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The Interview Nhadya Lawes & Jamila Ross

Audio Recording

Transcript

Nhadya: So, first okay so I think I told you a little bit about the research that I’m doing?

Jamila: Right

Nhadya: so, I took a couple classes my first year at university Miami looking at residential segregation in Miami particularly, and especially Overtown is a big part of that conversation as well.

So, looking at how like the Black presence in Miami and like Miami Dade as a whole has kind of like shifted kind of stayed the same in certain areas,

Jamila: Right

Nhadya: And so, I started like thinking about different ways to look at Miami as like a lens for Black history

Cause like when I think of Black history I think of like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, places like that,

Jamila: Right

Nhadya: So being able to have those conversations and look at it in this context t is really cool to me. And so, I just started this project, it’s a a little broad in the scope that like I’m looking at a bunch of different things, so I’m looking at activism, I’m looking at places like hospitality, which is kinda where the copper door comes in,

Jamila: Right

Nhadya: And then like Black owned businesses and different things, but really just looking at like place making practices, that’s what I’m really interested in,

Jamila: okay

Nhadya: Of how, people like have agency and like autonomy within like spaces and Black spaces. So, when I thought of the copper door, and I don’t know all of the history, cause I think you did like a walkthrough when you first started, that my mom went to, but I wasn’t there

Jamila: oh, okay, yeah.

Nhadya: So, I’m really interested in like hearing, um, the history of like the idea in the first place

Jamila: okay

Nhadya: And then, how you see it like similar or different to like other legacies of like the Mary Elizabeth hotel and there’s this place called the Georgettes Tea Room, that was a part of Black Miami as well, so it was kind of like this meeting place for people to get together, and different organizations would come and like read and talk and like have that kind of community,

Jamila: right

Nhadya: Um, and I particularly thought of like this communal table that you have set up, for people to come and eat. So just like 1) the idea of copper door b&b, 2) what you see it representing for Black Miami, it also like Miami on a large scale

Jamila: okay * laughs*

Nhadya: *laughs* I know that was a lot

Jamila: no, no. You’re fine

Um so yeah, both Akino and I come from culinary based careers. We’re food and beverage professionals. Um, he’s spent the majority of his time in the back of house, and I’ve spent the majority of my time and experience in did I get and management for f&b concepts within boutique hotel settings

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: So, um, I’ve graduated from the number one culinary school in this country, and Akino has also gone to culinary school. So, we, initially when I was applying to be a culinary student, I initially worked at a bed and breakfast, and I thought it would be a really cool concept maybe as a retirement type of plan, um I don’t know I just like, I got this bug to be interested in being an entrepreneur, wanted to be an entrepreneur and feeling like I can come up with something special. I guess I just got tired of working for other people in some degree

So, we opened up an um, well, okay, sorry I’ll retract. I was in between jobs and started managing someone else’s Airbnb properties, um Akino and I have both worked on a global level, so we were familiar with Airbnb way before the US was

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: And so, we decided that we could purchase our own property and start a vacation rental ourselves. We were initially looking, I mean it was going really well and um, we wanted to expand and open up a restaurant. We ended up touring around the Little Havana area for restaurant space and as we were kind of like communicating with the developer, he mentioned that he had a bed and breakfast property, so we came here. Literally it was in the same meeting. So after like touring the space, seeing the rooms- it was in the middle of construction, it was like in shambles at that time, no electricity like it was crazy, um and we, like the bones in the structure is what really spoke to me like we could make something special out of what’s already here. And Bed and breakfast’s usually have historic nuances or designation and things like that. So, this like fit that criteria when it came to you know a true bed and breakfast.

The room amount, also from a business perspective, also made sense. So, we have 22 guest rooms in all.

