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A history lesson Miami still hasn't learned

Once known as the “Harlem of the South,” Overtown was a thriving black community in the historic heart of Miami. Legends like Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday played to big crowds late into the night. One of the first black millionaires in the American South – D.A. Dorsey, one-time owner of Fisher Island – called the place home. But in the late 1960s, to make travel easier for South Floridians, we razed most of those homes and businesses, essentially decimating Overtown, so we could build a massive highway interchange for what would become I-95 and the Dolphin Expressway.

In West Coconut Grove, another historically black neighborhood, Miami operated a trash-burning incinerator for 45 years until it was shut down as a public nuisance by court order in 1970. Today, “Old Smokey” has been repainted as the city’s Fire-Rescue Training Center. This summer, two professors from the University of Miami warned of potential toxic health risks from the still-untested site and called upon the city of Miami to examine the contamination and monitor the health of local residents and schoolchildren. 

I always tell my kids that history is one of the most important subjects they’ll learn in school because it will prevent them from repeating our past mistakes. 

Mistakes like dumping on disempowered communities when it suits the needs of the white majority or wealthy minority.

Apparently, Miami decision-makers skipped that class.

In the same predominantly black, low-income neighborhood where we used to turn our trash into carcinogenic chemicals, the city is allowing a private developer to build a depot and maintenance garage for Coral Gables trolleys. Surrounded by an eight-foot wall decorated with Bahamian shutters to pay “homage to the West Grove’s heritage,” the trolley garage is near completion in the 3300 block of Douglas Road despite opposition from West Grove homeowners associations, the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance, Miami Neighborhoods United and The Coconut Grove Village Council.

Even more insulting: The free trolley doesn’t even service the neighborhood or have a stop near it – that luxury is reserved for Gables residents on the other side of U.S. 1.

The trolley depot is part of a land swap orchestrated by The Astor Companies and Coral Gables so Astor can build a luxury, 10-story, mixed-used condo tower along Le Jeune Road, where the current depot is located. Gables agreed to the condos on the site if Astor built a new home for its trolleys elsewhere.

Everybody thought the West Grove would make a nice garage until residents got their act together and filed a lawsuit. A Miami-Dade circuit judge sided with the West Grove emotionally, but told residents he could do nothing because they hadn’t properly followed the city’s murky appeals process, Miami Herald writer Jenny Staletovich reported this month

“They are disenfranchising you,” Judge Ronald Dresnick told 30 of the residents after he ruled in favor of the city of Miami and Astor developer Henry Torres. 

It’s true that all the required permits and approvals have been acquired. The developer has even agreed to donate $200,000 to improve fields in the West Grove’s Armbrister Park. 

But that does little to help West Grove homeowners like Dorothy Henry, who retired last year after working 46 years as a secretary at Miami Children’s Hospital and raised five children in her pink house that now sits just a few feet from the nearly-completed garage.

The letter of the law has been followed. But, as the March on Washington demonstrated 50 years ago this week, some laws deserve to be changed.