Rosa Rey Napoles hovers over her lasagna inside the noisy lunchroom at the De Hostos Senior Center in Wynwood. Even in her late 80s, she's vibrant and talkative. For two decades, she has walked most days from her apartment a few blocks away to this boxy pink building on NW Second Avenue just north of 29th Street.
"The food is very good here," says Rey, wearing a black T-shirt, a jean jacket, and her dark-brown hair in a ponytail. "I really enjoy coming here."
Since 1978, the De Hostos Center has offered low-income seniors such as Rey a place to hang out during the day, grab a hot meal, and enjoy classes, services, and counseling. But next moth, the hundreds of elderly residents who frequent De Hostos will have to find somewhere else to go. The county will soon demolish the building to make way for an upgraded community center set to open in late 2018, a project officials say is needed because the existing structure is crumbling.
"I don't subscribe to the fact that we should keep our clients in old buildings," says Lucia Davis-Raiford, director of the Miami-Dade Community Action and Human Services Department. "Our seniors deserve a new and affirming atmosphere."
But many at De Hostos are nervous and skeptical that the county will welcome them back. They see the demolition as the final nail in the coffin of a neighborhood that has disappeared as Wynwood and nearby areas have quickly gentrified. Many of the seniors at De Hostos have already been priced out of apartments as condo towers have risen blocks away and adjacent properties have flipped for tens of millions.
"Will any of our senior residents be left in Wynwood in two-and-a-half years?" asks Vicente Delgado, director of the De Hostos Center. "Who knows? But if there are no houses, there's no center."
De Hostos is full of immigrant survival tales that highlight Miami's patchwork of diversity — including Rey's history in the Magic City.
Born and raised in Havana, Rey worked in legal offices until Fidel Castro's revolution upended her homeland in 1959. Three years later, when she was 30, her father put her on the ship American Survivor in Havana's port and waved goodbye. She arrived in Miami December 4, 1962, alone and heartbroken over the changing country she left behind.
She found an apartment in Little Havana and got a job picking tomatoes. Within a year, she had saved enough money to afford a small apartment on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 26th Street, where she paid $49 per month in rent. For years, the surrounding area had been a mostly Puerto Rican enclave known as Little San Juan, where a garment district generated millions of dollars in revenue.
She submitted paperwork to bring her parents from Cuba, and the three of them shared the apartment on Biscayne, with Rey sleeping on the couch. Unable to find legal office work as she had done in Havana, Rey did odd jobs seven days a week, mostly at restaurants, bringing in about $56 per month. Her Sunday shifts always ended in time for her to go to church. By 1971, she was a U.S. citizen. Finally, in the early '80s, she landed a better-paying gig at Southeast Bank. "There's no place in Miami I haven't worked," Rey laughs.
By the mid-'80s, unemployment and drug trafficking had left Rey's neighborhood and nearby Wynwood nearly abandoned. And by the beginning of the new decade, Southeast Bank also fell into hard economic times. Rey was out of a job and money. A friend recommended she try De Hostos for a hot meal during the day. It was a 15-minute walk from home, which Rey enjoyed. She liked the community, the company, and the services, so she began to make it a regular part of her routine.
Around the same time, Delgado — now the center's director — also began visiting De Hostos, bringing his parents in the mornings and picking them up at night. Delgado was then working to help elders with AIDS. In 1998, he took a job as a part-time social worker at the center, but a few years later, he left Miami for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
"Wynwood was not a safe area back then," the 60-year-old remembers. "Below 29th, the area was not safe. It looked abandoned; you didn't want to cross over there."
That all changed in the mid- to late 2000s, when investors and muralists transformed Wynwood into a vibrant arts district. As galleries moved in nearby, De Hostos continued serving lunches and offering basic programming to local seniors. But warning signs were already coming that the center was in danger.
