The little things struck Fathiyyah Doster first. More lawns were being groomed on a regular basis. The trash had disappeared from the sidewalks. Fresh coats of asphalt covered the main roadways.
In 2005, Doster returned to her hometown of Miami Gardens following her college graduation. What she saw was unrecognizable. For the first time, the city appeared determined to create its own identity — and she wanted to stay.
“I thought that Miami Gardens would grow into this hub for the Black community,” said Doster, now 36 and owner of juicing company “JuiceDefined,” started out of the home that she purchased from her parent.
In the 15 years since, Miami Gardens has done precisely that. And it’s done a much better job of it than most people outside of the increasingly alluring orbit of Miami Gardens seem to realize. The city’s 2020 All-America City title, an honor bestowed on communities working to address local issues, is proof.
Crafted from a patchwork of majority-Black subdivisions and commercial districts split up by expressways, Miami Gardens was explicitly conceived by its founders in 2003 as a demonstration of what could happen if Black Miamians were allowed to seize control of their own affairs under favorable conditions.
Though perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami-Dade’s northwest reaches, Miami Gardens has almost stealthily built itself into a rare oasis in the county: A majority Black city that provides its residents with stable middle-class neighborhoods, a solid municipal government, plenty of nationally branded shopping supplemented by a smorgasbord of Caribbean and soul-food restaurants, and small businesses.
With elected leaders who reflect the majority of residents – 70% of its 113,000 residents identify as Black – there is a widespread pride of place and opportunity for advancement, not least thanks to the uncommon fortune of having two full-fledged universities inside city boundaries.
And in the view of Mayor Oliver Gilbert, Miami Gardens is also persuasive evidence that Black Miami-Dade residents can, if given opportunity and support, overcome longstanding obstacles stemming from decades of discrimination, bigotry and disadvantage.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Median household income ($42,398) remains lower than the state average ($53,267). The poverty rate (21.7-percent) is roughly double that of the United States (10.5-percent). High schools in the area, as with many in primarily Black communities, also fell below the county’s “A” average: Norland has a “B” while Carol City has a “C.”
But crime, once high, has been plummeting, and policing, at times fraught by claims of racism, has improved thanks in part to efforts to make the force better reflect the city’s makeup.
In the past decade, the city has attracted national chain retailers and dining spots, including a Walmart Supercenter, a Burlington and brand-new Starbucks that, pre-Covid, had become a center for civic gatherings. The real estate world has also taken notice: a California developer is building the Miami Gardens’ first mixed-use development on 17 acres near the Hard Rock, and word is that new hotels – the city has long lacked quality hostelry – may be on the way.
Despite its brief existence, Miami Gardens has transformed itself from bedroom community to near full-service suburban city where residents can prosper, work, go to school and play without undue fear of encountering the casual racism that’s a daily fact of life for many Black Miami-Dade residents.
Many neighborhoods project a sense of ease. Black teens wander along laughing and smiling. Elderly women are more likely to wave at strangers than clutch at their purses. Neighbors watch out for each other’s kids as if they were their own.
There’s a little something for everyone inside the 20 square miles that make up Miami Gardens. No longer just the game-day home of the Miami Dolphins or the Hurricanes, the city now finds itself as a player on the national stage where festivals like Jazz in the Gardens and Rolling Loud draw tens of thousands of visitors. Like close-knit immigrant enclaves such as Little Havana and Little Haiti, the city looks to be an integral part of Miami-Dade County’s economic and political future.
“Our being able to stake out a claim for ourselves is important,” said Tameka Bradley Hobbs, a history professor and associate provost at Florida Memorial who also serves as the university historian. “To have a community where we have thriving institutions such as Florida Memorial makes it attractive for Black people to come and thrive and live. I think we have all the ingredients. I see it and we hunger for it.
“This is not about separation. We are part of this country, but we have different needs because we continue to be excluded. We can’t wait for people to do right by us. We have to begin to build.”
‘WE ALL TOOK OWNERSHIP’
Miami Gardens’ wasn’t always primarily Black. Back when the area was known by its neighborhoods like Carol City and the Bahas, the demographics skewed more white. Integration in the late 1960s began to change the city’s racial makeup. By the 1990 Census, the Black population had exploded by more than 10,000% to 29,000, according to “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century,” by historian Marvin Dunn.
The racial makeup changed as Carol City and growing subdivisions around it became a place Black people in Miami aspired to live – a middle-class enclave of mostly new, single-family homes with yards at prices within reach. It was a clean, attractive alternative to the turmoil of Liberty City and other historically Black neighborhoods in Miami.
“It became a kind of middle ground for the Black community,” Richelle Williams-Lorde, the executive pastor at Jesus People Ministries Church, said. “My mom grew up in this community. She’s still in this community. This community meant something to our parents. People were vying to be part of [it] .... It was a community to look up to.”
