By Steve Kelman

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Street art and Miami's urban revitalization

Although I still have 50 or so final student papers to grade, my classes are almost done. I spent the weekend in south Florida, taking advantage of a promotion through the frequent hotel guest program in which I participate. (When I made the reservation, I assumed that we would already have had several weeks of frigid weather in Boston, while in fact our eerily warm Thanksgiving period meant that it turned really cold only about two days before I left for the Florida warmth.)
 
A highlight of the visit was an afternoon in an edgy art district that has recently sprouted up less than two miles north of downtown Miami -- a bit south of the previously edgy but now mainstream Miami Design District -- called Wynwood. The story of this area is amazing and instructive. It once had shoe factories and warehouses, now long gone. What's left is some desolate blocks with auto body shops and warehouses. The architecture consisted of concrete one-story box structures.
 
A few years ago a real-estate developer (who was one of the people who had been involved in the resurrection of South Beach in Miami twenty years ago) basically bought up the entire neighborhood, I'm sure for a tiny sum. He proceeded to commission a number of artists to do wall paintings (aka graffiti) on the auto body and warehouse store fronts, and to set up space in an abandoned building lot for various artists to set up studios, and in the abandoned lot next door to display the outdoor works of different artists.

The developer's daughter set up a restaurant, and more recently another restaurant appeared, this one commissioning wall paintings by the artist Shepard Fairey, known (at least to non-art types such as me) as the designer of the Obama t-shirt from the 2008 election campaign. (Here is a link to the art on the restaurant walls, which will give you a feel for the art in the area as a whole.)

I was amused to see that the text on the stop sign at the street corner outside the newer restaurant had been changed -- apparently officially, this wasn't spray painted or anything -- to SHOP. On the main drag was parked a police car-like car from a private security service, but nobody was inside. A steady stream of tourists, though not huge crowds, were on the streets, taking a lot of pictures.
 
I found this whole transformation fascinating. One reaction was that if you could do something to beautify and make exciting this wasteland, there is virtually no urban space anywhere that is without hope. A second was how a smart investor made an investment in some infrastructure -- the works of art he commissioned -- to bring about the transformation.
 
What is happening in Wynwood is a dramatic version of changes that are happening in many cities -- pioneered by the transformation of Soho in Manhattan and the abandoned warehouses of Quincy Market in Boston.  But it is a dramatic version of that phenomenon, because the original area was so forlorn, lacking the diamonds in the rough of Soho or Quincy Market. While in Florida, a Swedish friend I was visiting reminded me that I had passed on visiting her husband and her in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, sharing the East Coast prejudice against the city that I now no longer even am close to having.

"Miami today is like LA in the '70s," she commented, on the upswing into a real world-class city. These kinds of changes to the urban landscape make me at least optimistic that the ingenuity and reinvention that are so central to American culture and economic vitality are not dead.

Posted on Dec 13, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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