Driving through the Wynwood Art District in downtown Miami can be a perplexing experience. Google Maps warns pedestrians against walking around in the area due to the lack of sidewalks, but merely cruising by one of Wynwood’s several street art parks or galleries doesn’t really do this bubbling art scene justice. This small contradiction is one of many that can only be attributed to the general identity crisis the locale has undergone in the past decade. Calling the community a “rough neighborhood” is an understatement. Calling it the most notable, up-and-coming art center south of New York City isn’t.
The transformation of Wynwood from a run-down, Puerto Rican ghetto to the hip art-scene center of Miami happened surprisingly quickly. Just 20 years ago, the area was a mostly Latin, blue-collar neighborhood of little importance to the art-scene elite. As long-time resident Katheleen Bonello told The Star (Toronto), the district soon “became a slum” by the early ‘90s, marked by poverty and race riots. Over the next decade, a wide array of vacant warehouse spaces, which used to store unloaded goods from the nearby train tracks, began housing local artists and start-up galleries. Most of these artists had been unable to afford properties in the pricier Design District and Miami Beach, Miami’s former art hubs. At this point in the mid ‘90s, Wynwood was still a couple streets of windowless warehouses with some local gang graffiti next to an empty train yard—which, ironically, is now the site of the new Midtown Mall.
Artsy tendencies become artsy identities
Enter eminent developer and so-called urban Renaissance man Tony Goldman. Goldman first earned some notoriety back in the ‘70s, when he took an industrial no-man’s-land better known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” in lower Manhattan and turned it into what we now call oh-so-hip SoHo. He is the enactor of what some call the “SoHo Effect.” Basically, a developer takes a deprived neighborhood brimming with poor (but enviably hip) artists, buys the land, and remodels some buildings into pricey boutiques and cafes. Economic promise flourishes and soon more people become attracted to the neighborhood.
There are some positive results from this, like cultural revival and improved safety. But if not managed properly—as was the case in SoHo—the economic prosperity of others (mainly the real estate developers) can end up driving out the people that gave the district its initial vibrancy and unique qualities. In the worst-case scenarios, lower-income families who aren’t involved in the art scene are also displaced due to both the rise of property costs and taxes and the disappearance of local businesses that provided employment to the community. Even more troubling is the fact that this process has a snowball effect; the artists who were driven out move on to the next lower-income neighborhood, the developers take note, and the SoHo effect occurs again. The SoHo effect has become a nationwide phenomenon, and Miami is no exception.
Wynwood isn’t Goldman’s first Floridian project; after revamping SoHo he moved on to South Beach in the ‘80s. He helped create the Ocean Drive Association, a group of business owners and residents of the area (today there is a similar Wynwood Art District Association). Once he organized the residents, he bought some of the run-down buildings on Collins Avenue, remodeled them, and offered free rent to high-end retailers. In came Armani Exchange, Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren and the like. Today, Collins Avenue is one of the (if not the) shopping walkways of South Florida. Unsurprisingly, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce named Goldman citizen of the year in 1993. Go figure.
In a 2006 article for The Real Deal, Adam Weinbaum, director of sales for Lombardi Properties, Wynwood’s second-largest devel-oper, prophesied the eventual rise of Wynwood and identified the SoHo effect’s hand in bringing Wynwood onto the development radar.
“We came into Wynwood because we thought it was the closest industrial area to Miami Beach, the Design District and downtown Miami,” Weinbaum said. “We found this burgeoning art scene that no one knew about. As a result of prices on Miami Beach, artists were moving into semi-dilapidated art spaces. And we recognized it.”
Starting in 2004, before the economy toppled over, Goldman set his sights on Wynwood, his next urban revamp project. He borrowed a slim $23 million and bought most of the warehouses in the district. No one cared much—Wynwood was still considered one of Miami’s less stellar pieces of real estate. The visionary Goldman did not lose determination however; he ensured that more artist and galleries moved in and, despite the later economic dip, remained optimistic that his investment would prove successful.
Meanwhile, developer/mogul David Lombardi created what would later become the staple of Wynwood nightlife: Wynwood Art Walks. Originally called Roving Fridays in the Design District, once a month the Wynwood galleries open up their garage doors, provide some free drinks, and invite over their hip friends. During its humble beginnings, few souls dared to gallery-hop Wynwood at night, where there was little police presence and few nightlife opportunities to keep visitors around once the galleries closed.
Clearly more was needed to boost Wynwood’s rep. Goldman had the perfect formula for art district development success—what he referred to in a 2005 interview with Miami New Times as “gentlefication.” This ‘gentle’ process flooded the area with new restaurants and street art. The restaurant question was a tricky one; Goldman needed some trendy bistros to bring the foot traffic to Wynwood, but who was going to drive out of downtown to get lunch in the slums? Regardless, Goldman opened his first Wynwood restaurant, Joey’s, in 2008, and followed in 2010 with Wynwood Kitchen & Bar (not surprisingly reminiscent of his SoHo Kitchen & Bar). These restaurants are exactly what you would imagine—over-thought and overpriced—but they succeeded in bringing people to Wynwood and keeping them there.
In the back of one of Goldman’s restaurants, Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, stands Goldman’s grandest creation, the famed Wynwood Walls. The Walls consist of an open patio with 12 murals featuring impressive work from street-art big-dogs like Shepard Fairey and Aiko. Here, Goldman was able to kill two birds with one stone: not only did he create a high-profile art attraction, but he hooked street art— the art world’s latest trend—into the Wynwood mix. Yet it can turn the stomach of any serious street art appreciator. The rest of the Wynwood area is well-known by locals for its rampant guerilla graffiti and street art. Goldman managed to take out the insurgent impulse of illegal street art in the area and institutionalize the open urban space into a backdrop for the elite clientele of his high-class restaurant.
