In the last few weeks, two Miami landmarks, the oldest bar in town, Tobacco Road, and one of our oldest pharmacies, Allen’s Drugs, are closing or evolving as they sell to a conglomerate, and with them goes a chunk of our identity.
This is sad evidence that homogenization and gentrification are assassinating uniqueness and character all across our culturally diverse city.
In the case of both “the Road” (as the bar was affectionately known among Miamians) and the old drug store, I don’t only mourn their extinction because I won’t be afforded the opportunity to visit them and revive memories, I also grieve their disappearance because future residents won’t have the opportunity to take in these unique Miami experiences.
Undoubtedly, Miami is America’s most exciting city — it’s unpredictable and complicated. Part of what makes this city magnificently different is its reluctance to adapt to the mainstream.
Whereas Manhattan has become a giant shopping mall and Los Angeles has lost touch with its Angeleno heritage, Miami’s ethnic barriers and its ever-changing demographics have made it more difficult for corporatization to occur. The major challenge in these parts has always been controlling development so that it doesn’t overtake us and pave over our existence.
Unfortunately, as a community, we have failed miserably at stemming unconscious, rampant development.
Several years ago, Miami artist Xavier Cortada, created an installation titled “Absence of Place.” He photographed locations that were important places from his youth that had since ceded to corporate interests and become parking lots and ugly, boxy buildings.
I called Cortada this week after I saw his post on Facebook noting the death of “the Road.” At first, we both theorized and philosophized on gentrification and Cortada cut through the niceties and blurted out, “Damn man, it’s killing the character of our city. I’m all for development so long at it is environmentally and historically sound.”
I couldn’t have agreed more with Cortada. He echoed the sentiments of most Miamians who are passionate about seeing our city maintain its modern edge and yet preserve a slice of our history.
Wouldn’t it had been interesting if the developer would have decided to preserve Tobacco Road and build around it? And the only way developers and builders are going to get wise to this more respectful way of treating our historical touchstones is if Miamians let it be known that we aren’t okay with letting our history be devoured in the name of progress.
While the doors of Tobacco Road at 626 South Miami Ave. were being shuttered the Ball & Chain bar in the heart of Little Havana opened for business — a ray of hope for those of us seeking new adventures while never forgetting from whence we come.
The brainchild of Bill Fuller and his partners Zack and Ben Bush, the bar on Calle Ocho and Southwest 15th Avenue is an homage to our past.
It’s décor is pure Miami — a throwback to the original establishment, its namesake, which opened it’s doors in 1935.
While the Ball and Chain tips its hat to its colorful history, it is not a silly replica, a nostalgic relic that can only be seen and not enjoyed. The bar is a full functioning establishment that is beaming with excitement.
“The concept of the bar was to make the patrons seem like the place picked up where it left off in the 1950’s, all the while adapting to a modern clientele,” owner Bill Fuller told me.
Fuller, whose company, the Barlington Group, owns several other properties in Little Havana, understands the concept of conscientious development.
“I am a product of this place. My family is from here and this is where I’m raising my child,” Fuller said. “I am committed to Miami and Little Havana in particular. If you can build something that blends into and highlights the history of a place, why not do it?”
Miamians need to first learn about our history and then demand it be preserved or at least not paved over.