Overtown, Miami was a thriving Black community in the early-to-mid twentieth century that—in a sadly all-too-familiar tale of white entitlement, privilege and disregard—would be fragmented by the city’s highway extensions of I-95 and I-395 in the 1960s. Thousands were forced to leave, relocating to Liberty City, Allapattah, Brownsville, and more. Venues (which had at times hosted the likes of Lena Horne and Cab Calloway) shut down, local enterprises changed addresses. Some of the oldest churches in Miami saw their congregations dwindle. Overtown, as a result, incurred heavy damage both economically and in spirit; poverty levels rose, crime spiked, and a once vibrant ribbon of Miami’s social fabric withered under its new concrete shadows.
Lately, though, the shadows are thinning. Historically Black Miami neighborhoods have experienced a significant rise in national awareness over the past few years. One example: the conversations around Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Best Picture-winning Moonlight (2016), which portrayed a young gay man growing up in Liberty City (Jenkins and McCraney are both Miamians). Another: shout-outs in the ultra-catchy lyricism of the ascendant female rap duo City Girls, with members Jatavia “JT” Johnson hailing from Liberty City and Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee growing up in Opa-Locka.
Overtown, meanwhile, has seen an uptick in commercial and community interest and investment. Red Rooster, the well-known Harlem restaurant from the Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, just opened its southern branch on Overtown’s Northwest 2nd Avenue. Former NBA player Alonzo Mourning, who spent most of his career with the Miami Heat, co-founded the Overtown Youth Center in 2003 with the aim of helping the area’s children and families through education. The Center does valuable, important work, especially with the added hardships incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is also The Copper Door B&B—with a new restaurant named Rosie’s—situated in a 1940s-era building on Overtown’s south edge. Its owners, partners with culinary backgrounds named Jamila Ross and Akino West, officially opened the lodging in July, 2018; Rosie’s was formally introduced this past summer, as a solution to pandemic-related indoor dining restrictions and a way to keep income flowing. Both Ross and West found that, while they had an initial vision for the site, it soon needed adjusting and has been a work-in-progress ever since. The most important factor: to keep a mid-century Overtown soul while helping to define what the area will be in the 2020s—and beyond.
“We quickly realized our responsibility to the history of the building and to the history of the neighborhood,” says Ross. “We took the preservation details very seriously during the process of getting it ready. It had been vacant for nearly 20 years, but before that, it had a vibrant history of Black entrepreneurship.”
The structure, as it happens, was originally built as a hotel. Its original owner was a controversial, law-skirting figure named Jimmy Demetree who named it after himself. A terrazzo inlay bearing his moniker still rests at the B&B’s entrance. Demetree, who was of Syrian descent, ended up leaving the hotel to a local bus driver named Carl “Moon” Mullins. Mullins would build up a business portfolio that included the hotel, a grocery store, a liquor store, a lounge and more. He passed away in 2014, though his family members are still in Miami.
Ross and West have taken this legacy and preserved much of it, especially in the bones of the building (with the help of the Coral Gables-based firm Stilo Design). Original crown molding caps the high, airy lobby in a garland of Deco angles; a desk, found in a room after the building’s vacant period, was refinished and now serves as a drink cart (which, until COVID-19 subsides, is now solely decorative). Moon’s original signage still hangs on the building’s cladding. Ross and West’s modern design touches include specially drawn wallpapers (each of the B&B’s 22 rooms is decorated differently), rotating gallery installations by local artists, flat-screen TVs, and a custom upholstery fabric featuring a print from an old postcard. Another cool fact: every bathroom has a reclaimed, baguette-shaped mirror. These were originally installed at Miami Beach’s now gone Raleigh Hotel. The Copper Door B&B is the kind of place where you immediately feel a sense of the then-and-now. Here, the past and present are intertwined so tightly that they retain a reverent gravity; you can sense the ghosts, you can see the stories.
“We actually stayed here for two years,” says West, noting that he and Ross wanted to make sure they were always on hand should a guest need anything—from a maintenance fix to a recommendation for a local seafood eatery. Though they live off-site now, they’re still at the property daily. “I think it took the neighborhood a minute to welcome us, but now we feel so comfortable. And, we’re starting to see a rise. It’s happening quickly.”
The clientele at The Copper Door B&B ranges from those looking to learn more about Overtown’s culture to those, pre-pandemic, who were readying to set sail on cruises (the Port of Miami is nearby). Rosie’s has attracted a wide range of Miami diners for its weekend brunches, with Southern cooking including a well-reviewed fish and grits. Ross and West constructed an outdoor overhang with ceiling fans as a solution to health concerns and protocols around COVID-19. They also bought an outdoor kitchen. It worked; the restaurant is a hit. Furthermore, their commitment has proven itself in other ways; The Copper Door B&B just won a $10,000 grant from the Beygood Foundation, a collaborative effort between Beyoncé and the NAACP that supports Black-owned businesses affected by the pandemic.
Ultimately, the very essence of The Copper Door B&B—in terms of its context, its contribution to Overtown’s evolution, and its deep homage to the past—rests in the name itself. “It’s interesting. When we first were working on the little details, I noticed flashes of copper that we’d included in our communal breakfast area, or on the front desk,” says West. “I started thinking it over. Copper has this antique sort of quality, even if it’s new, and it gets a patina over time. It tells a narrative. Plus, it’s functional. And, I think, it can be a little bit luxurious.” And the “Door” part of the name? Ross smiles. “Everyone is always welcome.”