Can The Tech Industry Revitalize Historically Black Neighborhoods?
"Bullet holes everywhere," reads a review of Arena Square apartments in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. "Five murders in front or next door of the building. Drug dealers have keys to the gate — provided by the building manager. The roaches will rob you."
Just blocks away from this apartment building, David Beckham wants to build a $225M soccer stadium. To the south, a massive hotel/conference center/transit hub is going up. Nearby, Miami River is becoming trendy enough to earn a profile in the New York Times.
If you are thinking now might be a good time to invest in Overtown, three developers have essentially bought up all the land. And yes, they have submitted it for consideration for Amazon's HQ2.
Like countless predominantly black neighborhoods across the U.S., Overtown has had a rich history, a steep decline and now is poised for gentrification. As developers promise to honor its past and provide a bright and inclusive future, neighborhoods must grapple with the complicated present — and how to get from Point A to Point B.
In Miami, there is a lot of hope riding on tech-based public-private partnerships.
That is especially evident this week, aka Black Tech Week, which kicks off Wednesday. The six-day "minority-centric ecosystem-building festival" features panels and networking opportunities. It highlights how technology is being touted as a solution to societal ills in black neighborhood as much as in white ones.
"This is an area we're really focused on," said Philip Bacon, Executive Director of Urban Philanthropies, a community foundation that is active in trying to revitalize Overtown.
Bacon said "lean entrepreneurship" could be a game-changer. He said that by providing certificate training programs — like ones on ethical hacking for cybersecurity testers or A+ programming for IT professionals — then connecting private companies and capital with skilled workers and forward-thinking business people, such initiatives can "cut the distance between where we are, where we need to go and where we are capable of going."
Overtown's history goes back to the turn of the 20th century, when workers were needed to extend Henry Flagler's railroad to Florida's southern tip, so blacks were recruited from up north. They were not allowed to stay on the barrier island of Miami Beach, though, and were relegated westward, to the area then called "Colored Town."
When not enough white men would vote to incorporate Miami as a city, these black workers were relied upon, providing about one-third of the necessary votes — only to later be disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws. One railroad worker, D.A. Dorsey, saw the need to house his colleagues. He acquired homes and rented them out, eventually becoming known as one of America's first black millionaires.
Overtown's Main Street became known as “Little Broadway,” anchored by the 400-seat Lyric Theater, where stars like Bo Diddley and Aretha Franklin performed. The neighborhood was home to a traveling Negro Baseball League team, the Ethiopian Clowns. Just up the road, a famous photo shows Malcolm X behind the bar of the Hampton House motel, snapping a picture of Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali, on the legendary night he defeated Sonny Liston.
In 1958, a then-29-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Greater Bethel AME Church in Overtown to promote voting rights.
“We must and we will be free,” King said that day. “We want freedom now. We want the right to vote now. We do not want freedom fed to us in teaspoons over another 150 years.”
He warned that the arc of history was long, but decades later, it still had not bent toward justice in Overtown. "Progress" came in the form of highways. Two of them, actually: north-south Interstate 95 and east-west I-395, which walled off Overtown and allowed travelers to bypass it, helping to ruin its economy.
The Lyric Theater closed in 1960. Drugs hit hard in the 1970s and '80s. The Jewish elderly who had more or less settled Miami Beach were flummoxed when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and sent the criminals to Florida, an event known as the Mariel boatlift, which changed Miami forever and inspired the movie "Scarface."
Don Johnson, star of 1980s TV series "Miami Vice," said, "When I got off the plane to do the pilot, you could feel the pressure cooker of violence in the air. We were shooting the pilot in a house down in Liberty City/Overtown. And the  Miami riots broke out. We had to shut down production because they were afraid for our lives."
Miami, and especially Overtown, languished. Over the years, efforts were made to turn things around. A Community Redevelopment Agency developed a comprehensive plan in 1982 and subsequently updated it. The Lyric Theater was acquired in 1988 and eventually opened again in 2000. Community activists created Black Archives and got several sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. New projects in the works, including those Arena Square apartments, promised to make the neighborhood a multiracial, mixed-income, thriving area.
