Opa-locka and the art of renewal

arts / Article

Artists and urban planners collaborate on an ambitious public art master plan for Opa-locka, Fla. Photo coutresy of the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation.

The images of Opa-locka, a small, blue-collar city 10 miles north of downtown Miami, speak of hard times — but also possibility.


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The Knight Arts Challenge is nurturing that potential.  In 2012 the nonprofit Opa-locka Community Development Corp. won an Arts Challenge grant for an arts festival and exhibit. The resulting “Art of Transformation,” which took place Nov. 12  to Dec. 14, 2014, included dance, music, public art and a street festival, and celebrated Opa-locka’s revitalizations efforts. Last year, the Opa-locka Community Development Corp. also won a new Arts Challenge grant to engage artist and landscape architect Walter Hood to turn Ali Baba Avenue into a large-scale public art project and, as the grant description notes, “work with residents to transform the avenue – currently wide, barren and unappealing to pedestrians and drivers – with painted interventions.”

Opa-locka, and in particular The Triangle, a notorious neighborhood now renamed Magnolia North, might have seemed for some improbable candidates for reinvention as art districts — but then, not that long ago so were areas such as Wynwood, the Miami Design District and Little Haiti.  Only this time art, as economic engine and an instrument for social bonding, is a key component of the community redevelopment plan.

“Art was part of the plan from the beginning,” says Willie Logan, president and CEO of Opa-locka Community Development Corp. “It was a collective decision that came out of a series of conversations that [took place] over a year and included workshops, charrettes, community meetings and stakeholders meetings about how we could be more impactful, and what came out from those meetings was that whether [our focus] would be infrastructure, community branding, housing or environmental issues, art should be the glue that connects our work.”

Chartered in 1926, Opa-locka is a planned city, and art has been part of it since its inception.  

Opa-Locka City Hall. Photo courtesy of Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation.

There’s the whimsy of what can be loosely described as Moorish Revival style architecture of the old City Hall and other similarly inspired buildings in the downtown area,  more than 20  of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And then there’s the striking contrast of this fantasy-inspired design and the nondescript, utilitarian structures now along Ali Baba Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries. This is a city with a Sesame Street and a Sharazad Boulevard.  But along the two-and-a-half-mile Ali Baba Boulevard, well-tended single-family homes share the landscape with empty lots, warehouses, auto parts stores and used car lots.

Drive North on Ali Baba Avenue and cross 22nd Avenue, you enter what, in the 1980s, was one of the most dangerous, violent places in Florida: The Triangle. With easy access to Opa-locka airport and a privileged location for quick distribution and getaway, the neighborhood became a prime spot for drug trafficking. Looking to regain control, in 1987 the city blocked several intersections with metal guardrails  to ensure there was just one way in and one way out of the area.

Some have since been removed, but Ali Baba Avenue still ends gracelessly at one of the remaining barriers.

But, then, right across the street from boarded-up houses and vacant lots, there’s a bright neighborhood playground and a community space with benches and picnic tables occupying what until recently was an empty lot. This particular morning, a few neighbors are enjoying the tree shade, sitting around one of the tables, talking. Walk around the neighborhood and you’ll see more signs of renewal: rehabbed buildings, more well-tended single-family homes, construction.

More is coming.

The revitalization project of Opa-locka was jumpstarted in 2010 when the Opa-locka Community Development Corp., as part of a coalition of nonprofits and community organizations, received a $21 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “That was for affordable housing and redevelopment but also planning,” explains Aileen Alon, the corporation’s arts and creative industry manager. “So we were able to take a step back, [and] reevaluate what we were doing and what we wanted to do to revitalize and redevelop.”

Looking at the impact of arts and culture in South Florida’s economy, the Opa-locka Community Development Corp. won a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, and engaged Miami’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places program.

“Art — and I’m defining art in a broad sense including entertainment, visual, culinary — has really found its place and has had an impact on the economy of South Florida and, quite frankly, it has been, in some cases the catalyst for redevelopment,” says Logan. “And art is something that the community seems to understand on different levels and have an interest in on different levels. It was the one consistent activity that people always gave the thumbs up to—whether it was dance, music or visual [arts], people connected with it and had an interest in it.”

But as they learned from other economic success stories in South Florida, they also drew lessons about its social impact.

“We saw what happened in Wynwood, South Beach, Downtown and the Design District and realized … that they did not do a good job of engaging local community in these changes,” says Alon. “And the way they dealt with the artists and the influx of people led to gentrification and [neighbors] moving out or getting kicked out, so we are trying to do it a little different here. We made a very conscious decision to involve local stakeholders in all we are doing.”

It is an approach that the project’s designer-in-residence, Germane Barnes, made as a condition to accept the challenge of revitalizing The Triangle neighborhood. A Chicago native, he is part of a team  also including Christian Stayner and Jennifer Bonner, who were once his advisers at Woodbury University  in Burbank, Calif.  As it turns out, Barnes’ master’s thesis focused on “Symbiotic Dwellings: Architectural Interrogations of Race, Identity and Community,” so as the Bonner + Stayner studio readied a proposal for Opa-locka, Bonner approached him with “a real-life version” of his project. He accepted with a condition, he says. “I felt that to do this project properly I’d have to live here. I grew up in a neighborhood like this and the worst thing you can do is not ask the people who live there.”

He has lived in Magnolia North for two years now.

Barnes is working on a two-tiered approach: public housing and entrepreneurship, which in this case means turning houses into habitable sculptures with space for a small business.

“Think of an interesting shape attached to your existing home,” explains Barnes. “Now, this is not just a surface treatment; it’s not lipstick on a pig. It’s an actual [sculpture-like] structure that houses a business that is also artistic.”

Slowly, the neighbors’ mistrust, shaped by broken promises, turned into curiosity and now, support.

Art has contributed to Miami becoming “a great city,”  says Logan. “It’s a great opportunity to show how a low-income, blue-collar community can also participate and grow and benefit from that type of activity.”

Knight Arts Challenge South Florida is open for entries through Feb. 23. Apply at knightarts.org.

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. 

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