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Highway construction forces last man standing out of his Overtown home

Benjamin Brown loses family home of nearly 100 years to FDOT's I-395 expansion project

Erick Johnson | 4/17/2014, 9 a.m.
Brown’s family home of nearly 100 years.

Benjamin Brown has lived in his Overtown home since The Great Depression. At 80 years old, his home has been in the family Since World War I.

It’s the only home Brown has lived in. But next week, the blue and white structure that has hosted many family traditions will be cleared out by a wrecking ball. Brown will be the last of some 15 residents and neighbors who have long left their homes after the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), by the power of eminent domain, decided to demolish their buildings to renovate and expand the I-395 expressway.

It’s a time reminiscent of the 1950s when the state displaced thousands of Overtown residents after demolishing their homes to build another expressway, I-95. Once a thriving neighborhood of hotels, nightclubs and businesses, the project decimated Overtown's population from 50,000 to about 8,000 today. Despite redevelopment efforts, the neighborhood has never fully returned to the flourishing community it once was in its heyday.

Brown's home has existed long before I-395 was constructed in the 1960s. The home is actually a three-bedroom apartment that his parents bought 97 years ago. Located at 218 NW 14th Terrace, the building sits next to a vacant, boarded up apartment building that will also be destroyed to make way for the renovation project.

“I’ve been here all my life but I don’t expect to be around long enough to rebuild anything,” Brown said.

Brown and other residents were notified by the state to relocate 10 years ago during a meeting with the Overtown Advisory Board. An official legal notice soon followed. Residents were also told the state will buy their property at appraised valued and pay for all their relocation expenses. The market value of Brown’s home is $159,369, according to the Miami-Dade County property appraiser’s website.

But to Brown, the issue is not about money, but history. He once considered filing a lawsuit to keep the home that has been in his family for nearly a century, but decided not to after realizing it would be a losing battle. Instead, Brown decided to stay in the home until the very end to savor the final days of the building’s family history and legacy. The state gave Brown a deadline of April 28 to move.

“I would have never sold this place for any price,” Brown said. “If I wanted to, I would have sold it a long time ago.”

The living room is a family museum of photos, heirlooms and plaques. Framed pictures of many late relatives adorn the bookshelves, while the whizzing sounds can be heard from cars zooming on I-395 just above the building's roof. The items tell the family history of Brown, the second youngest of 15 children whose parents, George, a blacksmith and Lovina, a housewife, purchased the home in 1917.

Brown said Miami’s first Black millionaire D.A. Dorsey, often visited the home to persuade his father to purchase other property. He often declined.

"He (Dorsey) would come over and talk to my father about owning property," Brown said. "My father would always say, a good name is better than a man with riches."