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How Art And Culture Transformed The Most Dangerous City In South Florida

Founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss, and developed in the Moorish Revival style, Opa-locka, became notorious for corruption, violent crime and extreme poverty in the 1980's. Here's how one local organization use art and culture to revitalize and rehabilitate a struggling community.

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Opa-locka, FL. Image courtesy of VenusInOrbit and R + R Studios.

Founded in 1926, by aviation pioneer and entrepreneur, Glenn Curtiss, Opa-locka was developed in the Moorish Revival style. Curtiss and architect, Bernhardt Muller, built 105 buildings with an array of domes, minarets and outside staircases.

Before the Great Miami Hurricane destroyed most of the buildings in 1926, Curtiss had built a self-contained city with a hotel, zoo park, golf course, archery club, swimming pool, airport, and train station. The 20 surviving Moorish Revival buildings comprise the Opa-locka Thematic Resource Area, which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Facade of Opa-locka City Hall, ca. 1926 and Opa-locka Hotel (currently Hurt Building) ca. 1959. Courtesy of History Miami Archives.

Moorish-style homes in Opa-locka ca. 1930. Photo by Claude Matlack, courtesy of the History Miami Archives.

Present-day City Hall (aerial view) by Germane Barnes / Via t.umblr.com

The devastation left by the hurricane and the 1920’s Florida real estate bubble, spelled the beginning of The Great Depression for the city of Miami, including Opa-locka – three years earlier than the rest of the country. The U.S. Navy opened a base at the Opa-locka Airport shortly after the hurricane, allowing it to thrive until the base closed in the 1950s.

In the 1980’s, Opa-locka continued to struggle, particularly in an area called the Triangle, which became notorious for drug trafficking and violent crime in South Florida, due to its proximity to major highways and thoroughfares. In response, the city placed eight metal barriers on the intersections of several streets, enclosing the Triangle, allowing police to monitor incoming and outgoing traffic in and out of the neighborhood with access from one major street.

Although this helped to mitigate crime, this form of segregation turned a once-bustling neighborhood into one known for vagrancy, abandonment, homelessness or transiency, and a high foreclosure rate. As the city residents flee, the barricades remained, perpetuating the negative psychological and visual impact of the area's separation from the rest of the community.

One local organization stepped up. In 1980, Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) was established to address the effects of poverty and unemployment, through community organizing. OLCDC soon expanded to provide community services and develop housing.

Computer rendering of sculpture designed by Gale Fulton Ross, one of one of the proposed public art projects in Opa-locka. Photo: Fulton Ross Group. / Via t.umblr.com

In 2010, OLCDC received a $20 million multi-year award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Neighborhood Stabilization Program to buy, construct and repair foreclosed and vacant properties throughout North Miami-Dade. OLCDC also began working with the city to come up with a plan to remove the barricades and revitalize the neighborhood.

The following year, OLCDC’s project, Community Gateways, was awarded a $250,000 Our Town National Endowment for the Arts grant to help transform the Triangle (now Magnolia North) through art and culture into a desirable place to live, work and play. This grant combined with the HUD funds, helped kick start the city’s rebirth and revitalization, anchored by its unique architecture and accessible location.

Present-day Opa-locka

By providing unique arts-based social and economic opportunities for residents, OLCDC is committed to lasting change that is not limited to the external aesthetics, as acknowledged by Arts & Creative Industry Manager, Aileen Alon.

OLCDC realizes that Opa-locka is a food desert and we aim to increase community access to and knowledge of fresh and affordable healthy eating options. We have several health initiatives aimed at increasing the health and wellbeing of residents, including an annual Health Matters Fair that includes a fresh produce giveaway, grocery store tours where participants learn how to read nutrition labels and buy/cook healthy foods on a budget, and a Health Partnership that works to identify and address health-related concerns of the community through stakeholder meetings, research, and surveys.

Throughout the years, OLCDC has realized the importance of involving the community in planned developments and neighborhood projects. According to Alon, the grassy lot behind the Arts & Recreation Center (ARC) building is reserved for a community garden/urban farm where residents can have a say over the changes in their neighborhood.

What is ultimately grown in the garden is dependent on community input, as well as research into produce that grows well in South Florida and items that could enhance their diet with additional nutrients and/or flavors that they may not be aware of. We are also working with partners to set up a shipping container produce stand that sources local produce. We are also raising money for a commercial kitchen, one of our long-term projects, which would serve as an incubator for culinary entrepreneurs and hopefully provide additional healthy food options for resident.

In the horizon

As rents in Miami and nearby areas increase, artists and young people, unable to afford high rents with their low wages, are looking for alternatives and some of them are flocking to Opa-Locka.

One transplant is architect, German Barnes. Chicago-native Barnes is OLCDC’s project manager and artist-in-resident. In collaboration with artists/designers/architects Jennifer Bonner and Christian Stayner, Barnes has worked in transforming the Magnolia North neighborhood into a vibrant collection of small businesses and civic spaces, through the Made in Opa-locka Project.

Roberto Behar & Rosario Marquardt are also involved in using art to transform the community. Known for devising the hugely successful public art master plan for Miami’s posh Design District, the husband-and-wife team are the visionaries behind the Public Art Master Plan. They are hopeful that they will get to the same level of achievement in Opa-locka but on a residential scale.

In 2015, architect, urban planner & public artist, Walter Hood transformed Opa-locka’s Ali Baba Avenue into a huge public art canvas. In addition, Hood, with the support of the OLCDC, wants to bring sustainable infrastructure to the street and introduce built-in seats to the sidewalks and utilize bio-swales, an alternative to storm sewers with gently sloped sides that can carry rainfall into areas filled with plants and trees. He says that green infrastructure standards are already implemented in South Florida, but that none is practiced in Opa-locka. The potential for green development is huge.

Facade of Opa-locka Community Development Corporation’s (OLCDC) Arts and Recreation Center (The ARC). Mural by Olalekan Jeyifous and street art conceived by urban landscaper, Walter Hood. Photo by VenusInOrbit​. / Via venusorbitsforjustice.tumblr.com

Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist, Olalekan Jeyifous has also placed his stamp on Opa-locka, with his mural designed for OLCDC’s ARC building. Inspired by the city’s Moorish architectural heritage, his intent was to create a bold and colorful design that acknowledges the programmatic function of the space.

Recently, the ARC hosted the acclaimed Through the Eyes of Others, an exhibit that explores the hard truths about racial disparity and economic inequality in the United States. During OLCDC’s Art of Transformation reception for Art Basel 2015, art fans flocked to Opa-locka to view works by artists Hank Willis Thomas, Dread Scott, Ebony G. Patterson, and Bernard Williams.

The influx of cultural capital in Opa-locka has already begun. The people will follow.

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Do you live in a struggling community and think that arts and culture will help renew and revitalize your neighborhood? Here are some funding sources:

* National Endowment for the Arts - Our Town Grant

* Project for Public Spaces

* Knight Foundation

* Americans for the Arts

* Kresge Foundation

More to add? Let me know in the comments section!

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