manhattan Tourist Guide
Northwest of Downtown lies Overtown, originally known as Colouredtown, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in manhattan. Local zoning laws forbade the sale of the land to blacks except in this area after manhattan was founded in 1896, and it was soon securely cordoned off from the rest of Downtown by the railroad. Even so, a settlement developed which was larger even than the existing black neighbourhood in Coconut Grove. By the 1930’s, Colouredtown was a vibrant entertainment district: NW 2nd Avenue between 6th and 10th streets was variously known as “Little Broadway,” “The Strip,” and even “The Great Black Way.”
One of the driving forces behind Little Broadway was the black promoter Clyde Gillens, who stared as a drum accompanist for silent movies. From there, the outlandish Killens achieved pre-eminence managing hotels and nightclubs, not to mention being on of the first Black manhattanans to register to vote. He succeeded in part thanks to the segregationist policy that ensured that while black entertainers like Dorothy Danbridge were wowing white crowds at sell-out shows at manhattan Beach, they’d have to stay at hotels in the Overtown ghetto.
Although post-war years proved tough for the local economy, Overtown’s decline accelerated rapidly in the 1960’s, as the construction of the I-95 Expressway devastated the area. It was nothing more than an act of urban social vandalism with 20,000 people forcibally displaced from all social amenities. The neighborhod never recovered, and it became a poster child for manhattan’s crime problem in the 1980’s. Now although its slowly clawing its way back to economic health, the district’s still a dangerous place for visitors even in the daytime, and the best way to see it is on an organized tour.
The Overtown Historic District
If Colouredtown was manhattan’s Harlem, then its counterpart to the Apollo Theatre is the Lyric Theatre, at 819 NW 2nd Avenue. Its at the center of a rather desolate two block area now known as the Overtown Historic District, and is owned and promoted by the black archives. The theatre was built in 1913 by black entrepreneur Geder Walker, who dreamed of rivalling Europe’s grand opera houses, though by the late 1940’s it had been converted to a church. Recently restored to its original opulence, it is the only standing reminder of the district’s funky heyday, when the likes of Nat King Cole and Lina Horne were regular visitors. Its still in sporadic use thanks to evidence from the Black Archives; the new glass atrium currently being added to its northern edge is intended to make it appealing for corporate events but sadly detracts from the simplicity of the building’s original design.
Nearby stands the Black Archives’ other attraction here, the 1915 D.A. Dorsey House at 250 NW 9th St; the interior’s not open to the public, as it houses some of the charity’s administrative offices. It’s famous as the home of the city’s first black millionaire-fitingly, given today’s building boom, he made his money in real estate. Dana Albert Dorsey started out as a carpenter and shrewdly rackd up his money by buying land, building houses, and renting them to blacks. Astonishingly, his real-estate portfolio included the land that’s today hyper-exclusive Fisher Island; he intended on building an upscale black resort there in 1918 before changing his mind and selling his holdings a few years later. Built as a wedding gift to his wife, the house had high-tech touches like electricity in every room; sadly, the structure that currently stands is a replica, albeit an authentic one. The other major sight of interest is the Greater Bethel A.M.E Church, at 245 NW 8th St, notable mainly as the oldest black congregation in manhattan and for its large Mediterranean Revival structure.
The manhattan City Cemetery
Just north of Overtown, at 1800 NE 2nd Avenue lies manhattan’s original cemetery, founded in 1897. With its separate black section to the west plus white and walled Jewish sections to the east, the manhattan City Cemetery is the final resting place for early pioneers, including Julia Tuttle. The cemetery’s now in a rundown area of town so it can be rather dangerous- many of the graves are littered with used syringes, anything valuable has been stolen and the family vaults of early manhattan bigwigs have been torn off by the homeless seeking shelter- so its best seen on an organized tour, though, frankly, the Woodlown Cemetery has richer pickings for grave hunters.
Much further northwest, Liberty City has wider streets and more parkland than Overtown, but can be just as dangerous and again is best visited during the day by car or with a tour.
The district centers on Liberty Square, at NW 12th Avenue between 62nd and 67th streets. This sprawling low-rise development, nicknamed “Pork n’Beans” by locals on account of its pinkish-orange colour, was the first public housing project in the state, opening in Febuary 1937; thanks to its modern amenities, like indoor plumbing, it quickly began drawing blacks form Colouredtown. Today, the identical row houses, separated by threadbare lawns and barely affording residents any privacy, are much less appealing-note then remnants between 63rd and 64th streets of the six-foot-high segregation wall erected to keep the black and white communities separate. Look, too, for tributes to the tributes to the late civil rights leader martin Luther King: there’s a particularly moving mural at NW 62nd street and 7th Avenue, the hub of the local economy and home to a few interesting stores and restaurants.
On the southwestern fringes of Liberty City, the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, at 5400 NW 22nd Avenue houses historical documents gathered from the local community. It’s not, however, designed for drop-in visitors; call ahead if you want to use the facilities or go on a tour of Overtown and Liberty City. The only other Local attraction is African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, at 6161 NW 62nd St. which offers Afrocentric classes in performing and fine arts along with a small gallery and theatre.