What was Wynwood like before the Walls? Before the art galleries and fancy restaurants? Before the weekend crowds?
Wynwood was a struggling working-class neighborhood, dotted with warehouses and other industry.
The Wynwood neighborhood is now a local arts draw and one of Miami’s hippest neighborhoods. It was once known as the “golden gate” for Hispanic immigrants.
A melting pot of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Haitians, African-Americans, Nicaraguans and Dominicans that had been crippled by a bad image and a deteriorating economy.
In the 1950s, Wynwood — originally spelled Wyndwood — was home to white non-Hispanic professionals and several factories including Coca-Cola and Garrett Construction. Jobs were plentiful.
In the 1960s came Interstate 95, an addition often associated with the slow pattern of deterioration in the community. It was followed by an exodus of the middle class.
During the 1970s, Wynwood’s garment district thrived as one of Miami’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing thousands of shoppers — many from South America. But problems with Latin economies, burgeoning crime, and riots of the 1980s took a toll on business. In the past decade, as the Design District to the north becomes prohibitively expensive, Wynwood’s lower rents and ample warehouses started attracting the art crowd and developers.
Through the Miami Herald archives, here is a look at Wynwood in the 1980s into the early 2000s, before much of the neighborhood evolved into what it is today.
THE ELDERLY CENTER
Published July 28, 1985
It is five minutes past 9 when two vans pull up in front of Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove. Thirty senior citizens tumble out, carrying cardboard signs printed in English and Spanish.
Led by Ingrid Grau, director of the Wynwood Elderly Center, the elderly line up single file, like children in a school lunch line, and wait to parade before city commissioners.
In the lobby, Grau stops to light a cigarette. Her hands slightly tremble. She is nervous.
A secretary for Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre strolls by. “What are you fighting for today?” she asks.
The elderly fill the last two rows of the commission chambers, clutching their colored signs. “Wynwood’s elderly have been forgotten,” one reads.
Ferre is not pleased. On a morning when the success of the Miss Universe pageant fills his thoughts, he is visibly annoyed by their presence.
Ferre accuses Grau of “creating anarchy.” Later, he will refer her request for $28,000 to fund a seniors’ hot meals program to a city department head and chastise Grau for not “following procedure.”
Ferre should know better. In her 36 years, the past 12 spent in Wynwood, Ingrid Vilbao Grau has never been one to follow procedure.
The oldest child born to the former Spanish ambassador to Venezuela and a Swedish-born business magnate, Grau grew up in exclusive boarding schools in Paris, Florence and Rome.
She speaks seven languages. During breaks from school, she took exotic vacations. At 13, she expressed an interest in the ancient pyramids and her father took her to Egypt.
Even then, she wondered why others had so little. During a family trip to Brazil, she took a cab to the poor side of town to see what it looked like, handing out her father’s money “like I was Santa Claus.”
Her parents wanted Grau to enter diplomatic work or become a lawyer. They were aghast when at 17 and fresh from an Italian finishing school, she went with the Peace Corps to Santo Domingo, the Brazilian Amazon and later to Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi until a bout with yellow fever forced her to return home.
Back in her parents’ realm, Grau was told to “dress accordingly” at family functions and attended to by servants. She showed up in blue jeans.
She tried to make amends with her father by studying economics at Columbia University, but hated it.
Her heart was with the poor.
Years later, her father would visit her at the Wynwood Elderly Center where old men and women beaten by time’s injustice accept a free meal of beans and stew doled out on Styrofoam plates.
“Big tears” welled up in the ambassador’s eyes at this source of his family’s shame.
Grau arrived in Wynwood in 1973, then a graduate student at Barry University headed for a master’s degree in social work.
Two years later, under the tutelage of the late Wynwood leader, Jose Mendez, she was appointed director of the Wynwood Elderly Center. Funded by the city of Miami and Catholic Community Services, it is housed at the Eugenio de Hostos Center, 2902 NW Second Ave.
