When Ebenezer Methodist Church was transformed into a community center back in 2015, Overtown residents were still not sure what purpose the building could serve.
A banquet hall? An office space? Nearly two years later, the space was designated for good — the Overtown Performing Arts Center, or OPAC.
At OPAC’s grand opening Friday night, around 150 guests gathered in jubilation. They wore “I Love OPAC” stickers, sampled local fare from Overtown eateries like Jackson’s Soul Food and listened to the stylings of afro-punk artist April Raquel and D.J. Tillery James.
They mingled, danced and talked about how OPAC is “bringing the magic back” to a neighborhood that struggled.
The historically African-American neighborhood’s issues are generally attributed to the 1960s, when Interstate 95 (and later, Interstate 395) were laid down between Overtown and Liberty City and forced thousands out of their homes.
Few stayed behind after the divide. Businesses closed up shop and families moved to different parts of Miami-Dade — Richmond Heights, Brownsville, Allapattah, Liberty City and parts of North Dade.
“It went on a decline,” said Suzan McDowell, who does the marketing for OPAC. “Now what we’re trying to do is put a bunch of things in place. That means that it’s bringing the magic back.”
The outside still resembles the church’s design from 1948, but inside is much more modern. The intimate 2,000-square-foot space holds about 240 people and includes a stage, a sound system and a fully functioning commercial kitchen.
McDowell said her team aims to host dance performances, a summer brunch jazz series and even an old-school R&B concert. In order to encourage programming, Overtown residents get a special rate for hosting events at a venue that “is already cheap as is,” McDowell said.
McDowell said the space harkens back to the glory days of Overtown, which was then a segregated neighborhood dubbed “Colored Town.”
Then, Bahamian musicians played Calypso on Fifth Place, children swam in the Dixie Pool, and Northwest Second and Third Avenues housed theaters and popular nightclubs, which were dubbed “Harlem of the South.” Performers like Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Louie Armstrong came to Overtown after playing shows in Miami Beach.
Lynda Harris currently lives in Hallandale Beach but grew up in “Old Overtown.” Teary-eyed, she called OPAC a “rebirth” of culture in the community.
“I’m over the moon,” Harris, 53, said, sipping a cocktail. “When it became associated as a bad place, it was heartbreaking.”
OPAC is a product of the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), led by Miami Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon. The CRA has focused its efforts on turning the neighborhood into a vibrant, safe, attractive community.
“Overtown used to be the place to be,” Hardemon said. “I want to make it the place to be again. I want people to feel comfortable coming here instead of just passing through.”
Funding for OPAC’s construction and restoration came from $3.5 million of CRA money and about $900,000 in federal money from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The CRA is expected to stay in the community until about 2030, Hardemon said.
“I don’t see funds coming to an end in this neighborhood,” he said. “Our CRA is one of the best in the country.”
Neil Shiver, assistant director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West CRA, said the funds are meant to help OPAC “get off its feet” but hopes it will become self sufficient and even produce revenue for the CRA down the line.
“It’s a small investment if we get a return,” he said. “Our vision is to not only revive Overtown but revive the cultural and entertainment district. There’s always more to do.”