That middle-class base created a stability that endured even through economic downturns and spikes in crime, and today underlies Miami Gardens’ sustained growth, said Williams-Lorde, 43. City leaders tout the home ownership rate — 63.9%, outpacing the county’s 51.6%— and affordability. The median value of owner-occupied homes sits just under $171,000, roughly $100,000 less than that of the Miami-Dade County.
Like many, Williams-Lorde credits Gilbert — now in his eighth year as mayor and recently elected to the County Commisson — his predecessors and an “impeccable” city administration.
When Gilbert promised commercial development during his 2012 campaign, he remembers people calling him crazy. The proof is in his track record. The Marshalls? A product of Gilbert’s ability to market Miami Gardens. The Starbucks? Also Gilbert. The Top Golf? Gilbert again.
“It became proof of concept that you could actually have a business [here], you can invest millions of dollars and your return on investment could be more than you actually anticipated,” Gilbert explained.
While recruiting brand name restaurants and retailers proved the city’s viability, Gilbert also continued the work of his predecessor Mayor Shirley Gibson when it came to boosting civic pride. Initiatives like Live Healthy Miami Gardens, encouraging healthy eating and exercise, supplemented more tangible actions like renovating Buccaneer Park, Bunche Park and the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex.
In 2004, Miami Gardens police reported a total crime index — a figure measuring the number of property and violent crimes — of 8,475, the fifth highest figure in Miami-Dade County. That number has fallen by 39% in the past 15 years, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The County’s displacement of Black residents, which in this case meant the demolishing of project homes in Liberty City, also played a role. In Gibson’s view, the county essentially pawned off Black Miamians “neglected by the system” on Miami Gardens with barely enough means to pay their rent. It was an unpopular opinion at the time but Gibson has maintained her stance, though she chooses her words carefully to avoid demonizing every person who moved from Liberty City north to Miami Gardens. She settles on this: it wasn’t fair to the actual individuals, the city or its residents.
“They do not send those renters to more affluent communities,” she said.
The mid-2000s saw the emergence of the “Murder Gardens” moniker. Birthed in the isolated pockets of the city, the name soon became synonymous with its reputation, especially following the release of an eponymous film in 2019. Gilbert takes issue with that title.
“Crime exists all over South Florida, but if something happens in Miami Gardens, it’s always going to make news if it’s negative,” he said.
Bradley Hobbs blames the nation’s cruel history of racism for stereotypes that criminalize Blackness and brand the enclaves inhabited primarily by those of African descent as places to be avoided
American society struggles “with the automatic assumption that people with Black skin have predilections for criminality,” Bradley Hobbs explained. “It operates not only on the individual level but magnifies when you have large numbers of African-Americans congregating together or, if you look at some place like Miami Gardens, living together.”
Gilbert also points a finger directly residents who fueled the narrative.
“If they tell you that every young black man in Miami Gardens is violent, then you believe it and you start to perpetuate it and you start to repeat it,” he said.
Mark Samuels, the auteur of the “Murder Gardens” film, stands by his use of the name. Born in Jamaica, Samuels moved to the area formerly known as Carol City in the mid-1980s and has been there ever since. The uproar created by the title was misplaced, he says, considering that his project seeks to undo some of the stereotypes ascribed to Black families.
“I don’t want to paint this picture like Miami Gardens is a city where you have to wear a bulletproof vest to drive through there,” said Samuels, 37.
And he’s right. Miami Gardens’ overall crime rate has dropped about 44% since 2004, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As recently as 2016, its crime rate per 100,000 was lower than affluent Aventura, the city of Miami and the county as a whole. The latest data shows the rate at 5,152, which is lower than Miami Beach and about on par with the city of Miami.
While crime overall is down, homicides remain a troubling issue. In 2019, the Miami Gardens’ murder count reached a new high of 26 — a figure still less than the city of Miami’s 43.
Samuels agrees Miami Gardens has made progress, but notes that it doesn’t stretch citywide. Some residents still refer to their home as “Murder Gardens” and, more often than not, live in pockets untouched by the city’s economic prosperity.
With more films planned under his production company MBS Media Group, he’s hoping to change that by replicating an integral part of “Murder Gardens” — staffing the entire project with local residents.
“Multiple people in this film don’t have experience in film so I gave a lot of opportunities to a lot of different people who now can take that and move on to another film or get a full-time job or take that knowledge because that’s how you break the economic gap,” he added.
One thing Miami Gardens lacks is an urban focal point. Laid out and developed mostly under low-density suburban zoning prior to incorporation, it’s a rectilinear grid of mostly single-family homes separated by strip-style commercial development along broad, high-speed arterials. The city has seen little in the way of new housing construction or the type of mixed-use projects blending residential with commercial development that have led to the creation of urban “downtown” hubs in Miami-Dade suburbs like Kendall and Doral in recent years.
