Miami's Overtown: blacks fight inequality to revive community

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The sweet aroma of spareribs rises from the barbecue stand on the front porch of the old wooden duplex and wafts across the sandy lot that serves as a front yard. An old avocado tree shades part of the lot, where two dogs lie sleeping in the sand.

Ann-Marie Adker, wearing faded jeans and an orange T-shirt, sits on her porch with two friends. She is known around here as the ''mayor'' of Overtown, one of the city's black neighborhoods. The community was one of those closed to outsiders by police barricades last week during two nights of sporadic violence by a small percentage of Miami's blacks.

Viewed from Mrs. Adker's porch, the neighborhood is a friendly place.

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And as it turned out, the community remained fairly calm during the scattered looting and rock-throwing in various parts of the city that followed Thursday's acquittal of a Miami police officer who shot and killed an Overtown youth, Nevell Johnson Jr., in December 1982 in a video game room a few blocks away.

Now, as life returns to its routine here, Mrs. Adker and other residents of Overtown tell about some of the daily challenges they face . . . as well as some of the good things about their community.

''We're like the hole in the doughnut,'' she says.

Overtown, no more than a dozen blocks long and five to 10 blocks wide at different points, is practically surrounded by major construction, including expressways and downtown office buildings.

This is ''valuable land,'' Mrs. Adker says.

Two interstate highways were thrust through the heart of Overtown in the 1960 s, forcing thousands of people in the neighborhood to move out. Later came urban renewal projects, replacing old homes and apartments. Some people here think of it as urban expulsion. More new apartments are planned, including some where Mrs. Adker's home sits.

Last December, in a special section of the Miami Herald entitled ''The Isolation of Black Miami,'' two writers had this observation on the effects of the highways and urban renewal on Overtown:

''When it was finished, what had been the soul of southeast Florida's black community, a center of learning, commerce, and society, had all vanished.''

Today, people like Mrs. Adker are trying to revive what is left of their community.

It is not an easy task. Unemployment is very high - estimates begin at 35 percent. And the rate is much higher for youth. Many women are raising children alone. There are no longer any movie theaters, supermarkets, hardware stores, or dry-cleaning plants. There is no local medical clinic, and beds at the nearby hospital are often filled. There is no high school; students are bused to other neighborhoods. People pay for taxis or for a jitney; some pay friends to take them to a supermarket several miles away.

Yet, says Irby McKnight, ''It's really not a bad neighborhood.''

People know each other and help each other, he says. If someone is hungry or ill or in other need, even if they live alone, they soon are helped, he says. ''We see everybody every day or ask where they are,'' he explains.

Many residents work outside the neighborhood as computer specialists, dental assistants, teachers, and in other trades and professions, Mr. McKnight says. But light industry and effective job-training programs are needed here to provide opportunities for the many who lack jobs and skills, he says. Most of the jobless want very much to work, he says.

Marvin Brown, the other person on Mrs. Adker's porch this warm afternoon, says the people of Overtown are, for the most part, ''law-abiding citizens, voters.''

Both young men are currently trying to launch a business selling silk-screened T-shirts. They already sell glass- and ivory-bead necklaces. Both used to work for a government youth-training and cultural program which is practically ended.

Mr. Brown says he goes job-hunting three days a week - so far without success.

Both men were out on the streets trying to keep things calm during last week's disturbances. They and Mrs. Adker praised police for not overreacting, in most cases. But they say police intimidation - officers riding with shotguns pointing out open windows or through cracked rear doors - could easily have stirred up more violent reactions than it did.

They speak fondly of the day team of the Miami police assigned to their neighborhood. ''They're firm, but they're human first,'' McKnight says. He is far less happy with the night police team.

Ernest Woody, 19, calls Overtown ''a bad place to raise anybody.'' He moved here six years ago. ''The first thing I learned . . . was how to fight,'' he says.

Chris Norton, a new resident, says Cuban-Americans and blacks get along well in Overtown. And a small number of whites also live here.

On this afternoon, a group of youths are playing basketball in a local park. Women stand in groups talking in front of their apartments as children play nearby.

Overhead, motorists whiz by on the interstates, catching only fleeting glances of the world of Overtown.

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