Hospitality professionals Jamila Ross and her fiancé chef Akino West say they can “feel the history” in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.
“Overtown is improving,” says West, 29. “It has become cleaner, safer, and more friendly with kids and families. We are here to make a small difference and celebrate what we are all doing.”
Ross, 28, agrees: “I researched Overtown when we had the opportunity to restore an historic hotel building,” she says. “I felt helping to revitalize a community dating back to 1890 that once thrived with entertainment was something we should do.”
That’s why they’ve opened two businesses in the neighborhood: The Copper Door Bed & Breakfast—an intimate 22-room charmer—and Rosie’s pop-up restaurant.
The Harlem of the South
“Historic Overtown,” one of Miami’s oldest communities, was founded as a result of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, which implemented segregation—including the creation of targeted neighborhoods for Black residents. Initially built to house Black railroad workers employed by business mogul Henry Morrison Flagler, Overtown evolved over the years into a thriving destination for Black culture.
By the 1950s, the Historic Overtown neighborhood was known as the “Harlem of the South,” a Miami mecca for nightlife attracting performers like Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. If you were a Black performer in town to appear at one of Miami Beach’s segregated nightclubs, you’d be sure to head “over town” to jam on the other side of the tracks.
The vibe spread beyond musical acts: Famous names like author Zora Neale Hurston and baseball star Jackie Robinson became part of the scene. Long before the world knew him as Muhammad Ali, boxer Cassius Clay worked on his hooks and jabs on Northwest 2nd Avenue. The neighborhood bustled with cultural offerings, beautifully landscaped gardens, and cool historic buildings.
Then, in the 1960s, two expressways were constructed that bisected Overtown. A decade later, the fragmented neighborhood shrunk as businesses closed and poverty soared.
Still, the area’s roots have stayed strong—and today, the neighborhood is undergoing rapid revitalization. Overtown’s original spirit continues with renovations in the two-block area designated as Historic Overtown Village. With the neighborhood’s diverse population, thriving arts and cultural community, emphasis on historic renovation, and growing food scene, it was ripe for West and Ross to tackle. Their impressive hospitality backgrounds coupled with a passion for people, history, and culture was a perfect fit.
Hailing from Hospitality
By the time Ross turned eight years old, she was already interested in food and beverage. She wanted to set the table, pour drinks formally, and serve her family’s guests. By age 13, she says she was ready for a career in hospitality.
“Growing up in Yonkers, New York, was always an event,” remembers Ross. “My mom always looked for excuses to throw a party—birthdays, baptisms, Super Bowl, Easter, anything. So I grew up hosting with her and loved it all.”
West was raised in Riviera Beach, Florida, as part of a large family. His mother, he says, was a talented entertainer with a knack for making friends feel like family, and he grew up around the warmth of entertaining and food preparation.
“I have a passion for combining Southern and Italian cuisine, and some of that dates back to my childhood when I enjoyed eating panna cotta,” says West, who offers Southern-style dishes at Rosie’s. Think: chicken and grits, shrimp and grits with Italian rigatoni carbonara, and wild mushroom polenta. “I create what I know,” he says. “I enjoy cooking Italian with a Southern flair.”
The couple, who plan to marry this spring, met in the hospitality business. Ross has worked in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Kuwait, and Dubai for top chefs like James Beard award winner José Andrés, Iron Chef winner Peter Kelly, and companies like SBE Hospitality, Pubbelly Global group, and Starwood-Marriott hotels.
In 2013, she met West—he was a student at Ross’ alma mater of Johnson & Wales, and later worked for James Beard award winner Michael Schwartz at his popular Michael’s Genuine restaurant in the Miami Design District.
Ross and West casually dated until both went overseas for career-changing global experiences. Ross took a management position in the Middle East; West worked at Copenhagen’s famed Noma.
“We eventually reconnected through a 2016 text message when both of us returned to Miami,” says Ross. “We had food in common, and our dating became consistent. It was fulfilling to connect with another Black person who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants and took his career as seriously as I did.”
Opening the Door
It was an ad for managing Airbnbs in 2016 that changed everything. Ross had stayed in them while traveling throughout the world and didn’t know that they existed in the U.S. She was eager to learn the business and took a job managing three area homes, two in Fort Lauderdale. West came along with her.
