Melanie Rodriguez: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Melanie Rodriguez is a sophomore at the Florida International University honors college, who studies natural and applied sciences. She also minors in biology and psychology, as she hopes to have a career in the medical field, specifically dermatology. Her long term goal is to open her own practice in Miami, and hopes to help others feel beautiful in their own skin. She currently holds a role in the healthcare field as a certified medical assistant, and values supporting her community. Coming from two Cuban immigrant parents, Melanie is a first generation college student who has been a Miami resident for twenty years and continues to explore the city’s great history.

Downtown Miami As Text

“A Village Becomes A City” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Downtown Miami

Taken by Melanie Rodriguez

Miami, to me, was the culmination of cultures, a perfect blend of people from all different stretches of life, a melting pot of heritage, lifestyles, and traditions. If you ask anyone what Miami was known for, they will all likely give you the same answer: nightlife, warm weather, and amazing beaches. Now, Miami has an entirely new definition to me, as I look at the city through a wider lens. We, as a population, tend to overlook the history of where we are, and who was here before us. The majority of Miami’s population is frankly not aware of Miami’s history, and live life in a surface-level experience of this city. As a class, we explored downtown Miami and had the privilege of being engulfed with history throughout the day. I can say that after this day, I feel like a well-rounded citizen, who is able to have conversations about the founding and first beginnings of Miami, and most importantly about the notable people who have left their imprint on our city: The Tequesta. 

Throughout the day, it was impossible to go without mentioning the Tequesta, as they were involved in so much of Miami’s history, and this just goes to show the importance that this tribe had on our city, which was once theirs. Occupying the Miami river and Biscayne bay since 500 BCE, the Tequesta was one of the first tribes in Florida, and thrived by taking advantage of the bays as well as hunting and gathering in what is today known as the everglades. Evidence of a trade network was also found in the Miami Circle, located in Brickell point and discovered in 1998. Many artifacts, such as shells, stone, and animal bones were found in this historical landmark of a Tequesta village that was sadly demolished with no remorse by Henry Flarger. On our tour, as we walked by the Miami Circle, many of us thought we were being led to a dog park. Unfortunately, this historic landmark was new to even me, a lifelong Miami resident. Walking alongside this river I could not help but wonder who was walking on this same patch of land as me, many years before colonization took place. The Miami circle is a prehistoric structure that represents those who were here before us, and is a hidden wonder in the middle of the city that, like much of the Tequesta culture, received little respect and consideration. The Tequesta vanished as a tribe due to slavery, and settlement battles when the British obtained Florida. “Collateral damage” is all I can think about when I learned about the treatment of this tribe by early settlers. Just a short walk away from Miami Circle, another historic landmark covers 500 bodies under its walls, and is being “honored” with a mural, essentially culturally appropriating native american tribes. Ever since learning what lies beneath this Whole Foods store, I must say that I am disgusted to even step foot in this establishment, and firmly believe that the history of these bodies is priceless compared to the profit being made from the building. The modern city that we know and love today has a sinister past that is quite literally, being covered by beautiful architecture and luxury.

I can only hope to honor and bring awareness to this crucial part of Miami’s history through telling its story to others. While I am embarrassed to say that I knew very little of what was a very important culture to Miami’s beginnings, I have been enabled through this walking tour to get a taste of its story. I specifically chose to write about Tequesta, among all of the other important topics we touched upon, in order to inspire others to take a deeper look at the world around them. I encourage everyone who lives, or visits Miami, to stop having a surface level view of the city and let yourself be truly engulfed by the beauty of this city’s history. 

Overtown As Text

“protect it at all costs” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Overtown, Miami

Photos taken by Melanie Rodriguez

Music and laughter filled the streets that were once called “Little Broadway” in the 1920’s. 2nd avenue was filled with Theatres and restaurants where you could find Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong performing and staying in this area. There is deep, deep significance within this community, and it has a strong hold on our city’s history. This neighborhood is in Miami, Florida, and is known today as Overtown, although the scene will look different today than described above. All of this rich history was washed away by the tsunami of modernization. Overtown is a captivating and historic neighborhood in Miami that often gets overlooked. This area was once booming with life and filled with excitement and energy. It is unfortunately greatly undervalued by the city and is not what it once was. Not all change is good change, and this neighborhood is a victim of tactical urbanism, harming not only the landscape of the area, but also the residents of the community. I got the privilege of hearing personal accounts from Alberta Godfrey, a long time citizen of Overtown, who spoke to us about her experiences in the neighborhood. I connected Ms. Godfrey’s anecdotes about life in this neighborhood before vs. what it is now to the urban renewal of the area. 

