Buying into Black
KAI WRIGHT: Hey everybody. This is Kai, host of the first season of There Goes the Neighborhood. And I'm here to say: we haven't forgotten about you. We've been hard at work on a collaboration with Miami's public radio station, WLRN, in which we've been looking at the relationship between gentrification and climate change. We made a three-part series for our podcast, The Stakes, and I want to share it with all of you too. So, here's episode two. This time, Sakes Reporter Christopher Johnson takes us into Miami's Liberty City.
I’m Kai Wright and these are The Stakes. In this episode...buying into black.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Alright, so the best place to start, Kai, is by introducing you to somebody.
VALENCIA GUNDER: Us being Miamians, like, we have like, a certain type of accent, right?
CHRISTOPHER: This is Valencia Gunder -- she’s a community activist, native Miamian, absolutely Southern.
VALENCIA: We don't think we country like the rest of the South! [laughs]
CHRISTOPHER: Oh but you are!
VALENCIA: [laughs] Yeah we got a little Southern drawl, but you can’t tell a Miamian we country.
CHRISTOPHER: So Valencia traces her South Florida roots all the way back to her great, great, great grandfather. That’s about the 1870s -- this is before Miami was even a city.
VALENCIA: The other side of my family, which came from the Bahamas, was one of the pioneer families that came to settle here -- actually helped build Miami.
CHRISTOPHER: So South Florida’s first blacks worked pineapple plantations and lime farms and starch mills. They were maids, they were servants, turtle hunters. They chopped through the mangrove swamps and forced their way down into stubborn coral rock, building luxury hotels and sea walls to protect them from the ocean. These were black hands Kai, building South Florida, making it so.
VALENCIA: My grandmother -- or, my great grandmother -- actually remembers being here in Liberty City when it was just her house sitting on a dirt road.
CHRISTOPHER: So Valencia -- who was born in the mid-80s -- she grew up in Liberty City, and she lives there now. And I, man, I could listen to her talk all day about her hometown.
VALENCIA: My grandma would force us to go outside because she didn’t like us in front of the TV all the time. We didn’t have to go in for lunch because the fruit trees -- like me and my friends used to literally get a bowl and we would go get all these fruits and peel them and put them in a bowl like seven of us sit around the bowl and we eat. And like, having the fish man -- after he go catch all this fish -- coming to my grandma house, selling her 10 fresh snappers. Like, that was Liberty City.
CHRISTOPHER: So there’s something else really special about Liberty City and other nearby neighborhoods. In the last episode, we talked about how -- although Miami to the naked eye is pretty flat -- there’s actually a limestone ridge that runs north-south through the area. Liberty City is up on that ridge, just like Little Haiti, its neighbor to the east. And like Valencia says, “we sit higher than everybody else.”
VALENCIA: So I always talk about my grandfathers and my grandmothers because they played such a major part in my life.
CHRISTOPHER: Valencia’s family foresaw a future where the fate of Liberty City and that of folks on the coast would one day intertwine.
VALENCIA: So my grandfather -- he always would talk to us and like, they gonna come steal our communities because it don't flood. Like I remember him saying this as a young child. Like that was common knowledge in Liberty City for MANY years. They didn't know the science. They just knew and understood that when flooding happens everywhere else, it don't flood over here. And they knew that that was going to be one of the triggers for them to come take our communities.
KAI: Wow, and that’s such clear language -- “take our communities.” So they were talking about gentrification in that way, even back then?
CHRISTOPHER: She’s kind of talking about something else -- and so when I started digging into this question of how climate change and gentrification would impact neighborhoods like Liberty City, I ran into this concern over and over again -- not just that we would be priced out, but that we might actually get picked up and moved to the side. And maybe it sounds a little… paranoid? But for black Miami in particular, when you bring up this idea of being pushed off land…
KAI: Like physically pushed?
CHRISTOPHER: Physically pushed. Like, suddenly and en masse, everybody’s got to get up and go, there is one very real event that everybody wants to talk about.
[Old timey music]
OVERTOWN IN THE MAKING DOCUMENTARY: The Overtown of years ago was a community striving. Had lots of businesses, had 50,000 residents. Overtown was 5th Street to 21st Terrace, and from railroad to railroad.
CHRISTOPHER: This is from a documentary that’s called “Overtown In The Making.”
OVERTOWN IN THE MAKING DOCUMENTARY: This place was – you had wall to wall stores. We had three movie theaters, the Carver Hotel was right there on that corner. Everything that you needed to live, work and have fun…
CHRISTOPHER: Like the rest of Miami, Overtown begins in the wilderness of Biscayne Bay. Starting in the 1890s, dozens of black laborers were hired to clear mangrove swamps and break through coral rock, making a path for the railroad.
