MIAMI — Amy Rosenberg got the idea while on a February walking tour with historian Paul George. As she and a group of about 50 others walked through the community that once pulsated with the sounds of the country’s most popular R & B acts during the 50s and 60s, Rosenberg decided that she had to do more than simply visit Overtown.
The New York native who has lived in Miami for more than 20 years said it broke her heart to learn during the tour that Overtown had been the “epicenter of music in Miami before I-95 bisected it,” and decided that “I had to do something beyond walking around Overtown.”
Rosenberg said the idea for a dually purposed music festival came to her during the tour, one of many that George leads for the Historical Museum of South Florida.
In addition to using the festival to showcase the music that was once a mainstay of the area, Rosenberg sees the festival as “a vehicle to bring the community together.” The idea has landed her among the finalists in The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Arts Challenge, an experimental contest aimed at bringing together South Florida’s diverse community through the arts.
Rosenberg is one of 45 finalists from a field of more than 1,500 applicants. The winners, who will be announced next fall, stand to receive a total of $4 million in matching arts grants.
“The quality of the applications reflects the strength of South Florida’s arts scene, and the potential for creating the shared experiences that unite great communities,” said Dennis Scholl, Knight’s interim program director for Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.
In its second year, the Knight Arts Challenge, offers $20 million in matching grant money to the best ideas in the South Florida arts over five years. Winners of the project must abide by three rules: the ideas must be about art, the project must take place in or benefit South Florida and the project must find funding to match Knight’s commitment.
Despite its rich cultural history and oft-cited potential for a Harlem-type resurgence, Rosenberg said many of her cohorts “scratch their heads” about Overtown. She theorizes that a music festival could have a domino effect, bringing people into the area to celebrate the music while exposing them to myriad opportunities to help connect with and revitalize the community.
Although Overtown is a predominantly black neighborhood, Rosenberg, who is white, sees Overtown’s rich musical legacy as including all of Miami.
“A lot of people pay lip service to diversity,” she said. “What better way to celebrate what is our heritage, all of us…than to celebrate this music that inhabited Overtown for so many years.”
Indeed, during Overtown’s heyday, white music lovers ventured into the area to listen to James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave and others; an irony not lost on Overtown residents, visitors and especially the performers, who could not stay in the very Miami Beach hotels where they sang and danced for white audiences.
Seeking to capitalize on music’s universal appeal, Rosenberg envisions a 55-piece orchestra that will play with people who once graced the stage in Overtown. She said she’s not at liberty to reveal the names of artists she has contacted, but did say that her search is ongoing.
Rosenberg is counting on the assistance of two prominent landmarks dear to Overtown to bring her idea to fruition – The Historic Lyric Theater, the proposed site of the music festival; and The Black Archives, which Rosenberg said has been a huge help in her education about the Overtown experience. She envisions a true multi-sensory experience, with large still images of the Overtown from yesteryear accompanying the music.
When reached by telephone for comment, Dorothy Jenkins-Fields, historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, said Rosenberg’s project sounds like a good idea, but added that she would prefer commenting further after the two had a chance to meet.
Rosenberg, a 32-year old attorney, has over the past three years, slowly ventured away from the legal profession and into arts and environmental advocacy. She is a founder of Dream in Green, a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and implement programs that promote energy conservation and efficiency, environmental sustainability, and the use of renewable energy.
“We’re currently in 43 [Miami-Dade public] schools and saving the schools a lot of money,” she said.
While she is excited about the prospect of being declared a winner in the Knight Foundation’s contest, Rosenberg said she is committed to creating the music festival, whatever the competition’s outcome, by doing “whatever it takes.”
Photo: Amy Rosenberg