Um, so a lot of people ask me like what made you choose Overtown or like what was it that made you decide on this building or this area, and it’s almost the complete opposite, like this building found us, and this neighborhood found us, and not the other way around, I had no idea about 1) the history of this building or 2) the history of the neighborhood. I’m originally from New York, I had been in Miami for about five years, at that point, on and off. Now, it’s been around seven, and I have like people say like “oh I really know Overtown from like First 48” like I didn’t even know that much I never watched that show,

*Both laugh*

So, I had no idea what, um, what this was like, so as I started doing research, and as I started to understand I was like, wow, like this is really made for us.

Nhadya: yeah

Jamila: So, the building was built in the 40s, um by a gentleman named Jimmy Demetree, and in the 40s in Miami, like during prohibition era and all those things, or a little bit after, there was still a lot of like energy in general. Positive energy, negative energy, but like high energy. So, this gentleman was kind of like a robin hood for the neighborhood, he was like in and out of jail himself, like giving to the needy, taking from whoever, he felt like didn’t deserve it,

Nhadya: *laughs*

He’s like a family man, if you will. I actually got a call a few weeks ago from a young lady who is a Demetree, and like said that she used to come and like be in this space quite often

Nhadya: wow

Like as a child, yeah. Um, but history tells us that fifth street, here, fifth street and fourth street, I’ve heard different things, is almost kinda, almost like the mason Dixon line for this part of Miami. So, on the west side of 95, so this is kind of where it stops, becomes majority white, and then everything south of that street is majority Black, which um, a lot of people claim as being like proper Overtown, like third

Nhadya: right like historic Overtown,

Jamila: Right

And so, with that, you have, well he’s from Syrian descent, but a white owner, nonetheless. He employed a great deal of the Black people in this neighborhood, and they all, it seemed like the relationship between the two had some sense of like security, or camaraderie, like there was a sense of just like, what’s the word, like equality, I guess, is the only word I can think of.

So, he ended up hiring a gentleman named Carl Mullins, whose nickname was “moon” at the time because he was distilling moonshine, and um he was a bus driver, and his route started here where the bus stop is to this very day, and went through Miami Beach and came back, so across the bridge. And Mr. Moons nephew was working as a bartender, or a bar back or something, at this liquor store here

Nhadya: oh, right next door

Jamila: right here on this side, which is on fifth street, yeah.

And um, they introduced one another and Mr. Moon and Demetree like hit it off, became great friends, and. Started working as business partners, actually, so he was kind of like the right hand to Demetree. And Mr. Moon was like 6’3 so it was like if backup was needed *laughs*, Mr. Moon was present.

And unfortunately, Jimmy Demetree was actually shot dead here, in this space behind this wall, on the other side of this wall

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: And when that happened, Demetree’s wife approached Mr. Moon about taking on this property, they owned this piece of land, they owned where the YWCA is today, and Mr. Moon and his family ended up moving into this space, renting out the rooms upstairs as like boarding rooms, um, and during that time as well, like Mr. Moon and Demetree we’re running a brothel operation in the rooms upstairs, which is interesting

*Both laugh*

Um, but yeah, like we’ve tried to preserve as much of like the originality of the building as much as possible. Obviously, our entrance is extremely Art Deco, the terrazzo throughout the lobby here and even up the stairs is original to the space and the original Floridian design, the crown molding that you see throughout the perimeter of the lobby is also original to the space, so um, this building in general is about 80 years old or so

Nhadya: wow

Jamila: The hardwood floors on the second floor, which you know very well, are also original to the space

Nhadya: those are gorgeous!

Jamila: Yeah! They’re a lot of fun.