On December 20, 2014, Delgado — who was working as a grant reviewer in D.C. — got a call from the president of De Hostos' board. The county was ready to close the program, the president told him, because of funding shortfalls. An audit had turned up some 55 financial deficiencies. It hadn't been paying its meal company for months.
"They told me: 'If you take the job, we'll hold on closing,'?" Delgado remembers. Less than a month later, he started. "I felt this place was special for the community, and it was important to me because my parents went there."
Since then, Delgado has turned De Hostos around. Before he returned in 2014, an average of 20 people ate lunch there. Now there are 100 most days. The center offers a full calendar, with courses ranging from fitness and nutrition to stress reduction and computers. Seniors can apply for a driver's license, check out library books, and seek advice and counseling. Every day, dozens of men play dominoes in front of the building, buzzing with chatter and laughter.
"This man is a god," Javier Echaverria, a painter and filmmaker from Cuba, says of Delgado. "He does so many amazing things for the community. He's a true local hero."
Adds Rey: "They brought him to lift it up. He's really helping the older people."
Many of the seniors at De Hostos are Puerto Rican and Cuban, but there are also Colombians, Haitians, Dominicans, Central Americans, and African-Americans. Nearly all reacted with shock when the news came last Thanksgiving: Despite the center's newfound energy, the county was going ahead with plans to destroy the building.
"It is one of our many crumbling facilities," the county's Davis-Raiford says. "The county approved renovation of that site because it sorely needs it. Sorely."
According to Davis-Raiford, the building, which was built in 1954, has structural problems and is "dark and dank." The county is reviewing design proposals for a new building and plans to spend $12 million. During construction for the next two years, three temporary senior centers will open in Little Haiti, Allapattah, and Little Havana. Davis-Raiford says she understands the change may be disruptive. "But we can't have them in an old facility," she says. "We want to build an absolutely gorgeous, open space that doesn't require clients to dumb down or be dis-serviced or have a dreary environment."
But Delgado says it will be difficult — if not traumatic — for seniors to adjust to a new routine. He's still waiting for word on how the county plans to transport them miles away every day for services for more than two years.
"All day long, they ask me: 'When are we moving? How are we getting there? Who will go where?'?" Delgado says. "When you're used to a routine and you're older, it's very stressful. For them, this is like losing their house."
More important, many of the elderly fear the center's closure means the end of Wynwood as they know it. During a town-hall meeting with city and county officials late last year, seniors expressed fear that they won't be around when the center reopens. In a once-low-income area, a Ducati motorcycle shop now stands across the street. The last remaining industrial holdout on Wynwood's main strip, a plumbing supply company also across the street from De Hostos, last year sold for $41.5 million.
Early last year, Rey also found out her building on Biscayne Boulevard would be demolished to make way for condo towers. Desperate for housing on her fixed income, she asked the De Hostos community for help and connected with a Dominican man whose sister had a room for $660 a month. She and her Chihuahua, Ginny Rose, moved last July.
Some see the closure of the current De Hostos location as a symptom of this same trend and wonder why the county cannot simply make upgrades to the building instead of razing it.
"I'm really worried about the displacement here," Echaverria says. "These places have a social history that's being destroyed and displaced for the new rich. There's no social consciousness about this and nobody fighting for it."
Davis-Raiford says the county "absolutely" plans to reestablish the De Hostos program, along with other services, in the new community center. Renderings of the facility show a multistory modern building with a high-ceilinged open atrium area and covered patio space. She says she hopes it will serve the entire community.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
For now, life goes on at De Hostos, which the county says will need to be shut down by the end of May. After lunch, Rey sits down before a man and a woman practicing songs for an upcoming Mother's Day concert. They sing a bolero, a slow-tempo, nostalgic-sounding Latin ballad. "It sounds beautiful," Rey tells them, "absolutely beautiful."
These may be some of the last boleros at De Hostos for a while.
"From what I understand, the politicians are going to help us when we have to move," Rey says. "It's going to be difficult, but that's just the way it goes, I guess."