Dan Overstreet returned to Detroit after a tour in Vietnam with the 101st Infantry that gave him malaria three times and killed 19 of his unit's 21 soldiers. He tried to keep a steady job as a union railroad worker, but got into enough scuffles with management that they offered him money to get lost. He then took that money and bought a derelict bar with a collapsing roof in Detroit's most infamous area.
Enlisting the help of the neighborhood's colorful residents, Overstreet salvaged wood and materials from abandoned buildings and pieced together just enough junk to qualify the place as a bar. The doors of the Old Miami officially opened on Feb. 3, 1980.
The building had seen its share of Detroit troubles. First opened as a watering hole for neighborhood car salesmen, by the 1960s it was a sleazy, desperately seedy hangout for the prostitutes who turned tricks on mattresses laid out on the floor of the machine shop next door. Michael Roper (now owner of a craft brewery in Chicago) bought it in the '70s and tried to fix it up. Irate locals poured gasoline through the vents one night and the place, known then as the New Miami, burned down.
Overstreet, undaunted and more than a little foolhardy, dove in.
He honored the building's history and that of his fellow veterans with the bar's new name — "Miami" also stands for Missing In Action, Michigan. The unique home to world travelers, hippies, vets, and rockers has remained staunchly scruffy as the Cass Corridor became Midtown and pet boutiques replaced drug dens.
Overstreet credits the bar's longevity to his time in the Vietnam War — and fear. "I always pictured myself losing the business and not having anywhere to go, and then they find me sticking to the sidewalk when it's freezing," Overstreet says. "That's how I kept going when there was no money. I scared myself into it."
Not that it was easy starting out. At the time, that stretch of Cass was one of the seediest in the city. Desperate poverty and hopelessness caused the crime rate to soar in the '70s. In 1975, Detroit was the Murder Capital of the U.S.; city hospitals saw about 5,000 gunshot wounds or stabbings that year.
Overstreet approached the local drug dealers after he bought the bar. He laid down a firm boundary: the rest of the neighborhood was theirs to do with as they saw fit, but the block where the Old Miami sat was his now. "I went to them and said, 'If you leave my block alone, I'll leave you alone, or else I'm going to shoot you all,'" he says. "So they respected that and honored that because I was honest with them. So that worked out good."
His military service resulted in what he casually refers to as "a few awards and stuff," including a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. "Being in that situation," he says, "gave me the guts to stay down there every night. People were getting shot every night, the cops were crooked, you name it."
Overstreet pauses and sighs. "It was just wonderful," he says. "What it was, was true."
Overstreet and his wife, Julie Flynn, spent years painstakingly constructing the Old Miami's famed back yard and patio. In the early days, an abandoned house next door, open to the elements, burned every couple of years. A judge awarded the property to the Old Miami, and the area was folded into the sprawling backyard. Overstreet added a pond fairly early.
If Johnny Cash's "One Piece at a Time" narrator could build an automobile bit by bit, that method worked for Overstreet and Flynn, as well. The fence that now encloses the backyard was installed board by board over many weeks.
"Every week I would buy 10 new boards, build that much more of the fence," Overstreet says."
"We did that with a lot of things," Flynn says. "We'd have a show and pay the bills, and buy something for the bar."
The Old Miami acquired its customers in a similar patchwork fashion. Neighborhood residents mingled with rock bands, soaking in the local ambience after a gig at the Masonic Temple. Veterans, hearing that Overstreet had a place for them in a time when many faced anger and resentment from the public, soon began adding personal mementos to the collection on the wall. They traded beers and shots with what Overstreet called "the old hippies that were always great to us." General William Westmoreland, commander of the Vietnam war's armed forces, stopped in a time or two.
Music was always commingled in the DNA of the Miami, and Overstreet booked local bands, he says, "because I didn't like somebody doing somebody else's shit. We wanted to give local people a chance and people touring around the country." The Dead Milkmen, Butthole Surfers, Iggy Pop, Eek A Mouse, and Jack White ("I'm real proud of him, he done good," says Overstreet) have all gigged at the Miami.
One of the bar's now-famous regulars, the folk singer Rodriguez, knew Overstreet back in his railroading days. Drinking on the job at a dive down by the Parke Davis in the '70s, Overstreet's first encounter with the "Sugar Man" was seeing him singing on stage with his back to the crowd. Since then, Rodriguez has been a staple at the Old Miami, campaigning for public office from the bar and occasionally performing.
The Midtown-ification of Cass has made the area safer, but Detroit's shiny new image causes its own issues for the proudly punk bar. Recent construction sites, says Flynn, don't offer appropriate levels of soundproofing. Some tense moments have occurred between new apartment dwellers and the bar's sometimes raucous bands and patrons.
Says Overstreet, "I'm afraid for the city. You have people from San Francisco, coming from Europe because Daddy gave them all their money. And they're buying stuff and tearing everything down."
City regulations are becoming more strict, too — or at least they're being more stringently enforced than they once were. As Detroit loses some of the very bars and buildings that made its name on the international stage, Overstreet and Flynn remain determined to fight tooth and nail for their beloved, grungy, "true" bar.
"They'll shut me down one day,' Overstreet says. "I have no doubt of that."
Until that day, the Old Miami holds firm as it started, a monument to the courage, creativity, and sheer willpower that shaped it.
The Old Miami is celebrating with a 40th anniversary party starting at 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3 with appetizers and a patio bonfire; 3930 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3830.
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