But that’s changing.
In 2015, the city inaugurated a gleaming new, $55-million city hall and police headquarters complex in a sharp contemporary architectural style – a sure sign of Miami Garden’s high aspirations.
A mile north, next to a new Walmart Supercenter, a California developer has begun work on a nearly 17-acre mixed-use project. Built around an artificial lake, the Center at Miami Gardens will encompass mid-rise apartments with a 5,000-square-foot clubhouse and a “resort-style” swimming pool, as well as companion stand-alone commercial space and a 24 Hour Fitness gym.
The first phase of the Center’s 259-unit apartment complex, The Pomelo, broke ground in October and scored a $50 million construction loan early this year, with expected completion in 2021.
The developers, The Latigo Group out of Los Angeles, did not respond to requests for an interview. But in news releases and its website, the developers said the apartments will rent at “mid-tier” rates to fill a gap in the local market.
Gilbert has said the apartments will diversify the city’s housing stock and serve as a lure for young professionals who can later buy a home in Miami Gardens.
“People see Black cities and they assume that housing that has to come here has to be affordable housing,” Gilbert explained. “And let me be clear. We have an affordable housing shortage in South Florida, but we don’t have one in Miami Gardens because the value of the single family homes... are suppressed.”
Having Hard Rock Stadium helps. Though many residents are quick to disparage the stadium for disrupting neighborhood serenity during fall weekends, its economic impact on Miami Gardens is irreplaceable as not just the city’s top taxpayer but also one of the biggest private donors, Gilbert says. Residents, however, remain concerned about plans for a Formula 1 race at the stadium that have stirred local resentment; the the Dolphins early this year altered the proposed course to allay concerns.
Hard Rock Stadium “creates jobs and economic opportunity,” Gilbert said. “One of the things that I do when I’m out selling economic development is I talk about the fact that we have a stadium that we can use as an anchor so we know that people will come here.”
It also helps to have two institutions for higher learning — the historically Black Florida Memorial and St. Thomas, a Catholic institution— within the city limits. That’s unusual for a city its size – and a decided boost to its real-estate market appeal, St. Thomas University President David Armstrong notes.
“From a real-estate perspective, having a college or university in your town always ranks your city higher,” he said.
“It’s a lot of big business coming in ‘downtown Miami Gardens,’” Bodie said. “That’s why I call it that — because there’s a lot of big business is coming here now.”
Born in the Bahamas but raised in Carol City, Bodie and his mother Lorna opened up the eatery as a takeout spot inside the landmark Carol Mart flea market in 2004. The demolition of the market could’ve signaled the end. Bodie had other plans: an upscale dine-in restaurant complete with a bar and live music. Situated just a mile from the stadium, the latest iteration of Lorna’s opened in 2016.
“When [fans] leave the game, they don’t have to go way out to the Hard Rock [Hollywood] or South Beach,” he added. “They have a nice place to come.”
Bodie’s success gives credence to Miami Gardens’ reputation as a melting pot of sorts, one where strivers from the inner city blend well with immigrants from the Bahamas, Haiti and Latin America. This ethos dates back to Gibson’s tenure as mayor, when she declared the city “a community for everyone,” a rather prescient stance.
“I made that statement [for the future] — we are inclusive to everyone who’s here though, population-wise, we are a primarily Black city,” she explained.
Already known for its robust Caribbean community, Miami Gardens’ has also seen an influx of Latinx individuals. The latest Census data shows the city’s Latino population has increased roughly 25-percent since 2010.
Miami Gardens’ increasing diversity appears to have paralleled its economic development. Elysee has seen her hometown – once simply “Miami” — transformed from bedroom community to full-fledged, full-service city, she said.
The old flea market, Clover Leaf bowling alley and the skating rink — all highlights of her teenage years — are gone, replaced by Burlington, Ross Dress for Less and Old Navy — reducing her trips to Aventura and Miramar. Alongside the chains, she said, locally owned hair and nail salons, restaurants, bakeries and other businesses have also sprouted.
In her generation, she noted, many left Miami. But family and Miami Gardens are now drawing them back.
“Friends of mine have gone away to Atlanta and California,” Elysee said. “Our parents are aging a lot, so they are deciding to move back. They tend to say, ‘I miss this place. I miss the music.’”
Doster’s own return 15 years ago has worked out. Her parents’ home has tripled in value. Her juicing business has taken off, and she recently purchased a brick-and- mortar operation in Opa-locka. The brain drain that once drove Black Miamians to Broward County, Atlanta or other places in search of community seems to be less of a factor in Miami Gardens, something she helped contributed to.
“Miami is paradise,” she concluded. “There should be a primarily Black city that runs well.”