Toni Slebi: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Picture taken by Toni Slebi

Toni Slebi is a Colombian-Palestinian first generation student at Florida International University. She’s a sophomore studying Public Relations. Slebi hopes to work as a public relations professional in the music industry or make her own career as a singer! She currently works with her family and loves to perform when and where she can.

“Breeding Ignorance” by Toni Slebi of FIU at Downtown Miami  September 18, 2022

Wagner Home in Downtown Miami by Toni Slebi 2022

 What was once a house full of love, conversations, and warmth  is now boarded up, thrown aside; its stories rarely being spoken aloud. The Wagner Family house is the oldest known home in Miami Dade County. It was built around 1855 by William Wagner and his wife Eveline Aimar. What stood out to me when hearing about this family is that their love story is one often heard of Miami- a blend of several cultures and languages all in one household.

William Wagner, a German immigrant, was fighting for the US Army during the Mexican War but was injured and discharged. He traveled to Georgia, where he married Aimar, a French Creole. Not accepted as a couple due to it’s interracial nature, they moved down south to Florida. The house was originally built near what we now call Wagner Creek. In his later years, around 1875, Wagner also built one of the earliest houses of worship in Miami since the Spanish missions. This was later burned down in 1892. He sold his home to Julia Tuttle in 1893 but was able to buy it back in 1899. 

Their family consisted of Wagner, Aimar, her three children, and the two children they had together. Together they lived in harmony and hosted a group of Seminoles where they all shared food and laughter. Despite being a family of warmth and love, they still faced discrimination for being an interracial couple and their children for being mixed. 

Being the first family in Miami, they were a great example of what was to come. Despite this blending of cultures having occurred from the very start, interracial couples and people of color are still struggling today. Though they were a family of recognition, their struggles were not put to rest and are repeated still, to this day. One of their son’s was murdered for being of color. Just like in many cases today, there was no justice for the Wagner family.

This continued struggle has not ended. Similar deaths of people of color with no justice to follow repeat again and again. Emmett Till is one of those people that were murdered for their color in 1955 in Illinois. An all white jury dictated that the two men were not guilty and acquitted them of all charges. The case was closed and reopened in 2004. An attempt to arrest one of the co-conspirators failed leading to the closing of the case, once again, in 2021. 

Not only are cases of lynches and wrongful murders still occuring but the erasure of Black history in Miami is becoming more prominent. The Wagner family is one that should be taught in the Miami Dade County Public schools curriculum yet instead we’re moving towards laws that prohibit speaking on subjects that highlight the mistakes of our nation, specifically those regarding race. Though I have lived in Miami all my life, had I not gone on this trip, I would’ve never learned of the Wagner family and their importance to the history of Miami. I wasn’t even aware their house stood in Downtown Miami for viewing. The support for laws such as the “Individual Freedom” measure which bans discussions regarding race will further this ignorance of our history and lead to past mistakes being repeated, as proven by the murders and discrimination many still face today despite “woke” culture. Even when trying to research Wagner’s family story in detail I struggled to find information or found conflicting numbers. Not only this, but the focus is placed on Wagner’s military efforts rather than his inclusion of the Seminoles of the area and his family. Finding traces of the history of their children or of Eveline Aimar was near impossible- yet another example of erasing the history of the impacts people of color have on our world, our culture, and our daily lives. 

After learning of the first “Miami Thanksgiving” between the Wagner family and several Seminoles, I can only hope that the ignorance I had myself is not repeated in future generations. 

“The Juxtaposition of Community and Greed” by Toni Slebi of FIU at Overtown October 2, 2022

Picture taken by Toni Slebi 2022

A community is a group of people that share their lives together. It’s a home for many filled with love where friends and family gather to build memories together. 

Gentrification is the process where new businesses and people move into a low income community, displacing the current residents. 

Combine these two concepts together and you get what is currently happening in Overtown. Overtown was built as a city for the hired African American laborers that built Miami’s hotels and railroads. Even entertainers such as Billie Holiday and Muhammed Ali were forced to retire to town for the night. While living here, a community was built.

