Will Allapattah Fall Victim to the Gentrification That Claimed Wynwood?

Sèyo's mural outside Studio 60 on NW 36th Street.
Sèyo's mural outside Studio 60 on NW 36th Street. Photo by Michael Campina

Dressed all in black and wearing comfy sneakers, Mera Rubell surveys a ballroom-size gallery in her family's new museum. The 100,000-square-foot former warehouse in Miami's Allapattah neighborhood is still unfinished, but some of its immense artworks have been installed. A large painting by Kehinde Wiley, famous for his foliage-filled portrait of Barack Obama, takes up an entire wall. Others are still wrapped or nestled in boxes. A crate labeled "Yayoi Kusama Narcissus Garden" sits in the middle of the room. Down a hallway, a 15-foot-tall mural holds Keith Haring's unmistakable cartoon figures.

"A lot of our installations are very complicated, so everybody is under a lot of pressure," Rubell explains.

Nearby, her son Jason speaks with a curator. His outfit — polo shirt, jeans, and baseball cap — gives him the look of a man who'll be heading off to a backyard barbecue after he clocks out from a day's work organizing priceless cultural artifacts. One wouldn't think he and his mother own this building and everything in it.

The Rubells — Mera, husband Don, and children Jason and Jennifer — possess one of the most extensive private collections of contemporary art in the world, boasting more than 7,200 works by over 1,000 artists. Since 1993, they've exhibited a portion of it at the Rubell Family Collection, housed in a former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse on NW 29th Street in Wynwood. Now they're moving all of it into the new building, which will open as the Rubell Museum Wednesday, December 4, just in time for this year's edition of Art Basel Miami Beach.

The family didn't set out to open a new art complex. Initially, they were just looking for storage. But when they found the Allapattah space, conveniently located a scant four blocks north of the Santa Clara Metrorail station, they thought it had too much potential to go to waste. They're financing its purchase and renovation by selling the old building.

"People say, 'Why are you calling it a museum?'" Rubell says. "I agree: That title should not be taken lightly."

Rubell makes the rounds through the galleries, consulting with staff members along the way. In the room just before the Haring mural, a massive, 30-foot-tall Sterling Ruby painting constructed from bleached and processed fabric lies in wait. "It's his version of the American flag," she remarks. Ruby was the Rubell Family Collection's first artist-in-residence in 2011; he's now the subject of a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, and his works now sell for millions. The museum will dedicate a gallery in the new building to works by the current resident; next up is Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo.

Walking back toward the entrance, Rubell contextualizes the museum's architecture. Unlike the old Wynwood building, the new location is one story, rendering it fully accessible to the differently abled — no stairs or elevators to impede anyone. The main hallway was designed like a tree trunk, with galleries branching off and focusing on varied subject matter. One holds art from the '80s. Another offers an installation by Cady Noland made of Budweiser beer cans stacked atop one another.

Says Rubell: "Each branch tells a story."

The plan is to rotate artworks from the collection throughout the year so there's always something on view and the museum will never have to close for installation.

In yet another room, a series of expressionistic paintings by Purvis Young — "the Michelangelo of Miami," Rubell calls him — leans against the wall, waiting to be hung. The Rubells met the artist in 1999 at a warehouse where he was working in pre-gentrification Wynwood. Young had made more than 3,000 paintings using scavenged material gathered from bicycle trips through Miami. After visiting with the artist for a few hours, the couple decided to buy all of it.

Outside, a courtyard filled with native plants is already attracting birds and butterflies. Through a window, workers can be seen assembling what will become the museum's café. Nearby is a cavernous performance space, intended to host museum events and also available for rental.

By all considerations, the Rubell Museum will be a substantial addition to the local art scene, a monumental art collection of the past half-century, displayed by the people who put the city on the global art map.

It also happens to be opening in a neighborhood that's in the crosshairs of Miami's inexorable march of gentrification.