So, you know, once I was introduced to this space, it’s one of those, from a business perspective and like trying to develop a startup and a business concept, you have places that you have to create a vibe

Nhadya: Right

Jamila: Like you, it’s your responsibility to conceptually decide what these four walls are going to feel like when your first customers walk in. Um, unlike that scenario, being here, we made a genuine effort to fill this space with uh, memory of what used to be here, and really pay homage to what used to be here. It’s very touching for me, to be Black entrepreneurs in this space, because it’s literally come from a lineage of Black entrepreneurship at this point, at that’s very special, um, and doesn’t happen very often, *laugh*

Nhadya: mmm, makes sense yeah

Jamila: So, I genuinely enjoy that, and I think again, it just, it proves how self-sustaining Overtown was during that time

Nhadya: yeah

Jamila: And that Black entrepreneurship or the idea of a Black hotel was not an unusual nuance. It wasn’t anything special, it was just now it was, and um you know, when it comes to Overtown in general, and the idea of gentrification, it’s really interesting that the neighborhood in general has really skilled Black owners and leaders in the spaces, um, bringing great energy back into this area.

So, for us, it was just like, this was a great opportunity, this space has a great story, this neighborhood has a great story, and this is a good fit for us, not necessarily like I want to revitalize this area, or you know, they’re looking for Black entrepreneurs or anything like that.

Nhadya: Right.

Jamila: We had stumbled upon the opportunity and was like no, this works. This is worth our time and like, this is what I want to create.

Nhadya: that’s a really cool story.

Jamila: *laughs*

Nhadya: Yeah! I wish I would’ve known that before, that’s awesome.

Um, this is like a side thing, not even from like my research questions but I wonder if like you can have some sort of, I don’t know, like, not like a book, like you know how there’s those coffee table books, like the big, large hardcover ones

Jamila: yeah, for sure

Nhadya: So maybe like, in the lobby, or like in rooms, you can have a little, like, book of the history of the building or something like that

Jamila: right, right

Nhadya: That could be really cute!

Jamila: that would be really cute!

Nhadya: Yeah, just to have like those stories and like, have people understand the legacy and all that, that’d be nice!

Jamila: I think so too! It’s funny cause I, I've played around with a lot of different ideas of like how to incorporate the story more into the guest experience, um, and u think that actually a hardcover, like you said, kind of like coffee table book, would be really, amuse like there’s a lot of different ways that we could go about it, but I like that idea

Nhadya: yeah, and you could like, maybe you could have one in each room and maybe like on the website if people wanted to support, they could like buy the book for their own - that could be cool

Jamila: yeah, for sure, for sure, I do like that

......

Nhadya: in the books I’ve been reading, the two places in particular were the Georgettes Tea Room and the Mary Elizabeth hotel, so the tearoom was more like a meeting place for organizations and leaders to like come and talk, but also like entertainers that would come through

Jamila: right

Nhadya: And then Mary Elizabeth hotel I think was more for like, I guess like the elite or the famous people

Jamila: okay right,

Nhadya: So, like when entertainers would perform in Miami Beach they would come to the Mary Elizabeth and there would be like parties afterwards

Jamila: is the Mary Elizabeth still standing?

Nhadya: No, so apparently demolished the building, um, I don’t know when that happened, but like it’s not here anymore, so that’s kind of sad too

Jamila: it is

Nhadya: Cause it would be nice to, like, have that as like a landmark

Jamila: right, for sure

Nhadya: But it was really interesting to read up on those. So, like I was reading about all these hotels, and I was like oh my gosh, I should definitely like, check in, and like bring the Copper Door into this conversation.

Jamila: and to be honest with you, like the neighborhood, like, we have many neighbors that’s I’ll come by and like “do you know we used to stay here?” And like-

Nhadya: wow

Jamila: With the intention of like informing us of like a famous person or something like that, so, I definitely think that it was one of those spaces, um, all the stories that I’ve heard are more associated with it being either that kind of like brothel operation, or being more of a boarding house

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: But, yeah, and I think for us, like, that type of energy that Overtown had, in terms of like gathering, the jazz, the feel, the soul. When it comes to things like our music selection, or the decor choices, the woods and things like that, it creates a memory from that time. Um, we have many guests that come in and their like, “this kind of feels like my grandma’s house!”

