Jose Villavicencio: Miami as Text 2021-2022

My name is Jose Villavicencio, and I am a senior studying business analytics at FIU. I love to ride my bike around my community, whether it be to push myself past my limits to break my own pace record or to casually cruise down the street and let the sun soak through my skin. If you happen to see me on my bike, experiencing the outdoors with a sweat on my brow, I am probably having the time of my life!

Downtown as Text

Who are we?

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU in Downtown Miami on 08 September, 2021

Ten minutes east, down 88th street from where I sit right now typing this, is the hospital where my two siblings and I were born. Miami is the city, the home, that we have known our entire lives. Despite the fact that it is all I have ever known, all I have ever had, I cannot help but think about all those who came before me, who were born here thousands of years before the hospital was even a twinkle in the land developer’s eye. Downtown Miami may seem like a sprawling mass of glass, concrete, and steel with little to be said about the city’s green space or its pedestrian infrastructure that leave much to be desired, but there is more to it than meets the eye. My own cynical outlook on urban development and an over-reliance on cars was quickly challenged as we scoured the corners of Downtown for these pockets of life that were undeniable proof that the echos of the past persist to be perceived by us, the descendants of this land.

12,000 years ago, before the Spaniards, English, or French began to even ponder colonizing the Earth, South Florida was home to culture, to religion, to industry; South Florida was a cradle to humanity. Walking alongside the ancient artery that is the Miami River proved as much to me. Just as thousands of people each day drive a collective millions of miles on the turnpike to travel to different parts of modern Miami, the Miami River served the same purpose to humans just like me all those thousands of years ago. If you aren’t actively looking for it, it is very easy to pass by the essence of humanity that pervades throughout the city as you get swept up in the break-neck pace of the tropical Miami nightlife. The reminders are there, however. No matter how you feel politically, you cannot deny the sheer holistic human value that comes from watching the U.S. and Cuban flags fly side by side atop the freedom tower. The inspiration that the anointed “Ellis Island of the South” is just another chapter in the history of displacement in South Florida. Despite what the reality of the situation is, that tower represents a new life for Cubans fleeing political strife just 90 miles to our south.

Symbols like the freedom tower, or the holy Tequesta site of the Miami circle remind us of the human strife that South Florida was unfortunately home too, but there are other more sinister symbols that may not appear that way at first. The Royal Palm hotel was opened by Henry Flagler, one of the most (in)famous figures in Miami’s history. Yes, Flagler brought the railroad which led to Miami’s incorporation as a city, but he also brought with him the atrocities of the imperial world. The arrival of Flagler signified that Miami was no longer a land for indigenous peoples to subsist off of. If Miami was going to “make it” as a modern city, it had to adopt some “modern” ideals. I speak, of course, of segregation. To this day, segregation shows itself as a scar across the map of demographics in Miami. The comfortable coastal lands were developed for hotels, businesses, and white people living in the city, while all black people who were living in the area before were now relocated and only allowed to live where Overtown is today. These unfortunate histories are what we must keep in mind every time we ride the metro rail, or enjoy a nice day at the beach. None of it would have been possible without the rich tapestry of human history that is Miami, a tapestry that is still being woven to this day.

Overtown as Text

The Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church as it is seemingly choked by the concrete cobra that is I-95.
Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

“What doesn’t kill you makes us stronger.”

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU in Overtown, Miami on 22 September, 2021

Love, loss, and even more love is a consistent theme you will find when you put your feet to the ground and connect with the community of Overtown. Marred by decades of racism and segregation, Overtown is one of the most unique places not just in Miami, or even Florida, but on all of planet Earth. The sheer spirit needed to endure these decades of desecration was something that shone through with each spoken word of the wonderful women who took the time out of their days to pass on these histories to us. What stood out to me the most is also referenced in the photo above, where you can see the chalky, grey asphalt of US Interstate Highway 95, the infamous highway that killed the city in it’s proverbial crib. The Mount Zion Baptist Church is ground zero for this cultural reckoning, as the building of the new highway in it’s vicinity seemed almost like a targeted attack. Entire communities that once stood where the sprawling concrete now dominates were forced to, in some instances, simply abandon their homes and their entire lives. No help was offered, no sympathy extended, they simply told them that they were to begin construction in 30 days, and that they had to find somewhere else to go. As you can imagine, this devastated a community that already had to fight so hard just to get permission to exist in a segregated city. The church that was once home to a congregation of 2,000 now sits at about 100 members. The communal services and facilities offered by the church before I-95 existed no longer had a consistent population of neighbors to utilize them. There was even a parsonage that would undoubtedly be a historically registered building for the city of Miami, had it not been destroyed to make way for I-95. Truly this highway acted as a constrictor upon the trachea that breathed life into this community.

Still, the story of Overtown is one of resilience, like a singular flower that defies all odds and manages to grow out of a crack in the concrete, Overtown survived. It was much harder to do so with the core community seemingly scattered to the winds. To this day, Overtown remains a largely Black city, and the effects of racism imposed upon the city are still felt to this day. Even now, high rise apartment buildings and land developments seek to squeeze every last dollar out of the community while forcing those who were born there, out. History doesn’t repeat itself in a mirrored fashion, but it often does rhyme. That is why I believe that no matter what comes their way, the city of Overtown has got what it takes to endure just about anything, because they’ve already had to go through almost everything.