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Allapattah resident and the owner of Esquina de Abuela Fabian Martinez.
Photo by Michael Campina

Bordered by I-95 to the east, NW 27th Avenue to the west, the Airport Expressway to the north, and the Miami River to the south, Allapattah takes its name from the Seminole word for "alligator" and was settled in the 1850s by white farmers. Beginning in the 1950s, several waves of immigration shaped it into the mixed-race neighborhood it is today. First came black Americans fleeing displacement caused by the construction of I-95. Next came Cubans fleeing the revolution. In the 1980s, Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and especially Dominicans began to settle in the area, eventually earning it the nickname Little Santo Domingo.

Even as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Miami, Allapattah enjoys a strong sense of community, united partially around a proud working-class sentiment. Fashion wholesalers, auto-repair shops, restaurants, and botanicas fill the bustling strip malls along NW 20th Street, the neighborhood's main commercial artery. On NW 36th Street, Club Tipico Dominicano dishes up longaniza and sancocho by day, bachata beats by night. A few streets over, kids play baseball and soccer in Juan Pablo Duarte Park.

Allapattah also sits directly west of Wynwood, which began the 21st Century as a similar mix of homes and blighted warehouses, an urban landscape that lured Purvis Young and other opportunistic artists to set up shop. Over the past two decades, developers have displaced many of the residents and most of the artists while transforming the neighborhood into one of the hottest (and most expensive) entertainment districts in the nation. Luxury condo towers have already sprouted. Wynwood's gentrification means that both Allapattah and its northern neighbor Little Haiti have become, as urban planning expert Ned Murray puts it, "prime real estate."

"Everybody wants to build in Miami, so it doesn't matter where — they're just looking for land," says Murray, associate director of Florida International University's Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center. "These are the only areas left within the city limits, and they're relatively affordable from a developer's standpoint. So these are the areas they've been zeroing in on for the last year or so."

Like Wynwood before it, Allapattah is attractive to developers partly for its commercial district, which runs the length of the neighborhood between 20th and 23rd Streets. It was formerly a corridor for the Florida East Coast Railway that stretched all the way through Wynwood — where the warehouses once stood, where the arts district stands now — and ended in a rail yard that is now the Midtown Miami development. Some of the warehouses here are disused, while others still house functioning businesses. This is where the Rubells found the location for their museum.

"People like myself that are in the neighborhood just have to stand strong and give an example just to keep the real culture," says Fabian Martinez, an Allapattah resident and the owner of Esquina de Abuela, a hybrid art space, events venue, and hostel on NW 22nd Avenue at NW 27th Street. Martinez's contribution to the community involves arranging for street artists from around the world to work in the area.

"There hasn't been any grant money; there hasn't been any private investors — it's just myself with anybody that's been able to contribute," he says.

Martinez estimates he has brought more than 50 artists to Miami and hosted about 60 events at his space, including music-video shoots for the likes of Anuel and Rob G. His projects include murals at Club Tipico Dominicano, Jenny's Liquor and Wines on NW 28th Street, Comstock Elementary School on NW 18th Avenue, and the neighborhood nightclub Studio 60 on NW 36th Street.

Esquina de Abuela (which translates to "Grandma's Corner") opened in 2016, when Martinez left his job in real estate. The property belonged to his grandmother; after she died, he fixed up the place and renamed it in her honor. A mural on the property, painted by local artist Claudia La Bianca, features a likeness of Martinez's abuela brandishing two pistols and the phrase "Soy la guerra" ("I am war").

"The core of Esquina de Abuela was the fact that my grandmother was a captain in the Cuban Revolution, and then she did contrarevolución — so she helped Fidel get into power and then she went against him," Martinez explains. "So I have pictures of her with guns, rifles — just a very valiant, strong woman. That's the core of the place; the place has a very strong female energy."

Wynwood's identity as an arts district was built primarily by galleries and developers such as Tony Goldman, whose establishment of Wynwood Walls kick-started heavy investment in the area. But in Allapattah, residents are trying to create something of their own. In addition to Martinez's efforts, beautification projects over the past ten years, some sponsored by the city, have produced murals and street art across the neighborhood.