Nhadya *laughs*

Jamila: Cause like terrazzo -

Nhadya: and the little trinkets on the -

Jamila: yeah! Like the terrazzo and floral print, like a lot of the Floridians feel like this nostalgic, um, you know, sense when they come into the space, which is nice, and that’s kind of like, I want to evoke memory. That’s like what, we try to do.

......

Nhadya: evoke memory, that’s awesome. I like that. And it’s also like, so, the first time I saw a communal table was at um, Le Pain Quotidien, um

Jamila: yeah!

Nhadya: there’s one in coconut grove but the first time I went was in New York, and I just like love the concept. But I’m sure like having this also tends to that like gathering aspect that you were talking about l

Jamila: for sure

Nhadya: With like having different people, there together

Jamila: yeah, and that’s just like true if bed and breakfast culture. A true B&B is that it’s usually in a little dining room, a formal dining room. Everyone eats together.

Nhadya: yeah. I love that. That’s really cool.

And then, the other thing, and I think you started getting to it, about like, Black business owners in Overtown, and like having that agency and autonomy, but also like support amongst each other, so like how do you see it, as like you, and Akino, and the Copper Door, having support from Black business owners, and just like organizations or people in this area in general?

Jamila: yeah, um it’s *laughs*, it’s a very political, Overtown is a very political place. Unfortunately. Um, I mean there are pros and cons to either side of that. In the sense that, you know, the city of Miami is trying really hard to, again, create this space, where, you know, Black culture and the history of the area can thrive, because it’s been, um, you know, demolished by the building of I-95. So, to some degree, um, us as independents have been able to come together to form some sort of coalition. I wish that some of the organizations that were created to support small business in Overtown, were actually doing that, um, I feel differently about their efforts and things like that, but again, as independents, restaurants, hoteliers, sops in general, were very unified, especially now that COVID 19 has hit. In terms of like, sending each other emails and stuff, about grant information, when one of us gets the grants, congratulating, spreading information in general about like, what are you doing, how are you doing it, who can I contact. We’re just a small network of people that try really hard to be involved and keep each other up.

Nhadya: that’s, that’s really good.

And so, you see yourselves, so there were other, like back in my readings, there were other organizations, I don’t remember what the names were, but they would be like “league of...” this and this or “organization of...” this and this. Do you see like your organization here ever creating their own, since the mid official small business organization isn’t really doing what you guys need? Do you ever see that being a possibility?

Jamila: yeah, for sure! And I mean like, we have had many conversations about coming up with an actual organization that’s you know, founded by the group.

Nhadya: yeah, I think that would be cool. I-I’m always interested in like agency, autonomy, like all of those things

Jamila: ok, cool

Nhadya: Like making your own tables and all of that other stuff when things aren’t working out, so that’s really cool

Jamila: right, yeah, for sure.

We actually had a name, I can’t remember it now, cause it’s, after like, after the new year and we were all so busy, um, and the COVID happened, like we were having routine, monthly meetings!

Nhadya: wow, really

Jamila: yeah! Give me one second, because we did come up with a name and now, I’m drawing a great blank, and I think that it would be great for your, for your knowledge.

.......

Jamila: The Nickname is HOBA … It was the, oh my God, what did we call ourselves, “Historical Overtown...” I cannot remember right now,

Nhadya: would it be like “business association” or something like that?

Jamila: I think it was... can I get back to you on that?

Nhadya: *laughs*. yeah, yeah, you’re good.

Jamila: but that was definitely the acronym.

....

Nhadya: maybe like an aside, or maybe it overlaps, but like being someone who’s not native to like South Florida and Miami, like do you - now that you’ve been here for like a good while, or even when you first got here, do you recognize any things that are like nuances of like a Black Miami experience? Um, I took a class last semester looking at like the Black Miami aesthetic in film and cinema, and television, um, so we looked at like Moonlight, and looked at the way that they would portray landscape, or like portray Black skin

Jamila: right!

