essay
Color Town

Color Town, ca. 1947, Max Waldman, Compiler and Photographer.

 

On a trip to Miami, Florida, in the late 1940s, Max Waldman, then in his late twenties, wandered “across the tracks” downtown and discovered the still vibrant Color Town community, known as historic Overtown today. Waldman’s rich high contrast black and white photographs bled to the edge of each page, captured the vigor of the communal life he witnessed. The photographer had a keen eye for interactions between people along the streets and in the open air under the glare of the hot sun. For that short time, Overtown acted as Waldman’s own stage. The work would forecast his later socio-documentary essays and highly acclaimed poetic photographs of theater and the dance. 

Typically, Waldman found men congregated in front of shops or on corners under large framed beverage signs and entertainment advertisements posted on the wood frame buildings. Three photographs of the same spot let us watch the action at one place, as Waldman did. A couple of men point to the broadsides, their dark shadows casting another striking shape against the wall. The notice behind the men promotes a boxing match between champion welterweight Sugar Ray Robinson and Bernie Miller on Thursday, March 27, 1947, in Overtown’s Dorsey Park show, and thereby, dates this album. In another photograph, the broken framework for a wicker sofa offers a perch to a gathering group. Lastly, Waldman offers a peek around the corner, as yet another older man in mid-step, cigarette in hand, shares a comment with two others. Waldman’s pleasure in the discovery of this easy hometown environment comes through. 

 

From 1896 to the 1960s, this densely populated city within the segregated city of Miami was the center for black business and culture. The original settlers had been Bahamian seasonal workers and Southern railroad workers. In its heyday from the 1910s to the 1940s, the community was known as the “Harlem of the South,” the “Black Broadway,” and a hot spot on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Josephine Baker, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, among other famous entertainers, went there to perform.

 

Max Waldman (1919-1981) was from a family of six children born to Rumanian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. During Prohibition, the police raided the bootleg operation Waldman’s father ran, as he leapt to this death from a second-story window. Waldman’s mother sent the children to an orphanage because she could not care for them. After a stint out west as a ranger for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression, Waldman studied art and received a degree in education from State Teachers College in Buffalo (now New York State University) in 1944. He supported himself as a waiter at resorts in the Catskills and Miami. Largely self-taught in photography, beginning while he was in the CCC, Waldman enjoyed a flourishing commercial career in the 1950s and 1960s. He produced socio-documentary essays for Life magazine about ballerina Natalia Makarova, a soup kitchen, and immigrant grandparents. During the 1960s and 1970s, he broke free of commercial work to photograph avant-garde theater and the dance, his first loves.

 

This powerful photo-essay about Overtown underscores Waldman’s attraction to gesture and movement. Drawing dark bodies with his camera in chiaroscuro against the tropical sun, he captures people working, playing, bantering, laughing, dancing, making music, strolling, and sleeping. Notwithstanding the rundown shops and decaying houses, people work and enjoy interactions with each other: men play cards or shoot craps, boys and girls play and run after dogs, fathers and mothers hold children in their arms. [select figs. to cite] People from different social strata intermingle in what was a democratic place. Only a few of the photographs suggest economic circumstances, such as the one of a laundrywomen, who may be paying rent to her white landlord and the separate portraits of a woman and a man, who share the same guitar with broken strings. Waldman seems content, as an outsider, not to judge or even offer any verbal comment, but to make strong photographs, shooting from unusual angles and massing striking shapes and angles.

 

Waldman’s spirited photographs confirm the grace of a ghettoized people, be they more or less well off. His images transport us to that time before the construction of interstate highways and urban renewal in the 1960s when the housing and businesses of Overtown’s residents were destroyed, and the community was torn apart. Color Town allows that unique time and place to remain alive in our collective imagination.

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