At times, the two-story white house with bright blue shutters and columns that seem to reach for the sky was mistaken for a church in Miami's Overtown neighborhood.
But for 80-year-old Benjamin Brown, the property that had been in his family since 1917 always meant just one thing: home.
Now it's empty, bought up by the Florida Department of Transportation to make room for an expansion of the highway that, for years, has rumbled with traffic a few feet from his backyard. One day soon, the shell of the house will crumble under the assault of heavy machinery, and the hard-earned legacy of Brown’s Bahamian immigrant mother will be erased forever.
“She would often say to us growing up, I’m going to leave this property to you, to the family,” Brown said. “And it’s the family’s responsibility to keep the property.”
Inside the house, faded outlines remain on the turquoise walls where vintage family photos and awards once hung. The navy blue carpeted living room where four generations gathered after hearty Sunday dinners is silent. The narrow backyard, previously the domain of the family’s four “crazy” dogs, is barren and still.
The state paid Brown and his wife $300,000 to move by April 28. He isn’t alone: FDOT bought or is acquiring 85 other properties nearby to make way for wider lanes on Interstate 395, which leads to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Pérez Art Museum Miami and downtown.
And though Brown purchased a four-bedroom home in Liberty City, it isn’t what he wanted.
“Why should I move? I’ve been here all my life. Why should I move? I’m happy here,” he said. “Everything I have is here, so, why should I move?”
The move didn’t seem real until Monday, his final day in the house. Stacks of carefully labeled cardboard boxes dominated each room. The walls were stripped bare. Only the grandfather clock that chimed every hour looked untouched, ready to be hand-carried out the door. Watching the movers, Brown, a usually unflappable retired elementary school teacher, placed his hand over his mouth in disbelief and mourning.
This is where he was born. This front yard is where he played marbles on the front steps and hide-and-go-switch — a rowdy version of hide-and-go-seek. And this is where he and his wife, Linda, raised five children and later hosted sleepovers for grandchildren.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Brown said, peering through his square-framed glasses as he took a last look around .
It’s a story that Overtown knows too well, the displacement of families for highways. It happened before, nearly 50 years ago, on a larger scale. In the 1960s, construction of Interstate 95 and its connector, I-395, displaced thousands of residents, leaving a once-thriving community blighted.
Today’s Overtown continues to struggle in the shadows of elevated expressways that loom overhead. But the overhaul of I-395 is being billed by state and local officials as one that will be beneficial to the neighborhood, a do-over to right the wrongs that fractured a community almost five decades earlier.
“You can leave it the way it is and the wrong will be there forever,” Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said. “Or we can do what government can do ... taking a fractured community and making it whole again.”
Construction isn’t set to begin until 2018. When it does, acres of Overtown land that now languish under the existing I-395 would be freed for parks or development instead of remaining dark and littered spaces where the homeless often camp. And the Overtown neighborhood, cut off from the burgeoning downtown district, would be better connected to the urban street grid.
FDOT spokesman Brian Rick said in an email that the new roadway will be higher than it is now, “allowing light to penetrate underneath. The higher structure allows us to reconnect Northwest Second Avenue and improve local street connectivity in Overtown.”
Two designs are being considered to add architectural detail to the sleek elevated “signature bridge,” one a lotus shape, the other a wishbone-inspired structure. The estimated cost for the 1.2-mile project is $600 million.
Of the 86 properties FDOT says it needs for the work, the majority are vacant lots. Officials say they weigh numerous options before settling on a plan with the least amount of impact on a community.
But with any major highway projects in an urban area, there are human costs.
Sarnoff, who said he wasn’t aware of residents being displaced, said the toll is inevitable.
“A few make sacrifices for the greater good, but are they compensated, yes,” he said. “You are also doing your social part in being part of the greater good.”
On his last day in his house, Brown packed a few remaining items forgotten under a bed frame: two pairs of brown shoes, dusty black boots, an electronic neck massager and blue garden gloves.
He taped the box shut and walked into his living room, where he could see the FDOT-paid movers hauling his life’s belongings onto a truck.
The ceiling-high bookshelf once overloaded with family photos was cleared, the black-and-white portrait of his mother and father dispatched to the truck along with a childhood photo of Brown and most of his 15 siblings and more than a dozen framed shots of his smiling children and grandchildren.
His treasured clock, purchased in 1974 in a downtown shop, chimed once more shortly before movers gently lifted it onto their truck.
Brown’s face creased into a frown. His granddaughter, Letricia Brown, who had stopped by to check on him, asked several times, “Are you OK?”
He couldn’t put up much of a front. “This is terrible,” he said.
Brown lived through the previous highway construction projects that sliced through the heart of his neighborhood and took with them a thriving commercial and arts district known as “Little Broadway.” Roughly half of the 40,000 people who called the area home were displaced.
Families relocated to areas like Liberty City and Richmond Heights. Many of the area’s businesses closed. Acclaimed theaters where Lena Horne, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin headlined shut down, most never to open again.
Brown remembers the bulldozers lining up along Northwest Sixth Avenue to tear down his friends’ homes in the ’60s. The neighborhood kids nicknamed the bulldozers “big chief” for the picture of an Indian that was plastered on the side.
“We used to make fun, ‘You don’t want big chief coming to your house,’ ” Brown said.
Brown’s home survived “big chief” that time. The state only took a portion of his backyard as right of way for I-395.
“My mother was living at the time; she didn’t want them to take any of her backyard. But there was nothing she could do about it, so they took part of the backyard,” he said.
Critics of the project say Overtown, like other inner city communities, historically ends up on the losing end of highway projects.
“I understand there has to be economic development, but the black community had to give up its heart. The pain fell in Overtown before and it continues to fall in Overtown,” said Marvin Dunn, historian and author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.
Dunn said he is skeptical that the elevated bridge will have any significant positive effect on the community. The decades of damage from the previous highway projects can’t easily be erased, he said.
“Overtown will never be what it used to be,” he said. “The dream of the Overtown of the 1920s and ’30s — that dream is gone. It’s just a slow death of a very important community.”
Renters are also being displaced in this latest round. Among the properties seized by FDOT is a multi-unit apartment on Northwest 13th Street and First Place where Edythe Murphy, 57, has lived for seven years. She said she was drawn to Overtown’s history and the small-town feel of a community where her neighbors always said good morning.
“We don’t own the property, [but] none of us wanted to go. We were forced to,” she said.
Murphy said FDOT representatives were kind and provided financial incentives to herself and other tenants; she wouldn’t specify the amount.
“I know people talk bad about Overtown, but I stayed there for seven years and I liked where I was staying,” she said. “I would have liked to stay.”
Another multi-unit building — that one right next door to Brown’s house at Northwest 14 Terrace and Third Avenue — was pancaked by a demolition crew in April.
Brown watched the demolition crew hack through one side of the building, leaving half the structure and a flight of stairs intact. He saw the remainder of the building succumb to the machinery’s blows knowing that this was the plan for his place.
In the last days before he had to move out, Brown said he could hardly sleep. At night, he replayed scenes from his childhood. He wondered whether he could fight eminent domain, a law that says his property would serve a greater public benefit if it belonged to the state. Just as sleep would come, he would try to imagine living somewhere else.
But he couldn’t. “I would imagine when I get in my car, instead of going to the new house I’m driving here, coming here — because I’ve done it so many times.”