NAOMI ROLLE: Biscayne Boulevard was all palmetto bushes. It was nothing.
CHRISTOPHER: Naomi and Agnes Rolle’s father was a Bahamian migrant who helped turn this wilderness into a destination city that would be called Miami.
NAOMI: And he worked out there with the machete, cutting palmetto bushes, in order to get Biscayne Boulevard built.
AGNES ROLLE: We are rooted in that community. We built Miami. Our folks built Miami.
CHRISTOPHER: The earliest workers lived in camps, and those camps morphed into a place first called Colored Town (and sometimes worse) and then - Overtown. And that’s where the Rolle sisters are from. It’s where their father built many of the homes. Including the one that they grew up in.
AGNES: And my father and his mother built that house together, you know, with their own two hands. It was our pride and joy.
CHRISTOPHER: By the 1920s and 30s, Overtown becomes a bonafide little city. It's got Black churches. Black Nightclubs. Celebrities. . And just - regular folks.
KAI: And in fact many of those celebrities would’ve been in town to entertain white people over in Miami Beach and other neighborhoods…
KAI: …but segregation of course forced them to stay in the black neighborhoods when off stage. And this is a familiar story for black communities all over the country, right? I mean ironically, segregation is part of what created such dynamic black neighborhoods -- in Harlem, in Pittsburgh, and Chicago, and even around the South, in places like Overtown.
MARVIN DUNN: It would have been a magical walk down 2nd Avenue in 1930, 1935.
CHRISTOPHER: Marvin Dunn is a historian who’s done a lot of research on Miami’s origin story.
MARVIN: You'd smell fish frying. You'd smell chitlins cooking. You'd see children playing. You'd see old men playing checkers and drinking beer. You'd see a lot of folks sitting out on their porches just taking in the sights along the avenue. You'd see men in zoot suits. You didn't come down on the Avenue after work unless you had showered and shaved and put on your coat and tie. You'd see women dressed in the finest fashion that you'd see in Broadway.
CHRISTOPHER: So Kai, Overtown was the place to be.
CHRISTOPHER: Right? But alongside all of this -- and as the larger city of Miami becomes this glitzy tourist and celebrity destination, we can’t lose sight of that -- there’s a whole other side of Overtown.
MARVIN: If you went just one or two blocks away from all of the glitter, you had misery and crowded conditions and dangerous conditions with the wooden houses that were built so close together that presented such a threat with fires and what have you.
KAI: Right, but still, what I’m hearing is a very familiar black story. On one hand it’s , cut off from opportunity and capital, where people are being bled by slumlords. But at the same time it’s a community where people are making their own space and their own way inside that ghetto, despite everything.
CHRISTOPHER: Mm exactly. And by the way, black families who dared to move out to other parts of Miami, to parts that weren’t designated for black people outside of black neighborhoods -- they faced harassment, fire bombing and sometimes much worse. And then came urban renewal.
OLD DOCUMENTARY: Urban renewal, prompted because of the interstate system…
CHRISTOPHER: The national highway system is expanding, and Miami wants in.
OLD DOCUMENTARY: Tenement neighborhoods and blighted commercial districts replaced by modern communities. All bringing a new face to the American cityscape.
CHRISTOPHER: The city wants to bring Interstate 95 through downtown. So the first plan they draft is to run it through Miami’s commercial district, but business leaders say no way.
CHRISTOPHER: Instead the city opts for plan B, to build 95 right through the heart of Overtown. So they start making offers to homeowners in their path, including families like The Rolle's.
AGNES: When they were first talking about the I-95 project and Dad, you know, my dad used to say, I ain’t sellin my house. Like you know he didn't, they didn't want to do it.
MARVIN: The black community was opposed to the interstate coming down 7th Avenue. We knew that meant it was going to destroy most of Overtown. And that's exactly what happened. Blacks had no political power when these decisions were being made. And the white power structure had all of the power.
CHRISTOPHER: This is exactly what happened to the Rolle family, Kai. They had no choice. So like tens of thousands of their neighbors, they packed up their life, and they moved, landing in Liberty City.
AGNES: He was depressed from the time he left Overtown until the time he died. He was depressed.
CHRISTOPHER: Kai, I cannot overstate how atomic I-95 was for black Miami . Even just now talking about it, I get a little upset. It was a massive marching of black folks up and out of a community that was theirs. They built it -- a community that was started, by the way, by the same people who first cleared the land, built the sea walls and the roads and the hotels that became Miami. This neighborhood belonged to their descendants, who became disposable. Overtown had been home to more than 50 thousand Miamians. When it was all over, less than ten thousand were left.