In Wynwood today, the demand for food and bar options is soaring. During the now absurdly popular Wynwood Art Walks, upscale food trucks have met this demand. What is normally an abandoned lot turns into a food-court-on-wheels for gallery hoppers, with gourmet grilled cheese and taco burgers on made on demand. New bars and cafes are already on their way.
Rapid and strange
In the end, all of Wynwood’s hype rests on the artist and galleries that initially attracted Goldman. One has to wonder, with all this exposure, is this art even any good? Or is Wynwood’s designation as a viable and vibrant art district only wishful thinking by developers? Depends on who you ask.
Before a contemporary art scene developed in Miami, art in the city was mostly Latin-dominated, typically associated with the now cliché work of Britto and, as Wynwood resident Daniela Baldacci puts it, was mainly comprised of “pastel colors and coconuts.” Even as Wynwood’s initial galleries began to infiltrate the empty warehouses in 2000, it would take Art Basel, Miami’s yearly art fair extravaganza, to get people to notice what Wynwood had to offer. Even though Art Basel was initially centered on Miami Beach when it debuted in December of 2002, it included four of the founding Wynwood galleries. This small exposure was enough to fuel the Wynwood fire and attract new galleries to settle in.
Dario Posada, Colombian artist and co-owner of Area 23 Gallery in Wynwood, was one of the many who would flock to Wynwood only in December to catch in on the Art Basel madness. It wasn’t until last year that Posada permanently settled in Wynwood, and the “rapid and strange” pace of change in the area has been, according to him, vertiginous. Still, he chose Wynwood because, like many of the newer galleries owners, he believes that Wynwood has viable potential as an art hub.
Fellow rookie gallery owner Marite Iglesias of Gallery I/D, expressed similar hopes to The Biscayne Times when asked why he came to Wynwood: “We chose Wynwood because we believe in the area’s future as an arts destination.”
The veteran gallery owners of the area paint a less rosy picture. In an interview with the Biscayne Times Wynwood old-timer Fred Snitzer admitted that his initial high hopes for Wynwood’s art potential have only dwindled with its expanded popularity: “There was an opening once, an opportunity to create a serious art scene here, but I think it has passed. Restaurants are good, that part is fine. But I’m disappointed that Wynwood wasn’t able to sustain a certain tier of gallery […] I imagined once another level [of galleries] setting up here.”
Still, there is some silver lining. All of the development has brought artistic opportunities that otherwise would be unavailable in South Florida. One example is the Miami Light Project, a performance art non-profit for which Goldman is sponsoring a new theater, exhibition space, and rehearsal room. Yet Wynwood’s success as an art center, based not on Goldman’s development additions but on the actual quality of the art produced, remains questionable. Posada reassures that no matter the growth, Wynwood will never viably compete with established art centers like New York or even South Beach.
“But what about us?”
Perhaps more disappointing than Wynwood’s seemingly dwindling art potential is the lack of interaction between the artist/gallerists and the local community. Posada said that the closest thing he’s seen to interaction between the two groups has been several thefts of the galleries by robbers suspected to be from the area.
“They see us as distant and indirect. We see them as dangerous and delicate,” Posada said.
On their end, community members haven’t been afraid to organize and try to repel the displacement that they already feel coming. One grassroots organization created to combat Wynwood’s gentrification, Miami En Acción, formed in 2008 and gathered concerned community members to discuss the lack of affordable housing. As group member Norma Margarin told Miami Nights, “We’re not opposed to pretty streets, to galleries, to malls, and to lots of condos. But what about us?”
Yet not all residents see Wynwood’s growth as disastrous. Wynwood local Baldacci admitted that she appreciates the expansion of an art scene in Miami to counteract the more stereotypical Britto-esque work she has encountered, even if expansion comes with a price.
“Even if the rent did shoot up and I had to move out, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad,” Baldacci said. “It makes sense that they want to renovate downtown.”
Artists themselves are also beginning to see the effects of Wynwood’s developer boom set in. In just a year, Posada witnessed increased market value of his gallery—and his art. And as Iceland native and current Wynwood tenant Magnus Sigurdarson confesses, most of these artists, like Goldman, aren’t strangers to the patterns of gentrification.
“Little by little this will become a lovely neighborhood,” Sigurdarson told The Biscayne Times. “Rents will go sky high and only the rich will survive. That’s the story of all these places.”
When asked what he will do to placate the already growing effects of his developments by Miami New Times, Goldman claimed he would try provide low-income housing and studio space in order to maintain the area’s “sense of color.” But when pressed to describe how this would actually come about, his son Joey Goldman stepped in to discuss their more recent—and apparently more important—plans to open a new café. And with the recent building of Midtown Mall, it seems more likely that Goldman’s next project will be a parking garage, not affordable housing.
Even with all of Goldman’s development schemes, for anyone walking down the sidewalk-less and mostly deserted streets of Wynwood, the question begs: why here? And what’s next? The area is still in progress, and the warehouse architecture is windowless and uninspiring. The lack of sidewalks makes its feasibility as a pedestrian window-shopping walkway questionable. Despite any new artistic prospects, Goldman’s “gentlefication” will most likely only bring on what has already been seen in SoHo and South Beach— namely, a displacement of the life-long lower class residents of the area and of the artists who began the whole thing. However ‘gentle’ Goldman might like to paint the artistic rise of Wynwood, for the residents and artists with the shorter end of the monetary stick, there isn’t anything gentle about it.
ANA ALVAREZ B’13 thinks some neighborhoods are SoHoverrated.