Festival sets out to put a positive spin on Overtown

07/14/2014 5:15 PM

07/18/2014 11:17 AM

Overtown: for locals, the name can instantly paint a picture of poverty, crime and dilapidated properties. The frequent headlines with words like “shooting” or “killing” don’t help the neighborhood’s image, either.

But that’s not the Overtown that Michael Gardner, CEO of Headliner Market Group (HMG), wants people to see. He is inviting locals and non-locals alike to the downtown Miami neighborhood Saturday for the annual Overtown Music and Arts Festival, formerly known as the Overtown Rhythm and Arts Festival.

While this is the fourth year of the festival, it is the first year Gardner and HMG are quarterbacking the project.

“When you think of Overtown at the present time, you only think of the negative, but it’s rich in culture,” said Gardner, 40, who took on the project after being introduced to the idea by the City Commission six months ago.

The Overtown of earlier decades was a renowned black neighborhood filled with restaurants, grocery stores, barber and beauty shops, tailors, doctor and law offices, a milliner, local insurance agents, and even a soda water bottling facility called Cola Nip –– all black-owned and operated. For blacks, Overtown, the “Harlem of the South,” was once a beacon of pride, hope and opportunity.

All that changed during the 1960s with construction of Interstate 95 and Interstate 395, which sliced through the neighborhood, its overpasses towering over its homes and buildings. Property values sank, and Overtown lost its prestige.

Gardner, known for making LIV Night Club one of Miami Beach’s most-successful clubs, took on the task of promoting and overseeing the music festival with a vision of reinventing “Miami’s Little Broadway,” another nickname Overtown once held.

The festival is scheduled to take place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday on Northwest Third Avenue between Eighth and 11th streets, in the heart of Overtown’s business district. Gardner and HMG say they are bringing in a lot of big names from the R&B, soul, gospel and jazz scene to the festival, including Raheem DeVaughn, Keke Wyatt and Sebastian Mikael.

The festival, Gardner said, will have everything a successful music festival could need: big-name artists, free admission, free food and support from city officials.

But there’s still one thing on everyone’s mind: safety.

“I’ve been answering that question for three months now,” he said. “People have been asking me, ‘Why should I feel safe going to Overtown?’ ”

Gardner’s response: “There’s no need to be scared.” His cousin, business partner and small-business owner Mussaddiq Muhammad agrees.

Muhammad moved to Overtown after living and operating a barber shop — Headliners Barbershop, the foundation of Headliner Market Group — in Coconut Grove. He says that despite common perceptions, there is a lot of pride in Overtown. The neighborhood’s biggest problems are its negative image and scant resources.

“In Overtown, we haven’t learned the rudiments of saving and investing — most of us are just trying to keep the lights on,” said Muhammad, 46. “But there’s enough negativity. Let’s highlight the best, let’s create jobs, let’s create opportunity.”

Muhammad says he, like his cousin, is taking profits from business ventures and reinvesting them in Overtown, and the music and arts festival, according to Muhammad, should do just that.

“When you look at who we are as black people, it all started with the arts,” said Muhammad, citing the role of historic movements like the Harlem Renaissance as being at the root of black culture.

Both Gardner and Muhammad hope this year’s festival will be a success, but more importantly they say it’s about the legacy of Overtown — its little-seen arts and cultural scene and the vibrancy of the community.

“Overtown represents family, culture and great ties,” Gardner said. “You go into these mom-and-pop shops and everyone knows each other.”

“That’s the true Overtown,” he said.

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