Her role has evolved far beyond serving lunch and playing cards and dominoes with the center’s 325 regulars.
When the elderly needed more public housing, Grau met with Dade County Housing and Urban Development Director Mel Adams and pushed for the construction of a 72-unit project. It will open next month a block from the center, completing what Grau believes is her biggest accomplishment.
When the elderly had no place to play dominoes, forced to sit in the crowded corridors of the Eugenio de Hostos Center, Grau asked the city commission to turn a vacant lot across the street into a small park. They denied her request, saying the city cannot afford to build or maintain more parks.
When drug peddlers stalked a nearby park and the elderly were afraid to leave their homes, Grau called for a meeting with Dade State Attorney Janet Reno.
When hundreds of Wynwood garment workers lost their jobs in an industry recession, Grau and colleague Alejita Padro of the National Puerto Rican Forum sought funds for a program that would re-train displaced workers.
Night after night spent attending meetings -- Community Action, Community Development, crime prevention -- mornings spent waiting until Ferre reaches her name on an interminable city agenda -- Grau finds little time for herself.
“She fights for those people like they were hers,” said Dorothy Quintana, a 76-year-old Wynwood activist who has lived there for 27 years.
“She has done a lot for this community, a lot,” Quintana said. “At city hall, or with anybody who comes in the way of her old people, that woman fights for them in any possible way that she can. She worries if they are sick, she brings them food to their house. She never goes home. I’ve seen her working at her office like she has no strength, but she continues,” Quintana said. “Nobody could do what she does.” “When she wants something or sees the need, she gets involved in it,” said Marina Cintron, who has worked with Grau at the elderly center for eight years. “But she’s a soft person underneath. When she goes before the commission, she’s nervous most of the time. But she is firm about what she wants.
“It takes a little while, but she usually gets it.”
After office hours, Grau takes the elderly to supper shows, fine restaurants and on outings to Key West and Disney World, often partially financing the trips with her own money.
Grau has come to know Wynwood’s forgotten like no one else. And no one who has watched the elderly kiss her hand like she is the Madonna could question the nobility of her cause. “She is an angel,” said William Veliz, 86, who comes to the center every day wearing a tattered red and black baseball cap. Grau once saved the old man’s life by giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when he was choking.
“Beautiful, beautiful lady,” said Ester Abaroa, 67, blowing three kisses toward Grau. The Cuban immigrant and her husband, Joaquin, 67, married 40 years and forced to leave their belongings in Cuba two decades ago, sit close together at the center, eating Cuban crackers and holding hands.
“We don’t have any children, so we are alone,” Abaroa said. “We come here every day.”
“I’ve never seen a relationship like she has with the elderly,” Cintron said. “Directors at other centers act above them, they don’t mingle with them, they don’t want anything to do with them.
“She’s like a goddess to them,” Cintron said.
Even Ferre sputters in frustration that “we are the bad guys” when Ingrid Grau does not get what she wants from the city.
Over the years, one thing became imminently clear to Grau. When it came to Wynwood -- haven for each new group of refugees and where more than 40 percent of the elderly live below the poverty level -- people are quick to turn their heads.
Grau dubs it “the invisible community.”
While serving in the Peace Corps, Grau encountered what her born status had hidden -- starving Haitians chewing on a leather belt, Brazilian Indians fighting with machetes.
In the jungles and the remote villages, she was an outsider more than ever before.
“The Peace Corps is what taught me to grow up,” Grau said. “I learned how to provide for myself.”
Grau later returned to Santo Domingo with her two children “so they would know what it is like to be hungry.”
Why she always has chosen the difficult path is still unclear, even to her.
“I can’t say if it was spite or pure emotion,” Grau said. “I can’t say whether or not it’s the rebel in me. My father cries for my career. He despises every minute of my work. He has come her twice. He came in and cried.”
At age 9, Grau had been sent to boarding schools. She hated them. The young girls had only each other to confide the fears and excitement of the comings of womanhood. Many, like Grau, were lonely.
