Technology

In a long-neglected Miami neighborhood, a new co-working space stirs to life

Is Lotus Village, the new $25 million shelter for women and kids in Overtown, the nation's best?

The new $25 million Lotus Village shelter for homeless women and children, funded in full by private donors, is now open in Overtown.
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The new $25 million Lotus Village shelter for homeless women and children, funded in full by private donors, is now open in Overtown.

You may have heard of food deserts — usually urban areas where the closest full-service grocery store is miles away.

In 2018, inner-city neighborhoods face an equally pressing problem, according to Felecia Hatcher: "innovation deserts."

Hatcher is the co-founder of Code Fever, a Miami-based nonprofit group dedicated to supporting tech skills in minority communities.

But teaching someone how to code only takes them so far, she says. In order to truly get an idea off the ground, you need a place from which to launch it.

In February, Hatcher opened the doors to Space Called Tribe (or simply, Tribe), a new co-working space in Overtown, one of Miami's most famous historically black neighborhoods.

After a long period of neglect, Overtown is starting to gentrify. While some residents remain concerned about what the long-term future of the neighborhood might look like, Tribe is being welcomed. A co-working space provides professionals of any stripe with desk space from which to work or run their business, as well as amenities like coffee and WiFi connection to the Internet — all at a price much lower than what's found in commercial real estate.

"For so long, there was not very much here for us," said longtime Overtown resident and activist Jackie Bell. "Now we have an opportunity that will allow us to bring in young African Americans, along with all kinds of other people."

On a recent Friday — when Tribe is free for anyone to use — Phalange Brutus, 37, a networks coordinator for the nonprofit group Catalyst Miami, was seated at one of the space's co-working desks. Although Miami leads the nation in the number of co-working spaces on a density basis, Brutus noted that none had opened in a neighborhood like Overtown.

"Representation is important," he said. "And this kind of space is going to have a spillover effect in the community."

Brutus, who is black, was seated across from colleague Camilo Mejia, who is Hispanic.

"You can be from any race, any religion [and join Tribe]," Mejia said. "You can be running a business, be into policy advocacy, technology — it's a very welcoming space."

Having a permanent space in a historically black neighborhood was a natural evolution of the community engagement work Hatcher and her partner, Derick Pearson, had been doing out of co-working spaces in Miami Beach, she said. In addition to Code Fever, the pair also run Blacktech Week, a tech conference for African Americans that started out as an annual event in Miami and has expanded to include Blacktech weekends throughout the country.

Tribe is the physical embodiment of their mission to create opportunities for under-served communities—something the city's burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem has been "extremely limited" in getting around to, Hatcher said.

"If you look at the cohorts, look at most websites, you ask yourself why they look like that — when the black community represents 20 percent of the population in South Florida," she said.

Low-income Hispanics, too, are being underrepresented among Miami's new entrepreneur class, she says.

"We have to ask ourselves, do we have just a bunch of shiny objects?" she said. "I don't think enough people are being called out about that. Miami is diverse by default, not by intention, and these organizations are not tackling the problem from an intentional standpoint. Maybe they don't think they have to."

Ryan Hall, the manager at Tribe, says data show minority entrepreneurs hire more minorities in their companies. So it was critical to have a place for minority-oriented companies and programming.

"It's about having a space where not only the community but also investors and entrepreneurs can be brought together," he said.

Developer Michael Simkins of Lion Associates, a multimillion-dollar Miami-based conglomerate, is leasing the land where Tribe's two-story building is located rent-free for five years. Simkins is simultaneously presiding over large swaths of Overtown's redevelopment while piloting an "innovation district" downtown adjacent to Miami Worldcenter.

Simkins says the long-term goal for Overtown remains turning it into an arts and entertainment district — one of Harlem's most famous restaurateurs is in talks to bring a restaurant to the Miami neighborhood. Still, Tribe is an essential element of how he sees the neighborhood's growth unfolding.

"We're really looking at working with business owners who have ideas for the neighborhood," he said. "They fit the bill perfectly."

There has still not been an official grand opening ceremony for Tribe, but a handful of businesses have moved their operations to spaces there. One of them is Circle of One, a marketing company owned by entrepreneur Suzan McDowell. Circle represents numerous businesses around South Florida, including the largest black-owned bank in America, OneUnited. After leaving a space in Wynwood, McDowell ran her firm out of her home for two years. She now has six employees working out of Tribe's largest office on its ground floor.

"Tribe offers a hip, cultured, technologically superior and cooperative environment, which blends well with the overall Circle culture," she said.

While Bell, the longtime Overtown resident, is satisfied that businesspeople like McDowell are arriving, she is leery about existing Overtown residents being left out of the neighborhood's revival narrative. There remains debate over guarantees of affordable and workforce housing in new high rises, and Wynwood has begun to encroach on the neighborhood's traditional boundaries.

"They need all of us — we built it, we incorporated it," she said. "If it hadn’t been for black property owners, they might not have been incorporated. We belong here like everybody else."

Hatcher says she is conscious of such concerns.

"It's one of the biggest issues — everyone wanted to be cognizant that it doesn’t change the area and respects the heritage," she said.

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