overtown

 

Special to The Miami Herald

The celebration of St. John Community Development Corporation’s opening of two newly rehabilitated, affordable, multi-family apartment buildings combine old and new designs contributing to Overtown’s eclectic architectural heritage. St. John Village, 1410 NW First Place and 1731-41 NW First Court, are affordable rental units.

Built in the 1950s style of Masonry Vernacular, the original height of both buildings is maintained and the exteriors are greatly enhanced with color, fencing and landscaping. The completely rehabilitated interior now offers a combination of 34 one- and two-bedroom rental units add significantly to the architectural fabric of Overtown. The buildings are SJCDC’s second and third projects completed through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program II award. Additional funds provided to support the rehabilitation included Neighborhood Stabilization Program I, HOME and surtax funds from the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County respectively.

The board of directors of the St. John CDC, and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, announced the grand opening of the newly rehabilitated apartments on May 2. The units are available to persons who earn less than half the local median income, which translates to about $32,700 for a family of four. The two projects are part of a group of projects, of previously foreclosed properties, to be completed by the CDC as a member of the Miami-Dade NSP2 Consortium. The consortium was awarded $89 million from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program II (NSP2).

St. John CDC, dedicated to helping revitalize the Overtown community, was founded by the St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church congregation. Organized in 1906, for more than 100 years, this church has played a significant role in Overtown’s spiritual and physical development.

According to the Chairman of the CDC Board, Dr. Nelson L. Adams III, “We felt it is our responsibility to take a lead role in restoring Overtown. To this end, SJCDC’s efforts are directed towards building partnerships, building new homes, rehabilitating housing units, strengthening the economic base and improving the quality of life. SJCDC is committed to making a difference.”

A member of a pioneer Overtown family, Adams, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is also past president of the National Medical Association.

When Adams was growing up, the architectural fabric of Overtown contained many non-descript structures, but there were also scattered commercial and residential buildings of various architectural styles such as Bahamian Vernacular, Masonry Vernacular, Gothic Revival Design, Mediterranean Revival Style, Neo Classical and Mission Style; and Streamline Moderne. Some still remain. An example is Adams’ church, St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist, an Art Deco structure, designed by McKissack & McKissack, one of the oldest black architectural firms in the United States.

Like St. John’s congregation, Overtown’s pioneer residents were the primary property owners of the historic structures, some of which are documented in these sources: City of Miami Resolution #82-755; From Wilderness To Metropolis, History and Architecture of Dade County (1825-1940); the city of Miami’s Historic Preservation website; Greater Miami & the Beaches Black Visitor Guide; and the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places.

Most of the listed sites were constructed by the same black laborers who laid the railroad tracks and built the residences, hotels and other commercial buildings in Miami and Miami Beach. For more than 50 years, black laborers were the primary workforce throughout Miami-Dade County.

For over a quarter of a century, the St. John CDC has taken the lead role in the economic revitalization of historic Overtown. In recent times, their 5-year development plan lists a mix of eleven rehabilitation and new construction sites for rent and home ownership. Nearly half have been completed.

Building on the vision of its founder, the late Rev. Henry Nevin, former pastor of the historic St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church, SJCDC operates on the principle that “charity begins at home.” This basic principle captures the organization’s commitment to preserve the African American culture in historic communities through new construction and rehabilitation projects, and to provide opportunities for employment for families living below the poverty line. St. John’s apartments and homes, rehabilitated and newly built, add to the Overtown’s revitalized architectural heritage.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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