Mean Streets

To grasp how dramatically a city can change in a short span, all one need do is look at Miami's morphing skyline.

Along with the runaway building boom that transformed downtown Miami and the Biscayne corridor into a jungle of high-rise condos and cranes has come a new performing arts center and plans for new museums on the bay by world-class architects.

Just a decade ago Coral Gables was ground zero for the visual arts in South Florida. That all changed when enterprising artists planted their flags in Wynwood, a once desolate and marginalized community full of empty industrial warehouses that were accessible and affordable.

When the property values began soaring during the early part of the decade, older neighborhoods abutting the downtown area were razed to make way for new high-rises, low-income renters were displaced, and many families were priced out of their homes.

Today Wynwood is home to our city's most important private art collections and nearly a hundred galleries and dozens of artist studios, while the Gables has wilted into an art scene joke.

But many of those new shiny downtown condos remain empty, and the building boom has been crippled by a collapsed economy. For the most part, Wynwood's streets still remain empty other than on second Saturdays when art lovers flock to the area for a few hours. During gallery walks, many of the disenfranchised can be found panhandling. They still live in cardboard boxes under nearby bridges or in homeless shelters in the neighborhood.

While many developers and civic types often look at artists and a thriving art scene as the stalking horse for urban renewal, a group of artists and collectives, whose work is on view at the Spanish Cultural Center, turns the tables on the concept, focusing instead on how the marginalized and dispossessed in disparate locations are practicing an architecture of need rather than financial speculation.

Deftly curated by Luisa Espino, "Proyecto Habitar: When improvised architects are the ones creating new cities" features the work of Raul Cardenas/Torolab, Santiago Cirugeda/Recetas Urbanas, Democracia, Gean Moreno, Ernesto Oroza, Juan Carlos Robles, and Todo por la Praxis.

Their projects focus on housing problems, use of public space, land speculation, enforced desertion of neighborhoods and buildings, urban decay, and the formation of ghettos by examining these issues in cities ranging from Madrid and Seville to Havana, Miami, and Tijuana.

Juan Carlos Robles examines state-subsidized housing in Seville created by the General Urban Plan of 1962, which ended in a walled-off neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Known as "Las Tres Mil Viviendas," the area has a population of approximately 40,000 inhabitants and perhaps Spain's largest gypsy presence. Although it is one of the most impoverished communities in the country, it is also one of its richest sources of flamenco talent.

In Inhabited City, Robles presents a grid of 12 color photographs in aluminum frames depicting the façades lining the dreary neighborhood that appear not unlike vertical cinderblock shacks.

Many of the dwellings are fenced off and bristle with barbed wire and gated windows and doors. Crime and drugs are rampant in the isolated enclave where the majority of streets terminate in dead ends. There is only one entrance to the neighborhood, which is hemmed in by fancy homes and closed off from the rest of the city by wide avenues and freeways.

In Robles' pictures, one sees a down-at-the heels fruit store, clotheslines with drying laundry outside dilapidated homes, the lower extremities of a few men playing dominoes on a wobbly table, and the façade of a sketchy video store.

The artist also recreated a facsimile of the tumbledown store in his installation titled Video Club Simba after the film shop. It features a ratty, coffee-stained couch, a plastic white-and-blue-striped awning, and a projection of the denizens of the video club waxing thoughtfully about their favorite movies. On the outside of the room, the sallow yellow walls have been scuffed up by rubber soles like the original Simba in Seville. It turns out that the video club is the only social gathering space in the entire neighborhood.

One scene of the video projection reveals a toothless old man quoting biblical parables, young boys breakdancing, and an unshaved middle-aged man expressing his preference for all things Jackie Chan. When he notices he's being filmed, he asks if his dog can be part of the show. Outside the video store, someone has painted an image of Jesus on the sidewalk and fashioned a rosary around his neck out of beer bottle caps. Oddly, the video has been subtitled in a cockney lingo with people referring to each other as a sod or prat.

The ramshackle nature of Havana's ruinous homes is captured in Ernesto Oroza's Modular Moral, a projection of 80 slides depicting the façades of dwellings that have been transformed haphazardly with patchworks of recycled building materials. The slide show creates an intriguing collage of Cuba's capital city, where space for growth is unheard of and people find themselves building add-on rooms in hallways, balconies, or even stairwells in what the artist refers to as the "architecture of necessity."

Likewise, White Noise, a video by Torolab's Raul Cardenas, depicts a human hive of two million people in Tijuana, many of whom eke out shelters from the discarded scraps of the frontier town's industries, constructing tumbledown homes out of truck tires, wooden pallets, and garage doors, while dreaming of a better way of life across the border.

La Cañada Real Galiana is a squatters' settlement outside Madrid formed in the '60s when people began planting vegetable gardens in the area. Soon it became an illegal urban village with makeshift homes built by its now 40,000 inhabitants, many of whom have lived there for several decades.

Stateless, La Cañada is Real is a project created by Santiago Cirugeda/Recetas Urbanas, Democracia, and Todo por la Praxis, who collaborated on a multi-pronged intervention into the shabby habitat to focus public awareness on homelessness, a population infested by drug problems and government evictions.

The artists carved out huge letters stating that the neighborhood was legitimate and placed it on a hillside like the iconic Hollywood sign.

They have come up with a logo design for the settlement and emblazoned it on patches, T-shirts, and baseball caps as a merchandising effort to give the settlement its own distinct identity and unite the population. Some of the tees boast phrases such as "Mi Barrio Or Die" or "Asistencia Antisocial." They have also come up with cocaine-snorting kits replete with the communal logo, a mirror, a straw and scoop, and a razor blade.

In addition, the group created posters of La Cañada inhabitants, a series of postcards of the area's housing and communal gardens and constructed a public center for inhabitants to file petitions and protect their rights against eviction.

A video depicts police in riot gear chasing residents out of their homes in the desolate landscape, while children play along dirt roads.

Miami's Gean Moreno and Ernesto Orozco focus their attention on Little Haiti and a population that has come up with its own unique architectural model for commerce. Jenny is an ersatz seating module crafted from painted wood planks and milk crates typically used as impromptu resting places outside area stores.

The piece contains a wooden cubbyhole where the artists have placed bundles of the tabloid-like publication that serves as a catalogue for the show. In its pages appear likenesses of the milk crate grids that the artists have used to paper several walls creating a tiled effect.

The images and lives on display at the Spanish Cultural Center are a far cry from the glittering high rises just east of the gallery. But like the neighborhoods surrounding them through which many of us often zip with raised car windows and bolted doors offering nary a glance at the downtrodden and marginalized, this work raises questions about how some choose to live with their eyes closed, while stimulating reflection on our notions of habitability.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus