Nicholas Small

Nicholas Small is a photographer based out of Los Angeles, California. He started making images after discovering his father’s nikon film camera at twelve years old. Nicholas worked in the darkroom over summers at nearby schools, and honed his skills on film. Throughout his experience with photography making images has always been a way for him to observe, reflect, and also document his own evolution of consciousness. He is currently traveling, exploring America, and occasionally covers breaking news.

Artist, Reggie O’neal stands on his balcony in Overtown, Miami, while monstrous city scrapers tower over him in the background

Liberty Square, Miami

Z pointing out a bullet hole in his mailbox

Liberty City, USA

Liberty City is one of the most historic and culturally rich parts of Miami that no tourist will see. Its history told through its largest housing development called “Liberty Square.” In 2016 I visited Liberty Square to experience that history for myself and try to understand where the community was heading. I returned in 2018 to expand my research outside of the housing project and see how the same themes affect neighboring communities.

A 753 unit housing project in Miami’s Dade County, Liberty Square, was constructed and opened in the mid 1930’s, becoming the first public housing development for African Americans in the south. For older residents it was a perfect place to live: there was little crime, people would leave their doors unlocked and windows open. People were content. In 1980, Liberty City (Liberty Square’s larger neighborhood) erupted in flames. Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance broker, was beaten to death by police officers after running a red light. The officers were acquitted, sparking riots that ended in $100 million worth of damage. More devastating was the human cost when eighteen people died as a result of the riots.

Today, Liberty Square is known for gang related violence. Unlike large street gangs in other major cities, most of the gangs are small and spread out. Shootings are common and the victims aren’t always gang affiliated. The collateral damage involves innocent victims caught in the crossfire. Gun violence is out of hand and officials are struggling for an effective answer.

I was struck by the culture that exists around guns here. It wasn’t uncommon to notice a rigid bulge in a waistband. I was told that most people get there license to carry a firearm before a license to drive a car. “It’s not like Cali out here. It’s the wild west in Florida.” That’s what Zwade told me. Originally from Trinidad, his family moved to Florida when he was five years old. He walked me through the barren housing project where he spent most of his childhood. Brownsville, or as most people in Liberty City know it, “the subs,” is infamously known for trap houses that move drugs. The history is etched into the land. Gun holes in mail boxes, fences, and trees. Signs posted around the projects read “Up to $5,000 will be paid… for information leading to the arrest of and conviction of any person dealing in illegal drugs on these premises.” Another read, “Gun Bounty Program. How to get a stack. Get $1,000 cash reward for information that leads to a person with an illegal gun. NO Name, ID, Questions.” Among the memories of bullets flying, Zwade spoke more of the qualities that define a real community. “Everyone knows everyone in here. People can let their kids play outside from a young age because they know someone is looking out.”

There has been talk of rebuilding some of these communities, allocating money to struggling residents, and injecting one hundred more police officers into the area. Rebuilding the community is difficult. In theory, the government would find temporary housing for locals, reconstruct the area, and then return everyone. The catch is that only the residents that are in “good standing” are welcome back. Essentially, this is a weeding process. Whoever is not in “good standing” with the housing authority ends up displaced.

A similar effort was made in 2000 when a housing project at NW 22 Ave. and 75th St. was demolished. 1,150 people were removed from their homes and promised new first dibs on the reconstructed properties. A scandal within the housing authority left former residents on their own for a decade. Finally, the new apartments were completed in 2012. Those who still wanted to move into the new units were forced to provide documentation of paying rent on time, zero criminal records, and no evictions. Most of the 247 updated apartments are not occupied by the same people who originally occupied them. Many never made it back. The fear is that the community is being dismantled and there won’t be fair options for the residents being pushed out.

Liberty Square, Miami

Liberty City Church of Christ

Overtown being overshadowed by Miami’s major development in the background

Reggie O’neal analyzing a mural he painted at a school in Overtown

To view more of Nicholas Small’s work please visit his website.