When plans for I-95 in Miami were formulated in the 1960s, the interstate project was hailed as progress.
In Overtown, however, many who lived in the historic black Miami community knew better. “Progress” meant razing homes and forcing families to relocate to place tons of concrete and asphalt in the heart of a neighborhood that had flourished throughout the 20th Century.
“We’re a small community,” said Shirlene Ingraham, the co-owner of Jackson Soul Food. “When I-95 came through, many of the residents just moved.”
Decades later, Overtown is enjoying a rebirth.
Ingraham opened her restaurant near where her father ran his business before I-95 split the community. She’s seen other businesses move in. She’s seen the population begin to grow again. Throughout, she never lost hope that the soul of Overtown could be whole again.
“It hasn’t always been easy, but I feel I have to keep going because this is my heart and my community. I really want to see my community go to another level.”
In a colorful strip of businesses, adorned in bright, tropical colors, sits Regions Bank’s Overtown branch, the only bank located in the community.
“Regions Bank has a brick-and-mortar presence and has had one in Overtown for the last 20 years,” said Ramon Rodriguez, Regions’ Community Affairs Manager in South Florida. “So we’re able to do more by being there for a community that relies heavily on mass transit. Because of that, it’s very good that we have a bank branch there that people can walk to.”
Each and every day, Overtown Branch Manager Della Pitts arrives at work, ready to be a part of the neighborhood.
“We are committed to our community,” Pitts said. “We’re going to make sure that the customers we attract – old and new –know Regions is here to stay.”
For Regions, being a presence when other businesses left was just one step. Another has been a focus on teaching financial literacy to customers, to children and to parents at the nearby Overtown Youth Center and for people re-establishing themselves at the Lotus House Shelter for Women and Children.
“We chose Overtown because there was such an important need to provide services for women and children experiencing homelessness in our community,” said Constance Collins, president of the Lotus House Shelter that serves women and children.
From the Overtown branch, Pitts sends teams of bankers throughout the community to teach financial education, knowing that better money management will provide better opportunities for everyone.
“One of the main socio-economic barriers to success in our community is the income level of many members of our families,” said Tina Brown, executive director of the Overtown Youth Center.
Her work forces her to have difficult conversations with children at the youth center about economics and fighting financial barriers.
“We know that if we’re going to fight poverty, if we’re going to change generational cycles, if we’re going to change the trajectory of young people growing up in this community, that’s a conversation that has to be had,” Brown said.
For years, there was no barrier bigger than I-95.
But even now, Overtown civic leader Emmanuel Washington sees positive change in building projects and urban renewal efforts throughout the neighborhood.
He has but one regret.
“I’d like to see those families who waited 30 to 40 years take part in that growth,” Washington said.
Washington isn’t the only one seeing Overtown begin to bounce back. Collins sees change everywhere she turns.
“I think the growth in Overtown has been a village coming together,” Collins said. “We’ve all worked closely with each other to support, to uplift, and to create opportunities both in employment and housing. Financially, I can tell you the women in our shelter have really benefited from the financial literacy classes offered and the close relationship we have with Regions Bank right across the street.”
It’s that sense that everyone in Overtown has a vested interest that has changed perception and reality.
Regions banker Channing Thornton knows his bank’s location is important to the neighborhood, not only in terms of the financial help it can deliver but as part of the physical cornerstone of a community.
“It’s a natural fit,” Thornton said. “There are a lot of people here who don’t have transportation, don’t have cars, so they are on foot. They can come here to Jackson’s to eat, (or go) to the grocery store (or) the youth center, or use our bank facility.”
Pitts is witnessing a transformation in the plaza where Regions operates, with new businesses moving in and filling up once-vacant storefronts.
“It’s a community here,” Pitts said from inside her bank branch office. “We’re really transformed. Not only are we transforming the residents in the community, they’re building homes, they’re updating and upgrading their homes.”