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Overtown’s renovated Gibson Park a symbol of hope

For the residents of Overtown, the rainbow-colored benches, Olympic-sized pool and state-of-the-art football field and baseball diamond at the renovated Gibson Park symbolize hope.

The $10.9 million park, which opens Tuesday at 401 NW 12th St., looks like it jumped out of a Dr. Seuss tale, with its Crayola-colored playground equipment, a splash park for toddlers and a 50-meter pool to host the next generation of Olympic swimmers.

A city of Miami loan, backed by its Community Redevelopment Agency, funded the yearlong project, pushed by Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

“I think that people need to feel safe in their community,” Spence-Jones said. “Shootings are down, but there’s a huge homelessness issue with drug activity. Our first mode of operation is to create a safe and clean environment.”

The park is part of a citywide plan to bolster Overtown, the historic black neighborhood that once was the hub of Miami’s black middle-class, but slipped into blight after I-95 bisected it. In May, the Miami commission approved investing $50 million in the neighborhood, building four mixed-use projects of housing and retail, and renovating the aging Town Park residences.

For Gibson Park, Tuesday’s opening is Phase 1; Phase 2 calls for a $2.7 million gymnasium, now in its preliminary design stage.

“This gives us all hope that the government does care about the people and that the CRA is investing in the community,” said Timothy A. Barber, executive director of The Black Archives. “It’s hope that they can have something high-tech and first-class in this community that has undergone so many devastations. It’s a rebirth of sorts.”

Next year, the $10 million Lyric Theatre Welcome Center Complex at 819 NW Second Ave. is slated to open. The center, which will be adjacent to the Lyric Theater, the oldest live theater in Miami, will house the Black Archives. The project also will upgrade the Lyric, which in its prime hosted such cultural giants as poet Langston Hughes and opera singer Marian Anderson.

Marvin Dunn, a Miami historian who has written extensively on the black community, said the push to bolster Overtown came after the 1980 riots. In December 1979, Arthur McDuffie, a black Miami insurance agent riding a motorcycle, was beaten to death. Four white Metro-Dade police officers were charged with his killing. An all-white jury in Tampa acquitted the officers, spawning three days of riots in Overtown and Liberty City. Eighteen people died and more than $100 million in property was destroyed.

“A lot of programs were thrown around at the time to improve riot-affected areas,” Dunn said.

Dunn, a retired psychology professor from Florida International University, began working to improve Overtown around 1981, when he gave his students the option of performing community service in Overtown or writing a 35-page paper. Dunn and his students began planting botanical gardens, a project he has continued today.

Within the last three years, Dunn has worked with the CRA to plant vegetable gardens around the neighborhood and operate a farmers market. With a $75,000 grant from the CRA, Dunn and the Overtown Beautification Team, comprising 14 part-time employees, will open the community’s fourth garden later this year.

“All you have to do is look at the center part of Overtown,” Dunn said. “The streets are actually clean, just as clean as they are in Coral Gables.”

The community also welcomed the Overtown Youth Center in 2003, founded by real-estate developer Martin Z. Margulies and former Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning. The center now serves about 320 children a year, through after-school and summer enrichment programs.

Dunn credits Arthur Teele, the former Metro and Miami commissioner, with being one of Overtown’s earliest visionaries. He pushed to add parking lots along Third Avenue, the hub of Overtown’s business community.

“At the time, people thought that they were a waste of money,” Dunn said. “But now that Overtown has begun development, we need those parking lots. The long-term impact has been positive for Overtown.”

Next came Spence-Jones.

“As a young elected official that grew up in the inner city, you see the neighbors stagnant, you see things not changing and you see things developing all around the county,” Spence-Jones said. “There’s something wrong. There’s a major disconnect.”

She has put together a three-point plan to bring back Overtown, focusing on housing, entrepreneurship and empowerment.

The housing component includes the Miami commission’s $50 million plan for housing and retail developments.

The entrepreneurial program calls for teaching Overtown’s business owners about management, finances, technology and marketing. The CRA also helps fund business expansions. In the last six years, at least 10 new businesses have moved into the Overtown area, creating jobs for at least 50 people, Spence-Jones said.

Empowerment is promoted through programs like the Overtown Beautification Team and the botanical and vegetable gardens, which are part of the CRA’s Landscape Institute, a job training program in landscaping and horticulture.

“The garden provides jobs for folks in the neighborhood who need a second chance and who may not have perfect employment records,” said Clarence Woods, executive director of the CRA.

The CRA also operates a Hospitality Institute with Miami Dade College. Plans call for opening a Culinary Institute this fall. Down the road: a Film Life Institute to train people in the film and entertainment industries.

Of course, transforming Overtown is not an easy task. Dunn recalled the old Miami Arena, which promised new jobs and more development in Overtown. But the only jobs the arena delivered to Overtown, Dunn said, were popcorn and beer vendors. Now, the arena remains surrounded by empty parking lots, which Dunn calls the “white elephants on Second Avenue.”

Some also hoped the glam restaurant-lounge Karu & Y stationed at the edge of Overtown, along with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the new Miami Marlins Park, would spur development. Karu & Y has since closed.

“The main problem for business development in Overtown is Overtown is in isolation,” Dunn said. “People that aren’t from Overtown simply won’t come here. People are afraid of the community.”

Spence-Jones said Gibson Park should help dispel those fears and bring back people to Overtown, once home to a thriving black community of schools, churches, shops and nightclubs, where big names like Lena Horne, Sam Cooke and James Brown would hang out after performing in Miami Beach during the days of segregation.

“Those were high times. Those were the glory years,” Dunn said. “You wouldn’t be caught dead on Second Avenue unless you had slacks and you were well-dressed. People put on suits during the week. Overtown was the social center of the southeastern United States.”

Spence-Jones is betting the new Gibson Park, coupled with the other projects, is the first step toward Overtown’s next chapter.

“These are tangible projects that residents can see are transforming their neighborhoods,” Spence-Jones said. “That is a source of inspiration for them to do something better. Beyond that, it also provides a sense of hope.”

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