Despite all the art walks, art festivals, art districts, art nights, art schools, and art galleries in this city, Miami just can't seem to break free of its reputation for having more looks than culture. These days, it seems like every move the city makes is to prove how much we've classed this joint up, and everyone's trying to get in on the market while it's hot, with Cuban art, Haitian art, street art, commercial art, body art... well, you get the point.
So, when we found a flyer for another annual arts event in Coconut Grove, the Gifford Lane Art Stroll, you can understand that we were a little fed-up and skeptical. But, it was free, so we went with the confidence of knowing that if it was so terrible, there'd be bars nearby.
We didn't even know where Gifford Lane was and figured it was probably
one of those narrow, unappreciated streets behind the Mayfair, so the
crowds heading into Coconut Grove's residential back-country was the
first thing that made us pause.
Around the corner, we found a suburban block of artwork crammed into
front yards, rock bands in driveways, grills and smokers in walkways,
juggling hippies in the street, and a bounce-house for the kids at the
far end, all set up by the people who lived there.
Immediately, we spotted a friend, and before we could say a word, he was
telling us to go three doors up and walk right inside for a drink. Of
course, he'd already had a few himself, and it was too early to be
giving testimonials in handcuffs, so we decided to look at some artwork
Among the more interesting buys were hand-carved flutes and ocarinas,
wooden pens tipped with peacock feathers, hanging lobster-trap buoys,
and mosaic tabletops. But what stopped us in our tracks were handmade
didgeridoos, made from PVC pipes and stained like bamboo. To be honest,
we had always thought there'd be more to them, but they really were
pretty much just hollow tubes, which made us feel all the more like
asses when we couldn't play them worth a damn.
Turning away, we almost walked straight into a middle-aged woman, hula
hooping in the street. We weaved through a checkerboard of old ladies
dancing in T-shirts and shorts before following a backpacker-looking
couple through a vine canopy and into a house with a painting of a naked
woman for sale on the porch.
We'd found the gin! A line cut through the living room and led to a girl
pouring cupfuls from a punchbowl in the kitchen. We each dropped a
dollar in the donation jar and took a cup. Opposite the line was a table
set with pretzels and sweets. Out back, a small group sat around iron
patio furniture, chatting under green overgrowth. The floors were wood
and creaked under our feet, and the house had that earthy smell that old
Florida houses get after half a century.
As we talked with some people around the pretzels, a plump woman
overheard about the blog and snatched us up to meet the organizer: Trina
Collins, a thin, energetic lady wrangled between oval glasses and gray
We told her, "It's a shame we're just finding out about this now."
"Yeah, it's been, what, 12 years now, I guess?"
"You guess?" we asked, and she laughed.
For those of us who remember when the Coconut Grove Arts Festival was
free, we understand how little "grassroots" means around here nowadays.
That's not to bash the festival (time keeps moving, and the little
"'clothes-line' art show" has grown into an institution), but it was
good to be introduced to the charities that would receive the donation
money rather than corporate sponsors (by the way, both charities, the
St. Stephen's AIDS Ministry and St. Alban's Child Enrichment Center, are
based in the neighborhood).
Out front, we dropped two bucks in the jar and got a hamburger, tipsy
off five dollars worth of gin and feeling good enough to hug a tree.
But it was more than just seeing hippies out-class the rest. Here, we
were neighbors instead of visitors, and enjoyment came before profit. It
was what the other festivals pretend to be, and something authentic to
Miami that, it seemed, we'd kissed good-bye the day neighborhoods began
confusing themselves with Manhattan. Next year, we'll have to see how
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classy we look in the bounce-house.