Miami's Historically Black Neighborhood Is Poised to Gentrify Like Harlem
The neighborhood of Overtown, in Miami, was once called the "Harlem of the South," as celebrities like Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald used to perform and vacation there, because they weren't allowed to stay on Miami Beach and were relegated to "Colored Town."
Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. all had big moments there. But the area was bisected by highways during urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and '60s, and poverty, racism and drugs kept the area economically depressed for decades.
In recent years, developers have bought up much of the land, which lies just west of Downtown Miami, where luxury towers have been rising, with the aim to redevelop it. The latest: celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is opening a restaurant, Red Rooster, an outpost of his Harlem brand. The entrance of a trendy, nationally known entity marks a shift for the neighborhood, but it has also raised concerns about gentrification.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, separated from his family during a civil war, and adopted by Swedes. He moved to New York and opened several restaurants, including Red Rooster in Harlem, renowned for offering "global soul food" that draws from Southern, East African, Scandinavian and French flavors. He was named best chef in the city by the James Beard Foundation in 2003, and hosts the PBS TV show No Passport Required.
Samuelsson's business partner, Derek Fleming, managed a $60M fund that focused on a revitalization in Harlem before teaming up with the chef there. Fleming told Bisnow he met Miami developer Michael Simkins, who had been on a years-long buying spree in Overtown, and came to understand how the neighborhood, with its rich history and culture, had parallels to Harlem.
"It connected for us as being the 'Harlem of the South,' so it was a natural story for us to breathe into," Fleming said.
Partnering with Simkins and Grove Bay Hospitality Group, which operates trendy Miami restaurants like Root & Bone and Stubborn Seed, Fleming and Samuelsson acquired a former pool hall and are creating a two-story, 209-seat restaurant and supper club dubbed Red Rooster Overtown.
The Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency authorized the sale of the building for $1.5M and kicked in $1M for renovations through a community revitalization grant.
"This is one of the last institutions that survived the demise of business in Overtown, the demolition of old crack dens," Fleming said.
The restaurant will feature live music nights, an outdoor patio and private dining rooms. Food will include favorites from the Harlem locale and new plates inspired by Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cuisines. The New York menu advertises a $25 hamburger and $10 doughnut holes.
"It's a really exciting time in Overtown," Simkins, who is white, said. "We started investing in Overtown in 2012."
In 2015, Simkins told The Real Deal, “When we started purchasing land, it was in the $20 a square foot range. It is now approaching $150 a square foot.”
He's still going: In a land swap in December, Simkins acquired 14 Overtown properties for a mixed-use village.
Other developers have followed. A group led by soccer star David Beckham bought county land in Overtown for $9M for a stadium, and though the stadium idea fell through, the partners have said they still plan to develop the site. A billionaire investor, Sarkis Izmirlian, bought a 3K SF Overtown convenience store for $6.6M in December, according to The Real Deal. That's $2,200 per SF.
Over the past 15 years, with a lot of from help from the CRA, multiple Overtown housing projects have been built or rehabbed. Properties like the Lyric Theater and the Dunns Josephine Hotel, decorated to honor notable African Americans in history, have been renovated. In June, the CRA approved a master plan for a "Historic Overtown Culture and Entertainment District," developed by Perkins and Will, to re-establish Overtown as Miami’s center for black culture, entertainment and entrepreneurship.
Metris Batts, marketing director for the Dunns Josephine Hotel, said that the 15-room hotel had been in the works since 2014. It combines two historic properties, the Dunns Hotel and the Josephine Hotel. It did a soft opening late last year, and will have a grand opening soon.
The landlord is a local black family, Batts said, and hotel owner Kristin Kitchen, who has a bed-and-breakfast in Cincinnati, is committing to buy supplies like soap from locals and to hire staff from a local workforce agency. Kitchen hopes to expand her company, Southern Heritage Accommodations, to additional cities.
"Our goal is to open other properties themed on their retrospective communities," Batts said.
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Simkins and the CRA have provided space and funds for new and black-owned businesses such as Lil Greenhouse Grill, Tribe coworking and the Overtown Marketplace (also called The Urban).
More changes are on tap: Harlem Square, a supper club and lounge concept, has been floated by Headliner Market Group, an upscale nightlife company that runs a hip-hop night at Liv at the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. On Feb. 26, the Overtown Youth Center will hold a groundbreaking for a new building, an initiative promoted by former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and Tracy Wilson Mourning.
But gentrification has been a growing concern among Overtown residents, where the median income hovers around $20K per year. When the CRA's contribution to Red Rooster was announced, some locals complained that the money would have been better spent on needy locals than affluent out-of-towners. Luther Campbell warned in a news column, "If we are not careful, there won’t be any black people left in Miami."
There's also the question of whether the customer base exists for new businesses to succeed. Simkins had helped bring Lil Greenhouse Grill to Overtown in 2017, to great acclaim. (Oprah recently trekked out of her way to eat there.) But according to the Miami Herald, in 2018, Simkins swapped the building for a vacant parcel of land owned by a church, and the new owners won't renew the lease. The restaurant owed nearly $13K in back rent.
Simkins said that he personally hadn't encountered much blowback about gentrification or fears of residents being displaced.
"Where we are [between Eighth and 11th streets and between NW First and NW Sixth avenues] there's a lot of vacant land. Buildings have been demolished," he said. "Overtown used to have 60,000 residents; there are like 7,000 or 8,000 now, so there is such an ability to add density, to have businesses, and the CRA is one of the most successful in the country. They have the resources. They can keep everyone there."
If the CRA continues to help develop low-income and workforce housing, Simkins says he can help businesses with low rents.
"Me and my family feel very lucky to help with the revitalization and be a stakeholder, to be a steward of the history and try to make good decisions," he said.
He said that many Overtown stakeholders want to see organic development, not generic retail. He's not pursuing zoning beyond the 12-story max that is permitted, and is even happy to keep to three stories. It will take years and coordination, but "this can work as a win-win for everyone."
Red Rooster's Fleming was aware of concerns about gentrification.
"There's going to be some things that change. What we focus on is what we can control," Fleming said. "This institution will always honor the diaspora and the richness of that community, whatever happens around the corner and on the next block."
Batts compared Overtown to Coconut Grove, parts of which have gentrified while other parts remain a working-class black community. At her hotel, there are people coming in to ask if rooms can be rented by the hour (no!), but also, "the white lady walking her little dog is starting to come." She said the neighborhood is becoming quite eclectic, rattling off a list of businesses including the black-owned Copper Door bed-and-breakfast and Jackson's Soul Food, and said that people should come see for themselves.
"It's a flagship for what can be done in communities across the country," she said. "People walk by and they go, 'Thumbs up!'"