Public Art Paints a New Face on Opa-locka's Buildings

Hidden behind highways and railways, Opa-locka is rarely considered part of Miami's burgeoning art scene. In 1987, the city was in crisis, plagued by an epidemic of drug violence. City planners took it upon themselves to act decisively. With the help of county officials, the city placed eight metal barriers around the Triangle, the neighborhood that was the epicenter of the crime wave. That moment was a nadir for a city with an important history as one of South Florida's ethnically diverse communities. Though the drug-fueled violence has subsided thanks to community support and police presence, Opa-locka has yet to recover fully, and the Triangle remains partially sealed off.

Now, the Opa-locka Community Development Center (OLCDC) is looking to change that. The nonprofit is partnering with local artists and community planners to revitalize the city's worn landscape.

"The community has been seeing improvements over the past couple of years," OLCDC founder and president Willie Logan tells New Times, "but this large-scale transformation helps turn hope into belief."

"It is exciting to draw inspiration from the history of the city to help build its future."

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The city's artistic turnaround began in 2011, when the OLCDC was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to reopen the Triangle. The overrun neighborhood was renamed Magnolia North, and the harsh metal and concrete barricades were transformed into pop-up parks and recreational spaces. The nonprofit is also buying up abandoned apartment buildings and refurbishing them as affordable housing and artists residences.

New York photographer Hunter Barnes was the first short-term artist in residence. From September 15 to 30, 2013, Barnes lived in Magnolia North and photographed its residents. Artist Germane Barnes (no relation to Hunter) has lived in the community since 2013, helping refurbish public areas and apartment complexes. Stewarding the massive overhaul, Barnes has begun transforming foreclosed or abandoned homes through his eye-catching architectural pieces.

"The transformation of these barriers into useful and aesthetic features and the removal of others will signal a new day for the community," Logan says, "and remind us that our neighborhood can be whatever we can imagine it to be."

For Logan, the mission to transform Opa-locka is deeply personal. In 1980, at the tender age of 23, he was elected mayor, making him one of the youngest mayors in America at the time. His tenure coincided with one of the worst crime waves in the city's history. Despite the turmoil, Opa-locka also has a rich history as a part of South Florida's real-estate boom.

Founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, Opa-locka was envisioned as a community revolving around flight. The city's original center was located near the airport. Taking a page from recently founded neighborhoods like Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, Curtiss designed city buildings in a Moorish revival style to give the town a recognizable aesthetic.

City hall, the old railway station, and other central buildings look like they have been transported from Andalusia or Marrakesh. The Moorish style extends beyond building façades; streets were given Arabic names (Sabur Lane, Perviz Avenue, Ali Baba Avenue), and yearly gatherings featured camels, belly dancers, and the like. An influx of African-American World War II veterans in the late 1940s and early '50s helped Opa-locka flourish. The '50s also saw the heyday of the Triangle, where neighborhood children played while their parents ran errands at nearby stores. These were the town's golden years.

The latest efforts aimed at revitalization take a nostalgic approach. The ARC (Arts & Recreation Center) — a creative space that hosts exhibitions, lectures, and educational programs — was recently repainted in a colorful geometric style that conjures the city's Moorish aesthetic roots. Designed by the Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous, the revamped look is just a small example of how the past is fueling the town's creative revival.

In 2013, the OLCDC received a $70,000 NEA grant to commission landscape architect Walter Hood to revitalize Ali Baba Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare. The two-phase project kicked off this past April 18 with a community-wide paint day. More than 200 organizers and volunteers met up on a Saturday to give the desolate concrete street a touch of color. The geometric designs are an elegant, modern spin on the arabesques that adorn the city's historical buildings.

"We completely transformed this stretch of faded asphalt into something that is vibrant and visually stunning," says Mikhaile Solomon, director of public art at the OLCDC. "We need more beauty in Opa-locka."

The next phase of the project will include a major overhaul of pedestrian walkways. Titled "Oases/Oasis," the proposed work will repurpose rainwater to create lush green, tree-shaded pockets along Ali Baba Avenue.

"The proposal 'Oases/Oasis' was inspired by the tradition of Moorish gardens and using waterworks for climate control," Dasha Ottenberg, public arts project manager at Hood Design, tells New Times. "It is exciting to draw inspiration from the history of the city to help build its future."

Using innovative artists and their work to revitalize blighted neighborhoods is far from new. New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and even Miami have used local up-and-coming artists to create eye-catching entrances to previously unwelcoming communities. As the artists' work attracts business, real-estate values rise.

Though artist-invigorated areas run the risk of gentrification, Opa-locka's location, far afield from Miami's city center, makes that result unlikely. So most of the perks of revitalization efforts will stay within the community, benefiting locals instead of outsiders looking to capitalize on cheap rent.

"The residents can see the results of their involvement in action," Logan says. "It helps all of us better understand how we can fundamentally improve our community through art, design, and community action."

Whether Logan and the OLCDC can reverse the effects of decades of neglect has yet to be seen; the long-term fallout from the drug war, unemployment, and the general economic climate in South Florida have not been kind to Opa-locka. Yet as locals grow increasingly aware of the transformative power of art, glimmers of hope shine through. Miami's presence on the national art stage has never been more relevant to the city's cultural life.

Though traditionally vibrant neighborhoods receive most of the attention, it's important to look at communities written off by the art establishment. Opa-locka's renewal efforts make ignoring the city's cultural life and zooming past the I-95 exit all the more difficult.

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Neil Vazquez is an arts and entertainment writer who works at the intersection of highbrow and lowbrow A Miami native and Northwestern University graduate, he usually can be found sipping overpriced coffee, walking his golden retriever, or doing yoga.
Contact: Neil Vazquez