When you are in downtown Miami and turn northwest on Flagler Street to Second Avenue, on the east side you’ll see Robert McKnight’s grand-scale art installations at 3 MiamiCentral, 161 NW Sixth Street.
The transformational, transit-oriented MiamiCentral spans six city blocks in Overtown featuring Brightline’s Miami express train station that connects to Metromover, Metrorail, and soon Tri-Rail.
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The enormous MiamiCentral development dwarfs remaining landmarks in the adjacent Historic Overtown Folklife Village/Entertainment District, none more than five stories high: Greater Bethel AME Church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Ebenezer Church, Masonic Lodge, the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse, International Longshoreman’s Hall #1416, Dorsey House, Ward Rooming House, Judge L. E. Thomas’ office, Dr. S. H. Johnson’s X-Ray Clinic, Lyric Theater, Clyde Killens Pool Hall and Recreational Center, and The Dunns Josephine Hotel.
By 1953, these landmarks were in full operation when 3-year-old McKnight and his family moved from Kingstree, South Carolina, to Miami, where they lived in the Coconut Grove and Richmond Heights neighborhoods. He graduated from Killian High School, studied painting in Kendall, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University and studied sculpture in London at the Sir John Cass School of Art.
Returning to Miami, McKnight became known for major public artworks such as wood collage panels at the North County Health Center, mosaic murals at the Pinnacle Park Apartment Complex, an environmental work at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church and a porcelain tile mosaic at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
McKnight’s Overtown artwork at MiamiCentral is intended to enhance the east-west pedestrian connection through the neighborhood linking the Overtown Transit Village and the Historic Overtown/Lyric Theater Metrorail Station.
“The general theme is a tribute to the Overtown neighborhood from the beat of the drum to the wail of the horn augmented by the soul music derived from the local church choirs,” McKnight said.
“Elements collaged into the work include jazz singers and musicians, instruments, billboards and classic show cards as well as iconic buildings, churches and items symbolic of the jazz era,” he said
A vibrant collage of images, McKnight’s installations can be seen on the south, west and north exteriors of MiamiCentral. The far end of the collage depicts a mother and child looking toward the poem that promotes respect for elders and honors ancestors, “Manifest Destiny — Ode to Overtown,” by Femi Folami-Browne.
At MiamiCentral, retail and dining venues, including a food hall, make up an expansive promenade surrounding two residential towers with 800 apartments collectively, known as Park-Line MiamiCentral.
The site is the southern terminus for Brightline, the new inter-city express passenger rail service that runs 16 trains daily between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Service to Orlando is scheduled by 2021.
The development by Florida East Coast Industries reimagines Miami’s Central Business District by offering a first-of its-kind lifestyle destination for transit, dining, entertainment, living and business.
Visiting the area, local pioneers may recall the same Second Avenue corridor that was once the center of Miami’s Colored Town, the cradle of business and culture created by the black community. Historically segregated by custom and law, it was designated by the city as “the Central Negro District,” but affectionately called “Little Broadway” and the “Harlem Renaissance of the South.” Now it is known as Historic Overtown and welcomes everyone.
In the past, businesses on both sides of the avenue included the Dorsey Hotel located at 941; the Mary Elizabeth between Seventh and Sixth streets; and the Lord Calvert (later renamed the Sir John) at 216 NW Sixth St. The nightclubs at the Mary Elizabeth and Lord Calvert/Sir John hotels were entertainment hot spots.
From the 1940s to the late 1960s, hotels throughout the neighborhood were filled year round with tourists and residents in search of celebrities, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and gospel music. Seasoned performers including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Count Basie and teen idols including Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Etta James were among the favorites.
Now, the performers, teen idols and hotels are memorialized in print and social media. Empty lots replace the Dorsey and Mary Elizabeth hotels. A U.S. Post Office branch is located on the Sir John Hotel site.
In October 2017, Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon led the unveiling of a sign co-designating Northwest Sixth Street from North Miami to Seventh avenues honoring Garth C. Reeves, publisher and editor emeritus of the Miami Times.
Reeves, Overtown’s favorite son for over 70 years, participated in race issues that helped shape Miami.
“Florida East Coast Industries and Brightline made the pre-development commitment to the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency that their project would reflect and respect the rich culture of Overtown,” said Cornelius Shiver, executive director of the Southeast Overtown CRA. “I am proud of their decision on commissioning Robert McKnight and look forward to partnering with FECI on future collaborations.”
Said Daniel Quintana, vice president of Florida East Coast Industries:
“We’re honored to feature Robert McKnight’s art and thrilled with the collection. Mr. McKnight is a fixture in the community and MiamiCentral is an integral partner bringing a new lifestyle destination complete with transportation services to this vibrant downtown.”