About Unity Boulevard

On Unity Boulevard you'll find:

  • 0 Starbucks coffee shops (One is coming soon.)
  • 0 movie theaters
  • 0 police stations
  • 1 public library
  • 1 Wal-Mart
  • 2 Miami Dade College campuses (InterAmerican and North)
  • 3 fire stations (Model Cities, Bunche Park and Carol City)
  • 4 shopping centers with major national retail
  • 5 hotels and motels
  • 8 shops advertising cafe cubano
  • 23 churches
  • 50 medical offices
  • 52 car dealerships
  • The world's last Royal Castle
  • The world's first Burger King
  • The Historic Hampton House hotel

Portions of the street are also known as:

  • Carrie P. Meek Boulevard (from Miami Gardens to Brownsville)
  • T. Stewart Greer Avenue (in unincorporated Miami-Dade County)
  • Luis Conte Aguero Way (in Little Havana)

One street with many stories

On what may be Miami-Dade County's most culturally diverse corridor, neighborhoods bump up against one another -- and against their own challenges -- with little in common save a stretch of road that's named after unity.

Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, local politicians gather Opa-locka children and cross a storied street.

That street is 27th Avenue.

The tradition is rooted in the city's segregated past, when blacks traveled west of 27th only to pay the water bill. Commissioner Ollie Kelley started the walk in January 1988, three months after Miami-Dade County bestowed a new name on the street: Unity Boulevard.

The moniker came with a hope that this 17.5-mile slab of asphalt could thread together some of the county's most disparate neighborhoods: Caribbean-influenced Miami Gardens and Opa-locka; historically African-American Liberty City and Brownsville; primarily Hispanic Allapattah and Little Havana; and majority-white Coconut Grove.

It was on 27th Avenue, during the civil-rights movement in 1960, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a call for togetherness -- a speech that later became known as "I Have a Dream."

If any road in Miami-Dade County could be the address of that dream, thought a unanimous County Commission, this was it.

It didn't work.

Twenty years after the co-naming, a bus trip down Unity Boulevard reveals distinct neighborhoods that keep to themselves -- some proud, some struggling. They are united in one way only: Each considers Unity Boulevard central to its transforming, individual identity.

Maybe they should have called it Diversity Boulevard.

A RIDE ON THE BOULEVARD

We're aboard the No. 27, one of the county's busiest buses, as it rumbles along Unity Boulevard's northern end in Miami Gardens -- past the pink mass that is the $109-a-night El Palacio Hotelū, overlooking the shadow of Dolphin Stadium.

Signs of change -- that is, signs for new retail -- are everywhere: a Washington Mutual bank, a Pollo Tropical, Denny's and a Wal-Mart Supercenter --all built in the last six years.

There are also signs that some things haven't changed: None of the businesses is black-owned, although three of four Miami Gardens residents are black.

Still, residents say they are happy with the transformation.

"I love what they're doing with the area," said Michelle Laing, a 33-year-old Miami Gardens resident, as she shopped through Wal-Mart. "None of these things were here before, and we now have jobs here in our community."

The cities of Opa-locka and Miami Gardens, the county and the state worked for three years to spruce up the north end of 27th Avenue. They spent more than $3 million to plant flowers, improve drainage and repave roads.

"In New York, they have the miracle of 34th Street," said Commissioner Dennis Moss, head of Miami-Dade's Community Image Advisory Board. "Now, we have a miracle on 27th Avenue!"

A decade ago, the area was just lots full of white sand -- people called it "the Bahamas.'' By last year, the 10 blocks in the northwest 19000s were generating more than $2 million a year in taxes.

Going south, big-box retail turns to thrift shops, adult shops and an old strip mall without a single store. Then comes a string of used-car dealerships in West Little River, and the 27 enters Liberty City.

"Liberty City's not like it was,'' said Edwina Howard, 68, who was waiting for a bus near 79th Street. To her left was the Northside Shopping Centre, the neighborhood's decrepit crown jewel of retail, now undergoing a $14 million renovation. In front of her was a burned-out hair supply store.

"Things were much better," Howard said. "There were much better shops and they kept the place clean. I'd go to Sears or J.C. Penney at that mall. Now, I have to go to Dadeland Mall or one in Pembroke Pines."

The area never recovered from 1980. Blacks erupted in riots that year, after an all-white jury acquitted white police officers charged with beating to death a black man named Arthur McDuffie.