"Allapattah is big enough, it's strong enough, and it's good enough to stand on its feet," says Allapattah Neighborhood Association president Patrick Gajardo. "Gentrification doesn't scare me."

Even with this homegrown push for revitalization, the art galleries and trendy businesses that opened Wynwood to outside investment are beginning to mass just west of I-95 as they flee rising rents in the so-called arts district. The Allapattah Market, opened in 2017 by the owners of Wynwood's Wood Tavern, sells fruits, clothing, and other goods with a local clientele in mind. Next door, Las Rosas has become one of the hottest spots in town thanks to its dive-bar atmosphere and regular events such as the indie night Different Class. At least one private art gallery — the Bonnier Gallery, specializing in minimalist art — has also opened just west of the interstate, in Allapattah proper.

To their credit, Gajardo and Martinez welcome any new neighbors desirous of what Allapattah offers. But they're wary of seeing their neighborhood lose its character to developers who've been priced out of the arts district and are poised to turn Gajardo and Martinez's home into "West of Wynwood."

"I'm all for change, people coming into the neighborhood," Gajardo says. "I welcome everyone. But I would like to see everything done right."

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Mera and Don Rubell
Photo Chi Lam

Many art collectors purchase paintings and sculptures as investments, anticipating the value of a work to appreciate as an artist gains fame. Some spend hundreds of millions on a single painting just to make a statement to their wealthy peers. In this sense, the Rubells are outliers. They appear to collect art simply because they love it.

"It's called addiction," Mera Rubell jokes. "We rarely sell, if ever. We usually just sell to buy something else."

The story goes like this: Don, a med student; and Mera, a teacher and the daughter of refugees from the Holocaust, began collecting on a $25-per-month budget in 1964 while living on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Neither had any art education, so they went to artists' studios to learn and decided what to buy after intense discussions about whether they liked a work enough to spend money on it.

"Every piece is very personal," Mera explains. "Every piece is a reflection on what we found at a particular moment."

By the late '70s, the Rubells had become known as unconventional tastemakers and patrons on the New York art scene. Some of the artists they supported include luminaries such as Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Cindy Sherman. There was the time they met Jeff Koons, for instance, after he showed up a day late to a Whitney Biennial party the Rubells threw in 1977. They invited him to dinner at their place anyway, and he sent them a piece as thanks.

As the '80s rolled around and art became even more commodified, the Rubells kept running to their old, established rhythm. They would identify up-and-coming artists they took a liking to, learn more about them, and then, only after reaching "100 percent agreement," they would buy. Their process remains similar to this day, although now it often takes them as far away as rural China. The deliberations now include Jason, who has a degree in art history and began collecting in his teens. (He used his bar mitzvah money to make his first purchase, a painting by George Condo, the artist who later created the cover for Kanye West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.)

In the early 1990s, the Rubells moved to Miami. They bought the DEA warehouse, as well as several properties in Miami Beach, where they own and operate three hotel ventures, whose proceeds feed the couple's appetite for collecting. (They also own a hotel in Washington, D.C., and another in Baltimore.) Toward the end of the decade, they persuaded Lorenzo Rudolf, director of Art Basel, to stage a satellite of the Swiss art fair in South Florida.

Even with the mega-event that marked Miami as a global force in the art market taking place annually in their backyard, the Rubells continue to journey outward to meet artists on their own turf.

At fairs such as Basel, "even the best art can be drowned out," Rubell explains. "We have to be ahead of the pack."

The Rubells' isn't the only art museum moving to Allapattah. In October, Jorge Pérez, the billionaire developer whose name adorns Pérez Art Museum Miami, announced he planned to open El Espacio 23 to accommodate his own collection. Housed in a warehouse on NW 23rd Street at the west end of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) corridor, the space is smaller than the Rubell at a mere 28,000 square feet, but it makes up for its diminutive dimensions with ambitious plans for programming. The opening exhibition, "Time for Change: Art and Social Unrest in the Jorge M. Pérez Collection," splits works by heavy hitters such as Ai Weiwei and William Kentridge into six "nuclei" that cover topics such as "state terror" and "spatial politics."