KAI: Because Valencia’s grandfather was right. They will come and they will take our land, and if they want it, they can do it.
VALENCIA: So a lot of families -- especially pioneer families that had settled in Overtown -- they still talk about how much they lost. Like their family was building there, their homes. And I mean, it's like blatantly disrespectful because the highway literally goes straight through – you know, dead smack dab in the middle of black communities. And Miami just does an over the top job of – I guess doing the most. Like, Miami just bulldozed through.
MARVIN: I think the psychic consequence of what happened here with I-95 was that it showed blacks here how powerless we were at that moment. And it showed us how vulnerable we were to decisions made by people who didn't look like us and who had no particular interest in our priorities. And I think it resonated with us through history as being basically an insult to the black community because people simply implemented that decision with very little consultation to black people who lived in that community.
KAI: And we’ve heard this in other cities. This idea of urban renewal or slum clearance, or whatever you call it, but pushing people out and ultimately creating new ghettos -- which is how poverty and race became so intertwined in American cities.
CHRISTOPHER: And this is EXACTLY what happened in Miami. Because through the 60s and early 70s, many of the black folks displaced by I-95 -- they moved into Liberty City. And they brought with them this deep wound, called “I-95”. And over the next couple of decades, Liberty City struggles.
NEWSCASTER: A night of mayhem in Miami has been followed by a day of more tension and more trouble. There were new reports of arson, looting, and another death…
CHRISTOPHER: There’s a deadly riot in the spring of 1980.
REPORTER: A dusk to dawn curfew has been imposed on northwest Miami following a day and night of killing, looting and burning that left at least 10 persons dead and 120 injured. The violence broke out after a white male jury in Tampa found four white former Dade County policeman innocent in the death of black Miami businessman Arthur McDuffie.
CHRISTOPHER: In this riot, 18 people were killed. A hundred million dollars in property damage. Business leaders in Liberty City packed up and they headed for the exit. There was a massive exodus of capital during the 1980s. This is the same decade that crack cocaine hits.
REPORTER: Drive through certain sections of South Florida, and you will find people willing to sell you drugs: heroin, cocaine, and the most popular these days, crack cocaine.
CHRISTOPHER: And Valencia, who grew up in Liberty City in 1980s -- she’s seeing all of this as a kid.
VALENCIA: It became like this nightmare for people. 15th Avenue became like a zombie land. Like you walk down the street and you can see the addicts walking around aimlessly. Like, it’s not like that anymore cause they done cleaned it up and they are doing things to get it better. But oh my God. The 80s and the 90s? It was horrible.
CHRISTOPHER: All of this is happening around Valencia. And meanwhile, her family and the folks in her community -- some of whom had lived through I-95 -- they’re trying to warn her.
VALENCIA: “I’m telling you, I'm telling you, they want it, they want it. Like, pay attention.” And at the time, I'm like, nobody don’t want this place. Like nobody want it. I was ready to go myself! Because like, at this moment in time like, people are like abandoning their homes, and like you're starting to see empty lots and tore down houses, and it was horrible.
CHRISTOPHER: Valencia loves her family. She loves her community. She loves Miami. But she wasn’t blind. Like, Liberty City had been falling apart for more than a decade and what she saw wasn’t a place that anyone would want to take. Meanwhile, Valencia goes away to college, and when she comes back, she finds a community that’s already transforming. There were these new apartment buildings. The public parks were getting makeovers. And Valencia’s own high school had been totally renovated.
VALENCIA: And I heard people saying, like, oh my grandfather who had his store for 30 years can’t afford to have the store no more. I'm like, what do you mean? What do you mean. I don't understand.
CHRISTOPHER: And her neighbors told her, straight up: “they’re gentrifying.”
VALENCIA: And then I started to play back in my head like, they gonna take our communities because it don't flood.
KAI: Valencia’s not alone. Folks in Liberty City are watching what’s happening just over in Little Haiti -- and they’re getting ready. That’s next.
JAMES MUNGIN II: That's something always on my mind like, hey, you know they gonna raise this rent, because there's Midtown Eye Center next door. Like, you know what I mean? [laughs] No shade to them, but...
KAI: This is Valencia’s good friend, James Mungin -- goes by Munch. He’s co-owner of a business in Liberty City, which is nearby the far more trendy neighborhood of Midtown.
KAI: …But they got the name on it cause they're like trying to call this that neighborhood?
MUNCH: Yes! Right across the street. What does it say? Midtown Miami Eye Center.
KAI: And this is not Midtown.
MUNCH: No! This is Liberty City!