Overtown is historically known as the heart of the black community in Miami. Bahamian immigrants and black laborers were settled in this area as of 1896, and Miami’s black community settled here due to the Jim Crow laws enforcing the separation of blacks and whites. Even after voting on the incorporation of Miami, Blacks were segregated and only allowed to live in this area, which became known as “colored town” at the time. These people were the same ones who helped develop Miami by constructing buildings and hotels, yet were assigned the least desirable neighborhood to live in. The area was filled with poverty and a growing population, but it was transformed by the black community who began opening thriving businesses. Overtown was able to prosper in many ways as the residents opened businesses that became extremely successful. Restaurants, theaters, and stores filled the streets of the newly buzzing community that attracted famous black artists who performed here, after returning from their segregated performances in other parts of Miami. The neighborhood progressed in ways which speak volumes to the beautiful art and culture that it expelled.  

“Well, the most vivid thing I remember about Overtown now is the fact that the house where I was born and lived, and my grandfather’s store was in that neighborhood, is all-and the church that I went to-were all torn down. We were victims of urban removal and in order to put in the I-95 expressway, they took those two streets.” -Doretha Nichson, interviewed by Ameenah Shakir

Displacement is a tale as old as time in the United States. By the 1960’s, Miami decided to expand Interstate 95, leading to the decline of Overtown. This interstate was expanded through the middle of Overtown, displacing over 10,000 residents. Many had to leave their homes, businesses, and lives behind. Professor Bailly shared a story about a priest who had to choose between the demolition of his home, or his church, which stood side-by-side. This story broke my heart, as no person should have to make this choice, and be treated with such little regard. There are too many stories to tell regarding this cruel and cold treatment. Through greed and selfishness, many communities have been ruined due to redlining, urbanization, and gentrification, and Overtown is just one of the many victims of this. This was an attempt to redevelop low-income areas to appeal to wealthy individuals. Concrete jungles cover what was once a thriving area, now unrecognizable as what it was before. Schools, churches, and businesses all suffered and are replaced with modern buildings, big name stores, and other construction that is meant to appeal to the public and help the “image” of the neighborhood. In reality, this ruined lives and added to the poverty epidemic in the area. This is inhumane, it is greed. Ms. Godfrey of the Greater Bethel African Methodist Church shared a frustrating account of how her church used to be filled with members from the community, all gathered together, before many of them were forced out of their homes. Now she explains how the church barely has 30 members remaining, and are attempting to promote and rebuild the community they once had. I have no doubt that the decline of this church, and many other businesses, is due to modern business tactics of the city, where many people end up suffering the consequences and forced out of their community. Many people can no longer afford to live here as more and more buildings appealing to the middle class are being constructed.One thing which completely shocked me when visiting Overtown was how little importance the city puts on preserving the historic places. Being one of the oldest neighborhoods in Miami should mean something, yet when you walk through Overtown, the preservation of history is neglected. While some landmarks, theaters, and churches may remain, I believe a greater budget should be allotted to protect this historic area. After all the harm the city has done to Overtown and those who reside here, the area should be more greatly prioritized. Today, the community is working to rebuild the area of Overtown and generate more business, but it is difficult to revitalize a neighborhood that is constantly getting torn down. I have great respect for anyone who dealt with the marginalization of this community and suffered because of it. The neighborhood of Overtown is surrounded with people full of amazing energy, and I can only wish to one day see it thrive again and be prioritized by the city, like the great historic landmark that it is. I wish to one day walk through Overtown and experience the liveliness and excitement that once was there, the jazz that filled the streets, and the community of people who held it together. 

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