The invasion began in earnest four months ago, when the Grateful Dread moved into the house next door. Jahsun set up his psychedelic reggae band on the driveway of what had once been a quiet pitstop for airline personnel between flights. The positive vibrations drew more musicians to the street where the blond-bearded rastaman shares a three-bedroom house with acoustic singer-songwriter Tara Grieco, formerly of the band Ninth Floor, and her partner Tanya Velazquez, better known as Ladybug. Soon I spied Josh Sonntag, guitarist from Outdance, walking his dog along the sidewalk. Pelu Rivera, drummer from Los Gardis, hailed me from the Walgreens checkout line. By the time Jeff Rollason of the Curious Hair pulled up to my front door, ferrying pop firecracker Jessica Rosenberg (a.k.a. Bubble Girl) in her search for a room to rent, I knew there was no escape. I was living on the most musical block in Miami.
The comfortable dwellings with large yards in Edgewater used to house low-income families, says Robert Wohl, whose company Saxon Development has amassed some 150 houses and apartment units in the stretch between Biscayne Boulevard and the Bay over the past ten years. "People were happy to sell," Wohl recalls. "The neighborhood was really down in the dumps. There's been a total turnaround. All we get now are young people from the Beach, from New World School of the Arts."
Just north of the downtown campus of the arts college, Edgewater has served for several years as unofficial student housing. More recently, skyrocketing rents in the former bohemian hangouts of Coconut Grove and South Beach have sent struggling musicians scurrying up U.S. 1 and across the causeways. Lured by cheap rent and wide open spaces, established local musicians are setting up studios, rehearsal space, and living quarters in the affordable homes rented out by Wohl.
"The majority of people who go to school with me all live within a three block radius," says New World musical theater major Jonathon Lolley, who recently performed in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom up the street at the Miami Light Project with his housemate/classmate Heather Gallagher. The two tick off the names of fellow performers in the neighborhood. Splitting the rent at $200 to $250 per head makes student living affordable. "For an artist, the Beach is no good," says Lolley with a flourish. Surveying the high ceilings and hardwood floors in his five-bedroom house, he sighs, "We should put a sign over the door: Safe haven for artists.'"
Four houses up, theater major Matthew Chapman agrees. "I just think it's the coolest street," he says, standing in the doorway of his two-bedroom rental home. "It's like a little community." New World put Chapman in contact with his housemate, nineteen-year-old opera singer Carrie Tyndal, who can often be heard running scales.
Chapman and Tyndal dally across the street in the eight-bedroom Neighbors House. Home to four chefs, DJ Lorenzo Peraita, and rapper Jaesun Ballard, the fratlike setting boasts a computer room, a pool hall, and a den decked out with turntables that is transformed into a disco during frequent house bashes.
"I found the house," recounts chef Patrick Lingle, over a plate of risotto and gourmet fried chicken. "This place used to be a rehabilitation center. It was part of The Village," he explains, referring to the massive substance-addiction-treatment facility on the block. "To be honest, this house was ugly," Peraita admits, "but this was the only house we could afford."
The revamped building draws constant visitors, like the New World students who share weekly communal dinners and Crazy Man, a tall, lanky islander who sleeps through all the commotion of the meal on the couch where he has been staying for a month.
When awake, the Grenadian and his brothers often rap while Peraita spins. "Who would ever think that these guys from Grenada and these two gringos would get along?" muses Peraita. "A lot of it had to do with music; I found out that they liked to rap and I like to spin." Although he has gigged around town at Fat Tuesdays, the Shelbourne, and at W6, a new club on Washington Avenue, Peraita says he's happiest at home. "I get more out of spinning here than at a club," says the New Jersey-born DJ. "I'd get 400 bucks, but I wouldn't be able to sit and figure things out like I do here."
A recent transplant from Detroit, rapper Ballard thinks Peraita has the turntables figured out pretty well. After a brief stay in Boca Raton, where he formed the hip-hop outfit Ill Minded Prophet, Ballard is excited by the prospect of reforming his group with Peraita in Miami. "Back in the day," the 21-year-old begins an impromptu history lesson, "they had communities. You go to Austin [Texas], places like that, the whole city accepted the music." Ballard sees that dynamic forming in Edgewater. "Just in this house you have so much talent," he says hopefully. "I think Miami is having a resurgence: Miami's going to be the next big place for music."
