In Wynwood, even the sky often seems spray-painted. On a recent evening, two young women were suspended in midair on metal scaffolding, masks over their mouths, aerosol cans in their hands. As the setting sun shifted heaven's hues above them, the women unleashed waves of color onto a white warehouse wall. When the two disappeared after dark, they left glittering letters behind them: "I REMEMBER PARADISE."
The message is no idle metaphor. Soaring rents have forced several Wynwood art galleries to shut or move miles away. Lester's, a beloved local bar, just closed. Buildings blanketed with years of graffiti are being torn down for new stores, including a Ducati dealership. Wynwood -- a street artist's paradise for the past ten years -- is rapidly changing.
"I don't want to see Wynwood die," says Danilo Gonzalez, an artist and owner of the Art Place, a gallery and café at Northwest Second Avenue and 28th Street. "If all the galleries and artists leave, then this will become just another mall like Lincoln Road or Bal Harbour. You can go shopping anywhere. There's nothing unique about that."
Gonzalez was born in the Dominican Republic, where he won national awards for his strange, twisted sculptures and vibrant drawings. With his prize money, he traveled the world for more than a decade, including stints in New York in the '80s and '90s. He watched SoHo slowly transform from a derelict drug den into a dynamic art scene.
He identified the same potential in Wynwood. When Gonzalez arrived in 2008, it was the height of the financial crisis. The Tony Goldman revolution was simmering but had yet to boil. A handful of galleries were already up and running, but the future of the hood was far from certain.
"I saw those big, beautiful 14-foot walls, and I just knew I was going to die here in Miami," Gonzalez says. He opened the Art Place to exhibit others' artwork as well as his own. In 2010, he signed a five-year lease at his current location. A few months ago he added an absurdly cheap cafe ($3 sandwiches) catering to broke artists.
Now, however, he says his landlord is pushing him out to quintuple the rent. He's resigned to follow other galleries west.
But Gonzalez's gripe goes beyond the personal. He's worried that Wynwood is losing its soul, just like SoHo eventually did. "I'm not angry," he says. "If anything, I'm sad because we're not thinking about the future, about making the area better in the long run."
He isn't alone.
"I'm not going to lie. I am concerned," says José Navas, director of the Wynwood Arts District Association (WADA). He says that in the next few years, Wynwood will see an influx of boutiques and apartment buildings, as well at least one parking garage.
"We are genuinely concerned about keeping Wynwood's identity alive," Navas says. "But I think we have the right people, not only in terms of tenants but also property owners, to keep the neighborhood edgy. It's going to change -- that's undeniable. But will we keep the soul? I'm certain that we will."
Screw Wynwood's soul, says Francisco De La Torre. The Butter Gallery owner says it's simple economics. "Everybody is using the galleries to make the area cool," he says. "Then, when the area is cool, they get rid of the galleries because they don't need them anymore."
He moved to Northwest Seventh Avenue nearly two years ago when his landlord doubled his rent. Now De La Torre leases parts of his own building to other Wynwood exiles such as Spinello Projects. But De La Torre doesn't play the victim: Moving was good business.
"The people who are worried about the neighborhood can always go somewhere else," he says. "It's more important to figure out where your business works than to try to change an entire area."
But Gonzalez says he's trying to preserve Wynwood -- not change it -- and that artists shouldn't be used as gentrifiers.
"Are we the prostitutes of society?" he asks. "Do we have to keep moving from one place to the next, cleaning it and cleaning it and cleaning it?"
Instead, Gonzalez has come up with an idea bolder than any of his artworks. He calls it "The Wynwood Warehouse Project." Gonzalez wants the City of Miami, private investors, or philanthropists to purchase five to ten properties in the neighborhood and turn them into residential art studios. Artists would pay rent. He recently mentioned his idea to Mayor Tomás Regalado, but it has yet to gain traction.
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Keeping artists in the neighborhood would ensure Wynwood remains relevant, Gonzalez says. And that, in turn, would benefit property values and business. But the sculptor knows his proposal is a hard sell. "The problem is that some people are afraid of organized growth," he says. "I think too big sometimes, but the city doesn't think big enough."
Gonzalez stresses he's not anti-capitalist. On the contrary, he's a small-business owner. But Wynwood is a "beautiful monster," he says, and beautiful monsters survive on art -- not Ducati dealerships.