Nhadya: But that’s like more from like a cinematic, like, visual perspective, but are there any other things you notice about just like how people interact with each other? Or like what you see as different from like your experience in New York?

Jamila: I think I can answer the question as like an outsider looking in

Nhadya: yeah

Jamila: um, and I’ve learned more what like a south Floridian is like, especially because, like my fiancée is from West Palm

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: something’s I noticed about him that I realized were not just about him *laughs* that is A South Floridian thing, not a him thing ... it definitely, um, Black entrepreneurship definitely has a, it’s naturally organically like South Floridian, for sure.

... like, from a food and beverage perspective, for example, Fla. I had no idea what that was. That’s not a drink that I knew to be

Nhadya: okay

So, fla is sweet and iced tea and lemonade, which I know to be an Arnold Palmer, but here it’s called Fla. So, like a lot of restaurants sell “fla”.

And um, the idea of like street side barbecue, I’ve never been exposed to that *laughs*

Uh, there’s like a genuine love for seafood, like fish, fish in particular, that I was unaware of. I never had so many people ask me what type of fish I was using, working with.

I’m tryna think. Cause I think from like a cultural perspective it’s really difficult to pinpoint, other than like dialects that I notice a lot, just like slang or, what I call like the run on sentence, like I find that a lot of Black South Floridians like, the words almost combine

*Both laugh*

Nhadya: Do you have like an example?

Jamila: laughs, no, I can’t give you an example. I’m so sorry, cause I couldn’t do it. Um, or lack of pronunciation, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.

Nhadya: okay

Jamila: um, so like culturally that’s super unique, I feel like, to hear

I think a lot of things that just like people associate with Miami too like you know, the old school cars, and like it being you know, candy painted colors and like, things like that

Yeah, from a cultural perspective, there’s just a lot of things that I think 1) associate very directly with just like Black southern culture - like not only am I not from here, but I also happen to be a Black New Yorker which is very different than people from other parts of the country

I mean, there’s always going to be, like this development or like, underlying Caribbean flair, which I also really enjoy about Miami, and there’s a great respect for, um, our Caribbean neighbors and communities and things like that. And I find that a lot among our cultural habits as well. So that’s kind of cool, that unique to this space too.

.....

Nhadya: The Caribbean and southern thing is cool because we’ve been talking a lot about how, Miami is like this-

So, I’m taking a class on competitive Black literature, and we were reading this Jamaican writer named Eric Waldrond, and he has this short story where he talks about people on a boat, but it like Black people from like everywhere, Panama, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, from the US, like all in this like microcosm. And so, talking about how Miami is also this microcosm of just like global Black, like the whole Diaspora.

Jamila: right, I agree.

Nhadya: And like how that’s all here, so that’s been something interesting I’ve been thinking about too. Um, I’m interested in like museums and doing art, but it also kind of connects with like the Diaspora and how it reflects Miami

Jamila: very cool

Nhadya: And even like the way that like, the way that people carry themselves, but also the way that certain communities are set up, are very like affected by how people come in through the Diaspora and different immigration waves have affected like, even the landscape of south Florida

Jamila: wow, I didn’t know that

Nhadya: yeah, it’s really interesting. I’m becoming like a Miami nerd which is so funny

Jamila: that’s so cool

Nhadya: Like you think about when the first wave of Cubans came in, and the first ones were like Cubans on the wealthier side, and then you had some poor and Black Cubans who didn’t have a lot of money, and the Haitian wave come in, and all of these other communities and how, it percolates and trickles down into the communities that you see currently

Jamila: right

Nhadya: and how that affects like the way that, even different Black people, but also the way that just people in Miami interact with each other

......

Jamila: there’s a lot of eyes on Miami, definitely with it being a newer but very dynamic city, and it’s kind of like finding its place, so it’s very interesting that you’re doing this type of research.

Nhadya: thank you!

Jamila: you’re welcome!