This specific area has experienced three setbacks. The hurricane of 1926 which caused great damage to many as they were unprepared, the construction of I-95 and I-35 in the middle of the city, and an overall gentrification. 

The placement of the highway, whether on purpose or not, has disrupted this community. It destroyed many homes, displacing several people. From then on, more and more people were being displaced as homes in this community were being targeted for inspection in order to destroy and build over these lower income houses. This is happening even today where only few parts of Overtown’s history remains. Lyric Theater, Red Rooster, and The Greater Bethel Church are some of the few places that have been kept. 

One of my favorites was The Greater Bethel Church. This was the first religious gathering in the area that began back in 1896. The church itself was built by the people themselves. Everyone donated their hard earned money towards this common goal so they could all have a place to share their faith in. 

When walking inside, Alberta Godfrey of the church was there to welcome us. From the way she spoke you can see the deep love and passion she held for her church and her town. It’s deeply saddening to imagine other people of the community that hold this same love for their home have it ripped from them. Members of this church have had to move farther out but some still make the drive to attend. The church also gives back to the community by having showers available for displaced people and giving food out on Sundays. 

Despite the Church’s status as a Nationally Registered Historic Place/Landmark, it is still being targeted by the city. They receive fines for any little thing in an attempt to be driven out. Despite these attempts, the church adapts in order to stay strong and fight against this gentrification.

Gentrification is forcing this community out of their homes in a time of financial instability for many. They’re destroying many pieces of history while they’re at it. This whole process of “beautifying” a city only to then have those that inhabit it removed? It is downright disgusting that this is occurring. Right across from the church you see a new building and despite it being filled with people, it’s devoid of life. There’s several lots that once held historic property now empty waiting for chain stores and high cost housing to take its place. Gentrifying doesn’t just displace people but it kills off the life and history of a city only to make it generic and profitable.

I personally don’t live in Overtown, I live in Homestead, a city about an hour down south. In the area there is a lot of lower income housing available. For families such as mine, this housing is a godsend. We can’t afford much else. But with new constructions, and redevelopment of the city I’ve noticed more and more families being displaced. When moving it is very difficult to find affordable housing now with the rising rents here. Sure, we could just move to another city, just as those in Overtown have had to do overtime. However, the point is, we shouldn’t have to. We’ve built our lives here. I have friends here, I volunteer here, I know the best spots, I have my community here. Yet, this doesn’t matter to the city- they’re only focused on turning a profit so they’re pushing families out such as mine, such as those in Overtown.

With this common trend in mind, one question comes to mind: how do we stop the furthering of displacement caused by gentrification? 

The first step is to band together the people of the community. As a team, they can fight against gentrification. Residents can create an organization in which they pool together money to ensure they can buy the historic places. This will avoid the places from being bought out by those that intend to destroy it. This form of resistance against gentrification can help in the short term but communities need long term solutions to protect themselves. 

Many suggest building more middle income and lower income housing in order to lower the rising of rents overall. With less higher income housing properties being built, current residents won’t be pushed out with the demand for higher income related stores. For example, Godfrey mentioned how once she saw a Publix was being built in the city, she knew the city was going to really struggle with gentrification. With providing the city with affordable housing, local businesses will be able to thrive as they won’t be kicked out or taxed immensely. This will provide the community with the opportunity to grow economically. 

More educational and economic opportunities need to be provided to lower income communities. For example, Black Americans invest in stocks at a much lower rate than white Americans. This is due to a disparity in the access to education. Being low income and a first generation American, my family doesn’t know anything about the financial system in America-  We’re surviving paycheck to paycheck just as many others do. Meanwhile, people with generational wealth and/or higher income have the opportunity to dedicate more time to education and learn about stocks, retirement saving accounts and more. If organizations and the government were to provide more opportunities to learn and grow to lower income families, these families would be able to stay in their homes, build a better financial plan, further develop their community, and breathe. 

Life shouldn’t just be about surviving but as gentrification takes over, we tend to lose sight of what matters. It’s often hard to breathe and feel hope, but together communities can fight against gentrification.

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