Past Northside, more empty lots appear. One small matchbox house advertises collard greens. Another offers barbecue ribs. Both are locked up.

If you ask why the businesses disappeared, some say that all you have to do is look up.

You'll see the Metrorail.

The neighborhoods beneath it -- from Northwest 76th Street, the northern end of Liberty City, to 41st Street, in Brownsville -- are the poorest on Unity Boulevard.

"The Metrorail decimated this neighborhood,'' community activist Kenneth Kilpatrick said. "This place used to have a lot of business, a lot of good things. And then Metrorail came, and they all left."

When the rail was proposed in the late 1970s, Brownsville residents eagerly got aboard. They thought it could connect them to new jobs in new places.

The stores lost so many customers during construction that they had to close, Kilpatrick said. Once the line was built, they never came back.

So now the area is missing at least one pharmacy, a medical clinic, a hotel, two restaurants, four grocery stores and three barbershops from its best days.

It was during those times that King delivered a version of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Historic Hampton House. Now, the hotel's windows are boarded up, with white crosses in front of them.

Still, resident Earnest Bostic, 63, said he's generally happy here, although the place "could use a good restaurant." There are plenty of cheap, tasty restaurants a half-mile away -- south of State Road 112 -- but he doesn't dream of going there.

"I ain't got no business over there," he said. "That's Spanish town. I don't speak Spanish. I don't do Spanish. I have nothing against them. It's just a different type of living."

The State Road 112 overpass, dividing Brownsville from Allapattah, is Unity Boulevard's starkest demographic boundary.

The census tracts along 27th Avenue in Brownsville are 92 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic, according to Claritas market research. In Allapattah, south of 112, the area is 88 percent Hispanic.

That's clear at 36th Street, outside the world's first official Burger King restaurant. Almost all the northbound riders waiting for the bus there are black. Going south, they are primarily Hispanic.

"One street? This is three streets," said Nelson Martinez, 26, who grew up near Northwest 23rd Street and 27th Avenue. "Up north, I mean, no one here would go by Martin Luther King [Northwest 62nd Street] unless they wanted to get jacked. Here, you have a lot of illegal people who just want to stay where they are. Then past the [20th Street] bridge, it's getting more violent, but it's still a lot calmer."

One day, when the No. 27 bus was crowded, a black woman in a green business suit was standing, while in the seats behind her, a portly Hispanic couple were snickering and speaking Spanish.

"Could you please speak English so we can all enjoy the joke?" the black woman said, tensely.

"Don't tell me what to do," the Hispanic woman responded. "Who do you think you are? I can speak English and I can speak Spanish whenever I want because I'm Cuban! What are you going to do?"

Beyond such friction, Brownsville and Allapattah share one thing: their economic status. The average household income in both is between $20,000 and $30,000.

It tops $44,000 in Little Havana, the next neighborhood on the No. 27 bus' route, where the merchant economy has been shaped by steady influxes of entrepreneurs -- first from Cuba and now from Central America.

Here, the sidewalks are crowded with stores that have service windows in front, selling cafe cubano and fruit juices, and a number of medical offices. Here, Juan Arcia, 72, feels at home.

"When I first got here, there were signs that said, "No dogs, No Latinos,'‚" Arcia said as he walked his dog, Benji.

Hardly a mile away, Unity Boulevard reaches its southern end at U.S. 1 -- and another major boundary. The average household income shoots up to about $111,000 -- and you know you're in Coconut Grove, a place so different from the rest of Unity Boulevard that you'd have to board another bus to get there. The No. 27 route stops at U.S. 1.

The road goosenecks into two lanes, bordered by uneven, cracked sidewalks. Ficus and mangroves slouch on the sides. Two new condos are going up at the corner of 27th Avenue and Bird Avenue, with prices starting in the $300,000s -- a discount brought to you by the housing slump.

At the boulevard's northern edge, there are six lanes of traffic and the El Palacio. In Coconut Grove, it's sunbeams and shrimp boats on Biscayne Bay, and the $319-a-night Ritz- Carlton.

That distinctive flair defines the Grove, said Glen Terry, a community activist who coordinates the neighborhood's goofy King Mango Strut Parade.

That's just the way he -- and nearly everybody else along the entire length of 27th Avenue -- likes it. Terry summarized his neighborhood's place on Unity Boulevard with a phrase you can hear from one end of the road to the other:

"It's unlike any other part of the street."

Miami Herald staff writers Laura Figueroa and Rob Barry contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Miami Herald Media Company