Miami Icons: Opa-locka City Hall, an Arabesque Dream in the Face of Urban Decay
Photos by Karli Evans
San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Abel Folgar argues that Opa-locka's City Hall is the perfect metaphor for Miami.
The idea of Opa-locka is not an easy sell under any circumstance. The city of roughly 15,000 citizens has been steadily plagued by crime, corruption, and the general indifference of local governments who only remember votes when an election nears. Plainly stated, Opa-locka is a ghetto. And if you think that is harsh, just a quick glean over the Wikipedia page for the city will reveal a handful of quotes describing the city as "mired in crime," "deeply troubled," and "steadily deteriorating."
But icons do not need the solvency of pretty words to justify their status.
Founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and fashioned by a bizarre penchant for the One Thousand and One Nights, Opa-locka is the largest architectural example of the Moorish Revival style in the west, with the city hall building being the flagship that arrows out to other structures in the city. The 1926 Great Miami Hurricane effectively destroyed South Florida, and the newly minted City of Opa-locka was not exempt. But a large majority of the buildings survived -- the mettle with which dreams are built.
Because of its unique look, Opa-Locka has been the backdrop of a few Hollywood films like Bad Boys II and 2 Fast 2 Furious, as well as a featured snippet of the acclaimed 1969 documentary, Salesman. But if those productions generated any revenues for the area, their benefit is now as intangible as the dream the city hall building represents. Opa-locka's police department has been plagued by corruption and internal problems for many years now and the crime rate in the 4.5 square mile area has ranked highest at the national level for violent crimes.
And it is the crime, the blithe indifference, the seemingly insurmountable odds that face Opa-locka's citizenry daily that makes this building a Miami icon. Here is the Miami that tourists never see. Who here thinks that Miami is properly represented by an episode of Miami Vice? No one. Who thinks Miami is solely comprised of Miami Beach? Not a single local. Miamians have always had trouble explaining to outsiders what Miami truly is, and as this series has highlighted, Miami is a gestalt entity formed by wildly different parts.
Like Scheherazade's fantastical tales, used to stave off her execution for a thousand and one nights, the flashy Miami stereotypes are mere distractions from the city's reality. The Opa-locka City Hall blends the two, presenting a beautiful mirage in a landscape otherwise cluttered with the signs displaying the "No 'Ifs, Ands or Butts'" law, the rapid state of decay of a once picturesque neighborhood, and the putrid local attitude of surrounding communities. It's almost as if though the city would fall apart and destroy itself if it weren't for this one beacon still emanating a glimmer of hope for those who cross its shadow daily, regardless of what dealings occur within its walls.
Opa-locka's city hall building is more than an icon; it is an ethereal dream that anchors its community -- one where stability is in short supply.
Send your story tips to Cultist at email@example.com.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.