If hope springs eternal for the New World students and their friends, more seasoned performers on the block have determined to create a scene for themselves in a city seen as inhospitable to local music. "I definitely feel this place is struggling for a good supported venue for the live scene," says Jahsun, who relocated to the Magic City from Austin.
Last month Jahsun and his housemates inaugurated what they call the All You Can Art Buffet, billed as a "smorgasbord of culinary arts, feature and independent film, live music, and literary works." The event revived a tradition established by housemate Grieco, who hosted the famous Agape Parties featuring live music, dance, and visual arts in the big house she used to live in a few blocks north. For the new incarnation, the household erected a stage in the back yard, graced in turn by neighbors, Latin rock band Moxy, the Grateful Dread, and Grieco.
Not all the neighbors are thrilled with the musical occupation. Some long-time residents who like to sleep at night have vowed to move out. During Grieco's performance, after midnight at the All You Can Art Buffet, an angry man yelled across the back fence: "Shut up, I'm going to call the cops." Grieco yelled back an emphatic "NO!" then belted out the chorus, "I have to change the world," before taking off on a sustained note at the top of her register.
"There's always some mayhem going on on this street," says drummer Neil Osam, a frequent couch-crasher at Grieco's house. Energized by the performance, he gushes, "Wouldn't it be great if ten years from now this could be the next Haight Ashbury?"
For Katy Tasso and Josh Sonntag, the neighborhood is more like the next South Beach, specifically the next Michigan between Fourth and Fifth streets. "The same community that lives here used to live there," says Tasso, Moxy's post-Shakira lead vocalist. "Then the rent got too expensive." The Edgewater houses offer more space than the musicians could ever find on South Beach at any price. "Plus we don't have to pay for a place to rehearse anymore," notes Tasso. Their band Moxy is in the process of finishing a new CD in their home studio, even shooting the cover photo against the walls the musicians painted bright red.
In the three months since Tasso and Sonntag set up in their white three-bedroom Florida house, they have been followed by their bass player Falcon, as well as members of the hardcore Argentine band Tereso and Gardis drummer Rivera. The two count other musicians living in nearby apartments. Standing on his front porch, where the couple barbecues rain or shine, Sonntag smiles: "The whole area is turning into something really cool."
"We were the pioneers of this movement," boasts Tony Laurencio, frontman to jam band Smurphio and keyboardist to bands including Oski Foundation, Richard Marley, Ragamuffin Soldier, and Volumen Cero. His girlfriend Terry Cooper, a cocktail waitress at Wet Willie's on the Beach, moved in to the four-bedroom house in November 2000. "I go [to the Beach] and I make money," says Cooper. "Then I come here where there's parking and a yard. We're called the Pharm House because we have so many animals."
In addition to four big dogs, the pair shares the home with bartender Heather Gwinner and her boyfriend Fabio Patiño, leader of world-beat outfit Elastika Beat.
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"This is the shit," crows Laurencio. "This is the best block." He runs through the roster of musicians he knows on the block, adding transient trance DJs Gavin and Cole, the drummer from The Druids, and his next-door neighbor, an accomplished church pianist. The big house allows the big-Afro'd enthusiast to record in the bedroom he calls "Smurph-land Studios" and to host raves and drum circles in his back yard.
The neighborhood has even inspired Laurencio's compositions, leading him to pen a song called "The Village." He explains, "I wrote it because I live next to The Village and [my village is] totally the opposite." Although Laurencio doesn't say exactly what he objects to about the treatment facility, the trippy-happy track pays tribute to "one big family" of singers and musicians.
In some ways living next to the facility suits the Smurph man. "We have drum circles at four in the morning and [our neighbors at The Village] can't do anything about it," he explains. "Nobody can complain, because they don't have phones."
If the neighborhood is noisy at night, drummer Pelu Rivera, who lives down the block from Laurencio, slumbers in peace. "It's a neighborhood of musicians here," says a groggy Rivera, who opens the door late one afternoon wearing only boxer shorts and a sleeping mask. "The best thing about this neighborhood for musicians," he says, "is that you can sleep during the day because there is no noise."