The Rubells began as collectors and moved into real estate to fund their calling. Pérez, on the other hand, is known as a developer first and foremost. He is the founder, chairman, and CEO of the Related Group, a real-estate company responsible for, among other projects, developments in South Florida, Atlanta, and Dallas and the demolition of the historic Morris Lapidus-designed Sheraton Bal Harbour. Pérez's latest Miami project is Wynwood 25, the enormous black box of luxury rental apartments that towers over the entertainment district.

Pérez has been called the "Donald Trump of the Tropics" thanks to a slew of projects in Latin America. He's also a longtime friend of Trump's: Related has built four Trump-branded properties in South Florida, and Trump supplied the foreword to Pérez's 2008 book, Powerhouse Principles. (Pérez has since distanced himself from the president and supported Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016.)

El Espacio 23 endeavors to integrate Allapattah into the museum's programming. In addition to hosting artist residencies similar to the Rubell Museum's, the space will fund a series of "activations" organized in concert with the local YMCA that will have artists working in the neighborhood. One, by Colombian artist Alberto Baraya, involves going door-to-door looking for plastic flowers and exchanging them for real ones provided by Berkeley Florist Supply, a business that's located down the street from El Espacio. Another artist, Agustina Woodgate, plans to collect plush animals from the neighborhood and stitch them into rugs with the help of seamstresses from a local Goodwill facility that usually manufactures flags and uniforms for the U.S. military. (The seamstresses will share in the profits from the rugs; but the flowers, one assumes, will wither and die.)

According to El Espacio art director Patricia Hanna, the museum intends to continue funding these types of projects for as long as it remains open. She adds that nothing in the collection, which is owned wholly by Pérez, will be sold after it's displayed.

"All the works in Mr. Pérez's collection are promised gifts to PAMM," Hanna says. "He's a collector to the core, and he won't part with any of these."

It's hard not to see the opening of beautiful and new (albeit privately owned) museums in a neighborhood that has long stood on the margins of Miami's art community as a good thing.

FIU's Ned Murray believes the new facilities are a net positive for Allapattah.

"It's great to see that kind of investment in a community like Allapattah," Murray says. "Coconut Grove and all these other places have these kinds of things. Why shouldn't less affluent communities have those resources as well?"

Still, the hypothetical success of art institutions in Allapattah might attract other developers with different ideas.

In March, Miami city commissioners approved a massive revitalization plan for the Miami Produce Center on NW 12th Avenue, two blocks from the Rubell Museum in the FEC corridor. Designed by "starchitect" Bjarke Ingels, the plan calls for a series of apartment and office blocks to be "floated" above the existing warehouse buildings, which will be converted to retail space, a trade school, and urban farmland.

Part of the Produce Center proposal calls for reestablishing the site as a "Special Area Plan" (SAP) — a designation that allows developers to request lax restrictions on height and zoning as long as the parcel they want to develop exceeds nine acres. (Projects developed as SAPs include enormous luxury shopping districts such as Brickell City Centre and the Design District.)

The SAP isn't the only weapon in a developer's arsenal. In July, New York hedge fund investor Spencer Waxman paid $7.7 million for the Bank of America Center building at 1313 NW 36th St., directly across the street from Club Tipico Dominicano. The site is located in an "Opportunity Zone" that covers much of Allapattah, meaning if Waxman redevelops the property, he'll qualify for a significant reduction of taxes on capital gains.

Mileyka Burgos, an activist with the Allapattah Collaborative, says eliminating such incentives would protect small businesses and prevent displacement. Although Allapattah Neighborhood Association president Gajardo says the ratio of homeowners to renters in the area is 50/50, Burgos says the rental rate is actually far higher — close to 80 percent, with much of the real estate owned by LLCs or foreign nationals. Graphics from the University of Miami's Miami Affordability Project indicate the percentage of renter-occupied units jumps above 75 percent in the neighborhood's east and southeast areas — meaning the residents and businesses closest to Wynwood are at the highest risk for displacement. (According to Murray, who is working on the Affordable Housing Master Plan for the Miami city government, 70 percent of Miami's occupants are renting.)

