"This isn't about trying to turn any place into Miami Beach or trying to duplicate Miami Beach," says Randall Robinson. "It's about offering the experiences of Miami Beach to people so they can take from it what they will, to lend a hand because we know that nobody wants the Gap, and nobody wants Pottery Barn!" Robinson, a planner for the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, is referring humorously to the aim of this week's Miami Urban Renaissance Conference, a daylong seminar emphasizing preservation as a tool to ignite economic and community development in East Little Havana, Overtown, downtown, and the Miami River corridor.
The morning begins at East Little Havana's recently revitalized Tower Theater, where attendees will board buses and travel to the historic Lyric Theater in Overtown. A keynote address will be given by distinguished architectural historian Vincent Scully, who endured the ravaging of his own hometown, New Haven, Connecticut, when I-95 sliced right through its core. Afterward Dorothy Jenkins Fields, of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation, who grew up in Overtown (which suffered the same fate thanks to the same superhighway) and historian Paul George, raised in East Little Havana, will deliver talks about the history of Miami's urban center. Capping the morning is an announcement honoring the Lyric and various sites in Overtown's historic Folk Life Village for their listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Attendees will then hop back on the buses for lunch at Spanish-themed eatery Casa Panza on SW Eighth Street. Post-lunch panel discussions will fill the afternoon at the Tower. Talking heads including developers Tony Goldman and Scott Robins, preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, artist/activist Ellie Schneiderman, Miami Light Project director Beth Boone, and Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau cultural tourism honcho George Neary will hold forth on topics such as community-building through arts and culture, financial incentives for preservation, learning from South Beach, and current development efforts. As the conference closes, further absorption of the surroundings can be had as Cultural Fridays, the monthly art and entertainment crawl in East Little Havana, commences.
Robinson says the conference is chiefly aimed at public policymakers, politicians, city workers, and private developers. He assures, however, that members of the public who are intrigued by history, preservation, and interesting neighborhoods will be welcome as well: "There's these great neighborhoods over there. East Little Havana is amazing, the highest concentration of pre-1925 structures in South Florida. Overtown has an incredibly rich history. They need to be exposed. They're great places with a lot of potential, and this needs to be done so people with resources and imagination can be brought together with these places of potential."