Though some projects did get built — the CRA touts 1,200 affordable housing units and $15M in infrastructure and historic preservation projects — there were still endemic challenges: The neighborhood is considered "ground zero" for Miami's heroin epidemic. The average household income is around $20K. The crime rate is 150% above the national average.
Despite all this, its rough streets and colorful donks have made it a point of pride in the hip-hop world.
"Change happens slowly and is dependent upon the market and availability of capital," Bacon wrote in a 2014 Miami Herald editorial. "Private interests drive redevelopment."
The market after the housing crash made some developers see opportunity. Just south of Overtown came plans for the massive $1.7B Miami Worldcenter. Now under construction, it will feature a convention center, hotel, retail, apartments and a station for the new private Brightline train. The project could receive $108M in rebates from the CRA if it hires a third of its workforce from Overtown at minimum salaries.
Seeing the Worldcenter taking shape and the CRA's continued commitment, Michael Simkins, son of the late Miami paper-products manufacturer and philanthropist Leon Simkins, began buying Overtown properties, spending about $25M.
In an adjacent area to the east called Park West — it falls under the same CRA as Overtown — Simkins spent $100M. He proposed a "Miami Innovation District" that could include 7M SF of office space, retail and apartments, plus a 633-foot LED billboard that would flash advertisements. He said he would bring 700 permanent jobs to Overtown residents.
All this investment spiked land prices, which went from $80 to $150 per SF in two years. Some community members, feeling squeezed, began to organize against the gentrification. In 2015, an arsonist set a bulldozer on fire.
In the meantime, Simkins, a supporter of Black Tech Week, has helped local businesses get off the ground. In a former Freemason Lodge, at 937 NW Third Ave., he is letting two black entrepreneurs, Felicia Hatcher and Derick Pearson, set up a co-working space, Tribe Co-Work & Urban Innovation Lab, in one of his buildings and house their formerly transient coding academy, Code Fever. It is rent-free for five years, though Hatcher and Pearson got a $352K grant from the CRA to to assist with renovating the 8,200 SF building.
Simkins also helped a minority-owned restaurant, Lil Greenhouse Grill, to open. It doubles as a social gathering spot, with events like spoken-word poetry, and got a great review from the Hungry Black Man blog, part of that emerging tech ecosystem.
Others are getting involved too. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has planned a supper club. On the tech front, a downtown company called Digital Grass is giving women and minorities access to mentors and investors. A new CRA director has vowed to rehabilitate parks and bring homeownership opportunities to the residents of Overtown.
But getting in now could be hard. As Simkins told The Real Deal in December, “Miami Worldcenter [Associates], us and Brightline own 90% of the land, so there’s really nothing available in that area [to buy], I would say.”
The article described a "buzzkill" for developers, because with residents only able to afford far-below-market rates, investors could not possibly hope to recoup rents anytime soon.
Whatever ultimately happens in Overtown — it remains to be seen whether a soccer stadium (which is facing a legal challenge), an Amazon headquarters, an East Coast tech hub or anything else will ever rise — Bacon for now is focused on the Miami 1000, an effort to secure 1,000 jobs in the city. As part of Black Tech Week, it will have companies like Home Depot and Pollo Tropical on site this week, hiring on the spot.
The Miami 1000 is one piece of the Global 1000; basically the same model is being repeated in cities around the U.S. The idea started after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago.
One of Bacon's co-leaders, Lance McCarthy, who rose to prominence after Ferguson, acknowledged that there are still significant gaps between children who grew up in Overtown with scarce resources and underperforming schools and the needs of major companies.
"We have strategies at all three levels," McCarthy said, meaning entry-level workers who need job training and résumé help, a second tier of educated workers who need connections and a class of entrepreneurs whose greatest need is access to capital.
He acknowledged the enormity of what is still needed, saying his work covers everything from free haircuts and business suits for job seekers to initiatives that help blacks own their own homes and thus achieve financial security.
He sounded confident that, with the right attitudes and input from the private sector, success could be achieved and replicated in cities around the world.
"We have a comprehensive plan," he said.