Most Miamians have an inkling of how the Magic City became "America's Playground," but here's a quick recap: Julia Tuttle sent Henry Flagler an orange blossom during a nasty frost in North Florida, enticing him to extend his railroad south. Following the inventions of air conditioning and the automobile, wealthy investors saw sandbars like Miami Beach as opportunities to draw vacationing "snowbirds." Today, that former mango and avocado plantation will be host to another year of art sales in the billions of dollars.
But the playgrounds of the rich and tasteful aren't the focus of the Faena Festival, a free series of exhibitions and performances commissioned by the Faena District for Miami Art Week. For its inaugural program, the theme is "This Is Not America," a reference to a piece by Alfredo Jaar. The Chilean artist crafted a short video to play over New York City's Times Square, emphasizing the egocentric tendency of U.S. citizens to refer to their country as "America" when that word actually refers to continents consisting of over 35 countries. For curator Zoe Lukov, the festival employs a broader scope.
"'This Is Not America' is ‘What is America?'" she explains. "The goal for me has been to create this space, this polyphonic platform, where we can explore what America, in the broadest sense, means. America as a myth, as an idea, and across boundaries."
An artist familiar with American myths and boundaries immediately came to Lukov's mind. Derrick Adams, who had studied The Travelers' Green Book (a guide for black Americans to find safe spaces for themselves while traveling during the '50s and '60s) as part of his exploration of black culture and forms of leisure, was immediately drawn to many of the sites listed in those books in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. It was while searching for these sites that Lukov and Adams stumbled upon a photo in the Black Archives at the Lyric Theater. The black and white image depicts African-American children and adults in a playground under a highway overpass. The photo became the genesis of Adams' contribution to Faena Festival, America's Playground.
"This image really struck me because this particular area is still primarily African-American or Afro-Caribbean, and it's in a particular shift right now," says Adams. "It was really a representation of how long this has been happening in this city."
The phenomenon of playgrounds under overpasses is not unique to Overtown. Adams had seen similar spaces in his native Baltimore and current home, New York City. It was perhaps this recognition of his own paired with Miami's designation as "America's playground" that inspired him to construct a playground inspired by the photograph and its bleak history: Because I-95 was built by razing what was a vibrant middle-class black neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, the playground was perhaps something of an apology.
"This was the solution for giving them an environment to enjoy," Adams sounds almost frustrated. "A playground under the highway. It’s a health hazard and it wasn’t a successful option for this community, which was thriving before they built a highway through it."
"It’s like this smoothing over of an urban scar," observes Lukov.
In Adams' words, the playground in the photo is "so stripped down and so basic and very dysfunctional," something of a theme for African-American spaces in the U.S. at the time. Virginia Key Beach, for example, became a dumping ground for wealthy Key Biscayne residents after black Miamians fought for the right to access the water during Jim Crow-era segregation. With so many discrete, yet similar examples of how play, leisure, and joy have been denied to poor and black communities all over the country, it might be hard to understand why half of Adams' sculpture will be a burst of technicolor.
"It relates to the perseverance in the plight of Black America," explains Adams. "We’re able to take very oppressive structures and environments and turn them into things we can flourish in. I saw both sides happening — I saw a side that was very grim, but I also saw the images of the people in the playground seeming to be unified and at leisure. And I thought about those two things happening in the photo, and how could I capture those two things in one sculpture."
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Of course, it's easy to make another parallel between the "playgrounds" of international elites and the exhaust-choked backyards and high school fields of certain children. For Lukov, the sculpture brings up questions of "who comes to play" and "who gets to play," while "these other starker realities or darker stories are ignored." But even if you can't see through that to a story of perseverance, it's still possible to imagine a story of transformation. Not the type we already see underway — where the neighborhoods once ignored are given face-lifts for new residents rather than their current communities — but a transformation toward actual progress.
"This piece is not a criticism of America," insists Adams. "It’s really more of a mirror for America to look at itself and understand all of its imperfections. This is an example of what we can do to do better, to be better."
America's Playground. Noon to 8 p.m. Monday, December 3, through Sunday, December 9, at Faena Beach, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; faenaart.org. Admission is free.
Faena Festival. Monday, December 3, through Sunday, December 9, at various Miami Beach venues; 305-534-8800; faenaart.org. Admission is free.