Special to the South Florida Times
A few have named it “the no-comeback boulevard” and some describe it as “the definition of urban decay.” But to many, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., the most historic throughway in Miami’s Liberty City, is home. Once named NW 62nd St., the boulevard, which stretches east to the bay and west to E 9th Ave. in Hialeah, has a storied history.
On April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was struck by a sniper’s bullet as he stood on the balcony of his room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
News of his death prompted riots to erupt in more than 120 cities across the country, primarily in black urban areas. This included the once-thriving NW 62nd Street in Liberty City.
“While things were still smoldering, the plan was to rebuild and rename the street,” according to Virginia Key Trust Chair Dinzulu Gene Tinnie. “It was supposed to be something like an outdoor museum in his honor.”
The late civil rights activists M. Athalie Range and Bernard Dyer spearheaded the push to rename the street with the thought that it would make a difference, Tinnie said.
But renaming the boulevard was debated on for some time, Tinnie said. The sponsorship came years later from then-Congresswoman Carrie Meek. The dedication took place in November of 1982 during the Liberty City Festival of the Arts.
“Martin Luther King III came down to participate and marched along the boulevard,” said Tinnie. “The event drew a lot of attention.”
AREA BUSTLED WITH ACTIVITY BEFORE 1968 RIOTS
Horace Roberts, 60, moved to the Liberty Square Housing Projects in 1960. The development, nicknamed ‘Pork and Beans,’ a public housing 753-unit apartment complex located at 1415 NW 63rd St., was one of the first planned communities in the country and was noted in a 1938 edition of Architectural Digest. Roberts witnessed Miami’s first riot in 1968 and those that followed.
“Attitudes have not changed,” Roberts, a social worker and program supervisor for the Belafonte TACOLCY Center, said. “Crime is still crime, economic development is still down, unemployment is still down and there are many single mothers. Changing a name of the street is not putting money in people’s pockets.”
Before the 1968 riots, Roberts said that the site where African Square Park now sits, which runs along the boulevard from NW 14th to NW 17th Avenues, was populated by businesses. After the riots began, stores were burned and business owners moved out.
“There were several doctors’ offices, clothing stores, restaurants, bars, a Chinese restaurant—it was really thriving,” he said. “There was even a Champ Burger owned by Muhammad Ali. But all those businesses no longer exist.”
Warehouses along the boulevard burned to the ground, Roberts continued. “Crime was too high and insurance became unaffordable. Owners just decided not to return so the jobs left.”
There was money and resources available for rebuilding after the riot, but according to Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. board member David Chiverton, “it never made it to the people who needed it. So buildings remained abandoned for years and areas that were considered hazardous were demolished.”
The city and county, Chiverton said, then began the land acquisition of property. “Things were dormant for a long time.”
MCDUFFIE RIOT STOPS AREA’S MOMENTUM
Liberty City resident Homer Braden described the boulevard as “the no-comeback boulevard.” The 75-year old left Miami for southern Georgia to take on migrant work after the 1968 riots.
“I kept coming back, but MLK [Boulevard] never did,” Braden said. “My family was here and needed me to help out. It’s sad now, having such fond remembrances of a place I once bragged to my friends back home about. I just don’t see how things will ever change. There’s no coming back, especially after McDuffie.”
Liberty City’s momentum to reclaim its economic footing after the 1968 riots came to a halt in May of 1980 when news of the acquittals of the five white Miami-Dade police officers on trial for beating 43-year-old Arthur McDuffie to death with their flashlights caused Miami’s worst race riot to erupt.
Liberty City was then home to half of the Miami’s black and West Indian residents, many of whom took to the streets.
Chiverton, at that time, lived in the area and was a student at Miami Edison Senior High School, located at 6161 NW 6th Ct. “I graduated in 1982, the same year 62nd Street was renamed. The renaming began a new sense of community despite the riot experienced in 1980.”
Maylene Gray said that she remembers shopping at J. Byrons with her mother and grandmother. “Before the riots, we would walk down 62nd Street on Saturdays, do all of our shopping, then stop to eat at any number of the restaurants,” the 42-year-old Liberty City resident shared. “People were nice and friendly. Now the entire area is the definition of urban decay. There are no jobs and I can’t afford to get out right now. It’s hard to accept.”
Many buildings along the boulevard that once housed businesses are now home to churches, Roberts said. Several other buildings are vacant, and the city has no plans to demolish them. From NW 7th to NW 17th Avenues, many buildings have been replaced with parks.
“And parks breed drug dens, areas for rape, shootings and everything else. They never replaced what we lost,” said Roberts.
NEW PLANS TO TRANSFORM AREA
The revitalization of 7th Avenue is being discussed, Roberts said, “but that’s slow in coming. Politicians need to understand the needs of the community.”
“People are hopeful,” said Chiverton. “There has been interest spawned in redevelopment of the area.”
Revitalization projects are underway. Plans for the redevelopment of the MLK Economic Development Corp. are in its final phases, according to Chiverton. The building, located at 6114 NW 7th Ave. will be demolished and reconstructed in the same location. The $5.5 million two-story facility will be funded through the Miami Dade County’s general obligation bond.
The Transit Village Project is a mixed-use development project that will be a multi-modal hub located in the heart of Liberty City. The project was introduced in 2004 when Meek secured the federal transportation dollars, according to Hashim Yeomans-Benford, a lead organizer at Miami Workers Center.
Located on the land bordered by 7th Ave. on the west, NW 6th Ct. on the east, MLK Blvd. on the north and NW 61st St. on the south, the project will create economic growth and community redevelopment opportunities for the community, Yeomans-Benford, who has worked on the project for seven years, said.
The project will include housing, a black box community theater, and a park or community space.
“We need to do it in a way that will support the existing community, so we organized a coalition that would fight for a transit village that would embody the community and our vision for its development,” said Yeomans-Benford. Through that process we, along with our partners, drafted a community building agreement that asks for things like local jobs, affordable housing and to provide new opportunities for small businesses.
“This project, if done right, has the opportunity to be a great economic catalyst for the community,” said Yeomans-Benford. “And for Dr. King, who fought and died for racial and economic justice, this is very important.”
The boulevard will say what Miami thinks of Dr. King, Tinnie said. “He had a vision and the best tribute we can pay is to carry the dream on.”
Valerie Jean Dent, 75, acknowledged that the boulevard has changed. Dent, who with her mother and grandmother moved into the area in 1950, said that she is “happy to have enjoyed it when she was young. I don’t go out at night anymore, but I do recollect the times before the violence. But I still call 62nd Street home.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net