Remembering How a Highway Gutted a Bastion of Black Miami

Last week, outside of Miami Beach’s Faena Hotel, two mirror-image playgrounds—one stark and monochromatic, the other awash in color—stood back-to-back on the sand. Between them, a photographic backdrop showed African-American children at play on a jungle gym under a highway overpass.

It was Miami Art Week, and art-fair attendees and passersby were invited to climb and swing on “America’s Playground.” The installation by conceptual artist Derrick Adams paid homage to the history of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, nearly destroyed by highway construction in the 1960s.

The two sides of the installation, one colorful and the other neutral. (Alexandra Marvar)

Just north of downtown Miami, Overtown (previously called Colored Town or the Central Negro District) was established for black construction and railroad workers in the late 1800s. By the 1950s, it was home to one-third of the population of Miami. Black and white residents and tourists alike sought out this “Harlem of the South”—developed in part by Miami’s first black millionaire, D. A. Dorsey—for its music, cuisine, and commerce. When Jim Crow laws forbade the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin from hanging around white Miami Beach venues after gigs, Overtown welcomed them. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson were also visitors.

In 1955, officials began to plan for an extension of Interstate 95 through the center of Overtown. An alternate route along the obsolete railroad tracks would have displaced far fewer people, but the white business establishment preferred to cut through housing areas and the black business district. Ten years later, the gutting began: Claiming eminent domain, the city evicted families and offered little to no relocation assistance.

The new highway caused Overtown’s population to crater and destroyed its businesses. Its evisceration was not an anomaly: From New York City to Los Angeles, Jacksonville to Nashville to Minneapolis–St. Paul, the construction of America’s highway infrastructure tore through black communities and cut them off from more affluent parts of the city.

(Alexandra Marvar)

Adams’s piece focuses on a surprising consequence of the highway project: In the late 1960s, on five acres under the new overpasses, city officials and private donors cobbled together enough funding to install swings, jungle gyms, and sod in the sunless patches of dirt. At an opening ceremony in 1969, M. Athalie Range, Miami’s first black commissioner, along with the mayor and staff from the tourism bureau, delivered speeches over the din of passing cars to commemorate the grand opening of “one of America’s first underexpressway parks.”

For a time, Range’s park was well-used. But Florida Power and Light never installed lighting, and the city did not provide any staff to maintain it. As the community eroded, so did the park. Today, however, Overtown is dealing with a different problem, gentrification.

A man walks beneath an overpass in Overtown in 2018. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Adams said he came across an archival photo of the underpass playground used on the cover of N. B. D. Connolly’s 2014 book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. “America’s Playground” (an old moniker for Miami) includes a reworking of that photo.

“For people of color, leisure is a radical place to be,” Adams told the audience at a talk at the Faena Festival on December 5. “It’s forbidden; something for others.” The playground under the highway was an example of environmental injustice, representing the second-class status of black families in America, but in Adams’s hands it is also a symbol of resistance. To show play plucked from a history of oppression and disenfranchisement, said Adams, is “a rebellious act.”

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