What’s Really Cooking Overtown?

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Published in Success Magazine, October 2010

“What’s Really Cooking Overtown?”
By, Ascellia Arenas
“A community plagued with abandoned homes, vacant lots, homelessness, and despair” is how one native Miamian describes the village community of Overtown in Miami, Florida. This is an unfortunate description of the once vibrant village of Overtown. Perhaps he does not remember the glorious past of the once thriving community that was Overtown. Historically, Overtown is one of the oldest communities, dating back to 1890, named “Colored Town”. It has served as home for African Americans who worked on the Flagler railroad, when in the City of Miami, segregation was the law of the land and integration was not yet a dream. It was a place where blacks owned homes and businesses, took pride in the beauty of the architecture and the rich cultural history of the members of the community. Many evils have since plagued the community, especially with the introduction of crack cocaine in the early 1980’s. Then there was the coupling blow of severing of the community due to the construction of highways. The highways dismantled neighborhoods and scattered family and friends throughout metropolitan Dade County with the disengaging promise of urban renewal. The community of Overtown suffered a tremendous loss to its unrelenting grip.
With the dedication and desire to rehabilitate and reinvigorate the luster of the Overtown community, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, strategically faced the challenge of drying the tears of their fallen community, for “charity begins at home”. Serving as a pillar of hope to this disenfranchised community, St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church set out to rescue Overtown. In 1985, a 501 (c)(3) not- for-profit, community based organization was founded by, Rev. Henry Nevin and concerned community members to rescue the poorest city in Miami-Dade County. This group was named the St. Johns Community Development Corporation (SJCDC). The mission was to: rehabilitate housing, stimulate economic growth, and attract new businesses and residents. In an effort to expedite the growth and of the financial revitalization in Overtown, the SJCDC gained the leadership Mr. David Alexander, as President, and the financial expertise of Steven Graziani, Community Development Consultant.
“It was clear that no one wanted to live Overtown because the market was not there”, states Graziani. Rental properties were dilapidated and or abandoned. The revitalization of Overtown called for three primary objectives: obtaining and implementing the vision, creating a working budget proposal that can execute the task, and obtaining HUD funding to create a pool of local funds to assist the program initiative. “Federal funding is obtained in several ways”, says Graziani. The SJCDC strategized a plan to form a consortium that consists of 6 not-for-profit groups and submit an application to bid for the sorely needed government funds. This would provide the SJCDC with the “competitive edge” needed to obtain the goal of receiving grant funds. Through the concerted effort of the consortium, that includes: Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida The City of North Miami, The Little Haiti Community Development Corporation, Opa Locka Community Development Corporation, The Urban League of Greater Miami, and The St. John’s Community Development Corporation, the goal of property acquisition was solidified in a 89 million dollar grant to split amongst the consortium.
“The impact of that St. John’s Community Development Corporation now has is the ability to acquire property with the use of the funds”, state Graziani. They were recently able to acquire a 26 unit vacant abandoned property to rehabilitate and provide low income housing that will be affordable to the core demographic that currently resides in the Overtown area. The goal of the SJCDC is to invest in the residents of Overtown by providing affordable housing. The St. John’s Village 1440 project is an example of the agreement made between the consortium and The City of Miami. In addition to the funds received through the grant on behalf of the SJCDC, The City of Miami infused an additional 1.8 million dollars to complete the renovation of the 26 unit apartment complex. “The St. John’s Village 1440 Apartment rehabilitation is a model of how we will work together with neighboring communities and what we will continue to do “, says Graziani, the Community Development expert. There is an expected trajectory of growth anticipated here as well. As the village is revived, the natural progression is that the residents will earn more and the village will continue to grow and thrive to be the bustling community it once was.
Graziani is no stranger to community re-stabilization. With a career in community development that spans 30 years, he has done great work. He began consulting with the City of Miami in the early 80’s, worked with national non-profits in Washington DC, and was hand-picked by the SJCDC to assist in bringing the village of Overtown back to life. Steven Graziani will receive “The 2010 Community Development Award”, bestowed upon him by Alexander, for his efforts in helping to obtain the 89 million dollar grant that will be divided equally among the consortium. The village of Overtown was awarded a healthy 12 million dollars to spend over the course of five years to help bring Overtown back to its original splendor. “I remember when I was a little girl, my mother use to dress us up and take us Overtown to look at all the people. They were dressed in their finest, walking around through the shops… there was a lot of hustle and bustle”, says Mary, a Miami native. Those glory days will be here once again, very soon. Things are definitely cooking Overtown.

Figure 1-SJCDC was allocated 12 million of the 89 million dollar HUD grant funds, awarded to the consortium, in February of 2010. The grant specifies that 50% of the funds are to be used within the first two years and the remaining must be used in the last three of the five year time allotment. SJCDC projects spending 7 million dollars on the purchase of vacant lots and foreclosed/abandoned properties: and, spending 5 million dollars on redevelopment.

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