West says the thought began to occur to them: “Why do this for others when we can have our own?”
Six months later, they bought and ran an Airbnb in Miami’s Buena Vista neighborhood. Last April, they moved in and made it their home. “Having transformed this Airbnb into our own home gave us the leverage to open The Copper Door Bed & Breakfast,” says Ross. “We saw the space in 2017, quit our jobs soon after, hustled, and learned all we could about small business, including the implementation of art programs. I loved the history of the building and the Art Deco design. Plus, we had the vision to see the future.”
In 2018, the couple began to renovate the boarded-up building, which was the old Demetree Hotel once operated by Jimmy Demetree, a controversial Robin Hood-esque character during the 1940s. With a labor of love, they turned it into The Copper Door for modern and hip travelers seeking an upscale respite with great design, local art, and furnishings. Later, they opened the chef-driven Rosie’s pop-up. Ross runs the front of the house; West cooks and runs the kitchen.
Even though the business was buzzing when the pandemic hit last spring, the couple admits it knocked the wind out of their dream. They had worked hard and were booked solid for the Ultra Music Festival in March before it all came to a halt, practically overnight. “We lost our guests. It was overwhelming, a total nightmare,” Ross remembers.
But then a fairy godmother named Beyoncé sang their praises with a $10,000 grant from her eponymous Beygood Foundation—a collaboration with the NAACP to support Black-owned businesses hurt in the wake of COVID.
The couple created a video essay on what had happened, and Beyoncé’s team listened. “Before that grant, we got $25,000 for Rosie’s from Discover Card, which had dedicated $5 million to help Black-owned restaurants,” says Ross.
Reveling in Revitalization
With an influx of rescue cash, Ross and West are energized and optimistic—not only about their own Overtown-based businesses, but about being part of the neighborhood’s next chapter. Celebrating a passion for the projects with a good meal (and keen to discuss their progress in helping to revitalize the area), the couple recently threw a small dinner party in their Buena Vista home, located north of the Miami Design District.
Guests were ushered through the flower-filled entry/living room dominated by a large graffiti mural of the late Mexican actor/comedian Ramón Valdés (it came with the house) and a black fiber-optic chandelier. They passed the bedrooms (featuring doors that are still numbered from the couple’s Airbnb days)—and entered a hospitality area at the back of the house.
“I feel such excitement as the guests arrive,” says Ross. While adding last-minute touches to his feast, West also admits that he enjoys having parties—even though he is crazy busy at work, and likes to dine out in Miami. “I love hosting in our home,” he says.
The dining tablescape, designed by Say Sukii, a company owned by floral artist “Sukii,” was bursting with the lush feeling of spring. The center of the table was filled with arrangements of Mokara orchids and yellow and orange roses with hints of pampas grass, kangaroo paw ferns, Solidago (goldenrods) filler, and other blooms. They were displayed in different sizes and shapes of glass containers with white pillar candles to extend the glow. “I encourage textures and contrasts with elegance,” says Sukii. “I also like thrifting for glasses and seeking out the unusual.”
The place settings featured gray porcelain plates topped by dark napkins tied with yellow florals next to the evening’s dinner menu. Glasses and flatware were functional and created to please the hostess. “We like rustic, muted tones, so Sukii used our wood table with neutral plates and flatware to help Akino showcase the food,” says Ross. “Sukii is an artist, and we trust her design sense to put together a beautiful table.”
West served guests a delightful dinner of corvina crudo with citrus followed by his special saffron risotto entree of braised lamb and English pea gremolata. The guests finished with his delicious panna cotta dessert of apricot and toasted pistachio. Each course was paired with medium blend white and red wines.
“The food was delicious,” says guest Adrian Ochoa, chef de partie at Ghee Indian Kitchen in the Miami Design District. “Akino and I have worked together in the kitchen. I like to help him cook. We enjoy hanging out and are similarly hardheaded about work and opinionated on issues. But we have fun.”
“As a couple, Jamila and Akino live and work together 24/7, which is amazing as everyone can’t do that,” says guest Marianna Flores, a floral arranger and co-owner of Flours & Weirdoughs bakery on Key Biscayne—along with her chef husband Carlos. “I have a great feeling about what they can do together because they get along so well.”