Opa-locka envisions itself as a future thriving arts district

07/06/2013 12:12 AM

07/22/2013 1:36 PM

Germane Barnes, a 27-year-old artist who relocated six months ago from Los Angeles to Opa-locka, could be remembered as a pioneer in 2026.

By then, when Opa-locka will celebrate its centennial, city officials and community activists believe the city with a reputation for violence and drugs, would have turned into a thriving arts district.

Barnes moved to Magnolia North, a tough neighborhood formerly known as The Triangle, to transform abandoned buildings into works of art. Two other LA-based designers, Christian Stayner and Jennifer Bonner, are part of his project, funded by the nonprofit Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC).

“People in the neighborhood are surprised that I moved here all the way from Los Angeles,” Barnes said, adding that he moved to Magnolia North to learn about the residents’ needs. His team wants to design “sculpturesque” additions to buildings where businesses such as a bakery or a bike repair shop are run.

His plan is to stay in the community until the project is finished, by 2014, but other hipsters looking for an inspiring place to create art could soon take his place.

The Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs is promoting an area of warehouses at Northwest 151st Street between 22nd and 27th Avenues as a studio and art galleries district. Potential artists are enticed with a tour around the unique Moorish buildings dotting the area.

Some have already expressed their interest in relocating there.

Among them is well-known local artist Carlos Betancourt, whose artwork is part of public collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

He recently took one of the tours and says he is visiting Opa-locka again next week to consider renting a warehouse to use as a studio for a large Art Basel project he’s working on.

“You can feel there’s a fresh energy, a new beginning for that community,” said Betancourt, 46. He says he’s attracted by the low rents, the urban setting and the enthusiasm of the people involved in the project.

The idea of creating an arts district in Opa-locka may sound like a fantasy, but its proponents say this low-income community is special.

With the largest concentration of Moorish architecture in the United States, they believe Opa-locka’s minarets, domes and arabesque mosaics can serve as a catalyst for change. Currently, 20 of Opa-locka’s Moorish buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city has turned to promoting the legacy of its architecture before, but as Miami continues to evolve into an international art destination, they believe Opa-locka’s distinctiveness won’t go unnoticed.

The head of OLCDC, Willie Logan, says the art community will expand from Miami Beach and Wynwood to new neighborhoods.

“It is only a matter of time for arts to be used for developing a new community in Miami-Dade.”

To be an attractive destination, the OLCDC and the city leaders are trying to improve the image of Opa-locka.

Many Miami-Dade residents have only seen the city from the distance while driving along I-95, but by 2026 the OLCDC wants the city to be home to several well-regarded restaurants, art galleries and specialty retailers.

Art, travel and lifestyle publications as well as local media will regularly carry stories on Opa-locka as an attractive place to live or visit, according to the vision for the community that OLCDC touts in its annual report.

As a starting point to attracting more visitors, an exhibition about Opa-locka’s Moorish architecture is currently on display at HistoryMiami in downtown Miami. The “Opa-locka: Mirage City”exhibit runs through Sept. 8.

The federal government is supporting efforts to transform Opa-locka. In 2010, the OLCDC was awarded $20 million by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Neighborhood Stabilization.

Mayor Myra Taylor says that signs of a “renaissance” are already visible. Private money is flowing in, with new businesses arriving, she says, and the largest real estate development project in the history of the city — a $23 million, six-story residential building — is under construction.

The removal in 2012 of the metal barricades at Magnolia North, erected there in the 1980s in an effort to control drug trafficking, was seen as a symbol of the city’s revival. Art installations are planned to replace the barriers.

“The community has jumped on board as a whole to fix up their yards and the landscaped areas,” Taylor said. “People are now taking a second look at the uniqueness of where they live.”

A week-long effort to finalize plans that included a citizen input workshop was organized last May. At the workshop, citizens had the opportunity to share ideas on future plans for housing, commercial developments and public spaces.

The involvement of neighbors is cited by the OLCDC as a difference with how arts arrived in Wynwood. Logan says that gentrification in Opa-locka won’t imply displacement.

“Our commitment is not to displace people,” Logan said. “We are using restricted deeds so that houses are affordable for decades.”

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