KAI: Munch is sort of an entrepreneur-activist. He and a group of friends own a place called Roots Collective Black House. They’re kind of a retailer...
MUNCH: This is the Black House showroom…
KAI: ... but also an event space, and an arts collective...
MUNCH: We have the clothing line. This is all black-owned clothing, black-owned messaging, about how to be unapologetically black. We have Juneteenth, we got….
KAI: But first and foremost, they’re about black ownership.
MUNCH: If you grab that one, that’s from Issa Rae, “I'm rooting for everybody black.”
KAI: Munch and the Roots Collective come from a lineage of black political thought that doesn’t get much attention outside the black community, but that remains strong in many of our neighborhoods.
MUNCH: We try to keep that dollar circulating because we understand it. And it's -- Charlamagne said this once -- it's not about selling out, it's about getting people to buy in. Our brand is about buying into the black, you know what I’m saying? Buying into the black. Black greatness, you know? Buying into melanin, you know?
MUNCH: Invest in it. It’s worth millions.
KAI: This idea — that we have what we need, right here, inside this community — it traces back to places like Overtown, where strict segregation meant that the only business black people were gonna do, was among ourselves... And it has a political corollary: nobody is gonna save us, but us. Munch says he was reminded of that back in September 2017.
NEWS ANCHOR: Highways are jam packed this morning across the state of Florida. At least nine counties are issuing full or partial mandatory evacuations.
REPORTER: We just got alerts on our phone, there is a tornado warning, they are telling people to take cover, things are very serious here in Miami.
KAI: When Hurricane Irma hit Miami, the streets of downtown turned into rivers.
REPORTER: They said oh, you know what, Miami’s not gonna get it that bad. Wrong!
KAI: Liberty City, sitting up on high ground, didn’t have that extreme flooding. But like so many other places, it DID lose power. Which meant it lost easy access to food in an already poor neighborhood.
REPORTER: In terms of staging meals, they’ve got right now 10 million meals ready to go in the area, in Florida and the surrounding states, and about 13 and a half million liters of water.
MUNCH: So like the distribution spots were on Seventh Avenue and 23rd Avenue. But majority of the seniors stay literally from 10th to 14th, really. They have a whole community center for senior folks, but they didn't put no ice, no distribution there for them, you know what I mean? Because they're not going to be able to walk. There's no way possible. So literally I'm with ice bags, walking from Seventh Avenue to 10th.
KAI: In the days after the storm, Valencia and Munch and others in Liberty City realized this was how things were gonna go. So they made their own emergency response plan.
MUNCH: So we had access to resources—which was a warehouse. We knew that all it took was social media to kind of like get people to donate. Vee said, hey we got, we got a grill. We got like a hundred hot dogs. We just gonna go to neighborhoods and just make sure they got hot food.
KAI: Save ourselves. Help is not coming. To Munch, that’s how Liberty City is gonna have to confront gentrification too—whether it’s caused by climate change or just the familiar rush for cheap property.
MUNCH: Like power is one thing. Power is simply the ability to act. But then you’ve got capital, you know, and a lot of times to move things, you need that capital. The winner call all the rules. And that's what's happening right now. We just – at the end, it's a monopoly game, and we just on the losing end, and we gotta start educating ourselves on how to, how to beat the system.
KAI: The capitalist revolutionary—use the master’s tools to tear down his own house. I don’t know that I’m sold, but it’s a powerful idea, because it honors the investments so many have already made—the people who built Overtown, the people who turned the dirt roads of Liberty City into a neighborhood, the people who cleared the swamps that became Miami, for that matter. And those who built Little Haiti.
CARL JUSTE: He felt that it was in the American spirit that the Haitians have a community which they can call their own.
KAI: Coming up, we go back to Little Haiti to get its origin story. How’d this community get here, and what’s gonna happen to its residents if they can’t stay?
CARL: So they picked him up. He did some jail time. They locked him up and then they gave him an option: you can either shut up or you can leave. But if you talk you're dead.
KAI: That’s next, on The Stakes.
The Stakes is production of WNYC Studios and the newsroom of WNYC.
This episode was produced in partnership with WLRN in Miami. It was reported and produced by Christopher Johnson, Nadege Green, and myself.
It was edited by Karen Frillmann, who is also our executive producer, and Alicia Zuckerman, who is Editorial Director for WLRN.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
The Stakes team also includes… Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Jonna McKone, Jessica Miller, Kaari Pitkin, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams…
With help from…
Hannis Brown, Michelle Harris, Kim Nowacki, and Jared Paul.
Stay in touch: You can hit me up on twitter, @kai_wright.
Thanks for listening.