In Overtown, big game means little SUPER BOWL

January 22, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

Miami -- Ron Lopez can't forget the last time a Super Bowl was played in Miami, in 1989. Instead of joining the festivities, he helped neighbors put out fires.

As a nation waited to see the Cincinnati Bengals play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII, Overtown, a predominantly black community in downtown Miami, was paralyzed.

"I'll always remember," said Lopez, 51, a resident of Overtown since 1977. "Stores were burning. Schools were closed. There was rioting, barricades and a curfew. Fear was everywhere. The Super Bowl had no effect on Overtown, but Overtown had an effect on the Super Bowl."

Six years later, drugs, prostitution and job competition from a steady flow of immigrants still haunt this troubled community of about 12,000.

"It could very well happen again," said Philip Caruana, a Miami building inspector. "Riots occur when people have nothing to lose. Once it gets started, it will be hard to stop. These people know where the lights and cameras are, and they won't mind acting it out if it brings attention to their problems."

Travel almost anywhere in Overtown, and the problems are easily identifiable. Mattresses and grocery carts are under almost every bridge. Dogs, cats and even chickens roam the streets. The homeless take showers in public fountains. The streets are never quiet at night, occupied by the movers and shakers trying to hustle a buck, or the poor looking for a reason to keep on living.

Need drugs? Try the underpass on 36th Street.

Rastafarians drink beer and play soccer on basketball courts during school hours.

The worst spot is the underpass at Third Avenue and 14th Street, where hundreds of immigrants have built homes from cardboard boxes, plywood and any other building material.

Portable toilets and trash containers were installed about four months ago.

Within a mile of this area, the NFL will open Super Bowl XXIX headquarters with all its luster.

"We're certainly aware of what happened last time," said Greg Aiello, a league spokesman. "We've added some outreach programs in the last couple of years that makes the Super Bowl an attractive community event.

"We have the NFL Youth Educational and Recreation camp, a clinic with coaches and players, a minority business program to get minority vendors involved. We want to leave a legacy.

"We're staying downtown again, and anything that may happen will be discussed with the proper law enforcement agencies. We'll stay on top of what is happening in the community."

Caruana estimates that 15 to 20 percent of Overtown's housing is livable. Most of the apartment complexes were once guest houses when Overtown was a thriving community that housed black lawyers, doctors and contractors.

It wasn't always like this

Some residents say Overtown was to the South what Harlem was to the North. Nightspots like the St. John Night Club Hotel and the Dew Drop Inn made Overtown buzz.

"There is federal funding, but our politicians have to do a better job of monitoring the funds," said Lopez. "A lot of investors come in, buy up our stores and property, but put nothing back in the community."

Caruana agreed.

"There are always some slumlords out there waiting for government funds, and then giving these people the bare necessities," said Caruana. "The places are so tiny, and sometimes there are five to six people living in them. Once the places are condemned, that's when the vagrants and the crime move in. The entire process is hard to believe."

Overtown's unemployment rate is at 55 percent and the average annual income is less than $7,000, according to Caruana. With each wave of immigration there comes frustration and sometimes violence.

"The problem is with cheap labor," said Ray Von, owner of a small grocery in Overtown. "The new immigrants, trying to get a fresh start, will work much cheaper than people who have lived here for years. To me, that's just good business sense for an employer. The locals get mad."

Then riots are triggered.

In May 1980, after the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States, riots erupted when police officers were acquitted in the death of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman who was killed after a chase.

In December 1982, riots broke out after a Miami police officer killed Nevell Johnson Jr., a black man, in a video arcade. The 1989 riots came after a flood of Nicaraguan immigrants, and was touched off by the shooting death of a 23-year-old black man by a white policeman.

Overtown is a house divided against itself.

"We're a cultural melting pot that has subtle racism through bilingualism," said Lopez. "No one wants to admit it, but we do.

"The Haitians don't want to speak Spanish, and the Hispanics don't want to speak English. It's a barrier, and the Haitians hire Haitians, the Hispanics hire Hispanics, and the blacks hire blacks. I don't know if we'll ever get rid of this polarization."

Cause for hope

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