"I know a lot of business owners whose leases are not being renewed because the owners want to sell," Burgos says. "We need to take a deeper look at how those investments are affecting the community and the people, because we can't continue to displace people from one place to another. Where is the working class going to live?"

When discussing the museums and other developments, activists and community leaders betray ambivalence: Many seek to reap the benefits of gentrification without addressing its unpleasant side effects, and they're split on how to accomplish such a goal. Gajardo says the Neighborhood Association fought for the addition of more affordable housing in the Produce Center project but lost out. (Only 100 of the proposed 1,200 apartments in the new development will be designated "workforce housing.") City Commissioner Willy Gort, who led the push for the new project, said in a commission meeting that Allapattah already has more affordable-housing units than anyplace else in Miami. Gort believes the project could lead to increased property values in the economically depressed area — a benefit to homeowners.

Ownership is the solution these leaders see as most desirable. As the proprietor of Esquina de Abuela and a member of the Neighborhood Association, Martinez wants to educate his neighbors about finance so they can buy their own homes. ("How do you stop gentrification?" he asks rhetorically. "By purchasing your own land.")

Ned Murray feels the same. "With proper guidance and counseling, tenants who live in existing units can certainly qualify for purchase," he says. "And that's an excellent way for the tenants and the community itself to hold on to their neighborhood and prevent the level of gentrification that could happen down the road."

But according to U.S. Census data, from 2013 to 2017 the median household income in Allapattah was just over $22,000. Meanwhile, the median value of owner-occupied housing for the same period was $124,400. In a neighborhood where 80 percent of the residents rent and where developers are beating down the door, there might not be time for everyone to buy themselves out of the changes yet to come.

The tour at the Rubell Museum concludes in the Keith Haring gallery. A half-dozen works by the globally adored artist cover the walls, but Mera Rubell motions to one in particular. It's the last work Haring completed before he succumbed to AIDS in 1991.

20 Drawings, Oct. 3, 1989 is much darker than Haring's typical fare. One night while staying in Rotterdam and listening to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? the artist drew the entire series using white linen paper and black sumi ink acquired in Japan to create the strange, comic book–like work. In one panel, a caged Atlas-esque figure lifts a globe with a puncture in its side while a group of human figures in a trash can reach for a floating key. In another panel, a pair of feet walks across a bed of knives while blood drips.

Alongside the framed prints are pages from a pressing of the work. Mera Rubell points to one, which features a dedication: "This book is dedicated to the memory of Steve Rubell, not because of the content, but because these drawings were created with the same energy and intensity with which he lived his life."

Steve Rubell was Don's brother, famous as a nightclub promoter and owner of the legendary Studio 54. In 1985, he opened the club the Palladium, which displayed art by Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Basquiat. That same year, he learned he was HIV-positive; he remained in the closet until he succumbed to the disease in 1989.

For the Rubells, every piece is personal. And 20 Drawings might be the most personal in their entire collection. Of course, the same might be said for Fabian Martinez and his murals, with the painting of his abuela being the most meaningful.

In Allapattah, no matter one’s origin or class, art is something everyone has in common.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated the Related Group was responsible for the Hudson Yards redevelopment on Manhattan’s West Side. That was a Related Companies project; the founder, chairman, and CEO of the Related Group, Jorge Pérez, is not involved with the Related Companies. Additionally, the Related Group’s Wynwood 25 project comprises luxury rental apartments, not condos. The story has been updated with the corrected text.

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Douglas Markowitz is a former music and arts editorial intern for Miami New Times. Born and raised in South Florida, he studied at Sophia University in Tokyo before earning a bachelor's in communications from University of North Florida. He writes freelance about music, art, film, and other subjects.