“It was a way of life that I got used to,” she said. “I never thought there was another one.”
In Wynwood, the struggle continues.
“Anybody in this community that wants to get funding for any reason has to go to the city commission and fight for it,” Cintron said.
“In order to receive any type of recognition in the community, you have to involve yourself, not just in your job, but in the daily problems and functions,” said Alejita Padro, director of the National Puerto Rican Forum.
Ingrid’s a go-getter,” Padro said. “She’s going to get what she feels she needs and it doesn’t matter which way she gets it, as long as it’s for the benefit of the people. If something like taking the elderly to the commission has to be done, and sometimes it does, then she does it.”
Until his death in 1983, Grau followed the footsteps of Jose Mendez, whom she considers her mentor.
“That’s where I got my training,” she said. “I learned everything I know from him. I couldn’t begin to reach his shoes.’
“I see things in Ingrid that she’s picked up from Mendez, but they’re not really alike,” Cintron said. “Underneath, Ingrid is shy. Mendez was really aggressive. He was a natural fighter.
“When Ingrid sees the problem, that’s when she gets involved,” Cintron said. “It’s like a feedback for her, that’s where she gets her energy.” “Since Mendez died, there have been no more leaders,” Dorothy Quintana said of Wynwood. “She’s like him in a lot of ways -- going in and out of places that nobody did. She’s picking up his work.”
Mendez, too, would often battle the mayor and the city while packing the commission meetings with Wynwood’s poor and elderly.
“How many times,” an exasperated Ferre recalled at a recent meeting, “did I tell Mendez that’s not the way to get things done?”
In the “Invisible Community,” following procedures “gets me nowhere,” she said.
TROUBLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Published June 30, 1985
Haphazard zoning, inadequate services and parking, and a fear of crime has crippled development in Wynwood and forced residents to do business elsewhere, according to a recent study.
“There are some significant zoning restrictions that make new commercial development almost prohibitive,” said Howard S. Kohn, president of Baltimore-based The Chesapeake Group Inc.
The consulting firm was hired by the city of Miami to recommend a plan for economic and business development in Wynwood, where the once-thriving garment and design industries now battle extinction.
“What we found is that residents are leaving the area except to do convenience shopping, such as running to the store for one or two items,” Kohn said. “Full-blown services are not offered here.”
Kohn made his recommendations Thursday night to city Community Development and planning officials. The city sent invitations to Wynwood businessmen and merchants but none showed up. As a start, Kohl recommended a $3.1 million shopping center that would offer the neighborhood its first regional drug and hardware stores, an expanded grocery store, as well as a bank and fast-food restaurant.
Residents, who requested these services during the firm’s telephone and door-to-door surveys, must now travel to Biscayne Boulevard or farther.
The study found most Wynwood shopping is walk-in business, partly the result of a dire lack of parking, Kohn said. Parking and business expansion can’t be done without major zoning changes -- including acquisition of property, displacement of homeowners and rezoning some residential to commercial zones, Kohn said. Present zoning does not provide enough buffer between commercial and residential zones to allow merchants to expand or add on parking. And many lots are too narrow to allow development, the study found.
Kohn stressed that a shopping center would not be enough to revitalize the depressed neighborhood of about 10,000, located north of downtown Miami between Northeast 20th and 36th streets, Interstate 95 and Biscayne Boulevard.
“Retail development has to be in the context of something larger or you’ll end up with an isolated investment that is doomed to fail,” Kohn said. “Unless you have other development happening along with it, that inevitably is what happens.”
Wynwood also suffers from a perception of being crime- ridden and inhabited by transient, new immigrant groups.
“What’s most needed is to stabilize the population while raising the income level,” Kohn said.
ity planner Guillermo Olmedillo said rezoning to accommodate retail development is possible, but cited moribund industry as the biggest obstacle to revitalizing Wynwood.
The $18,500 study was funded by the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant program.
Published April 2, 2002
Wynwood’s march back to vitality takes another step Wednesday with the inauguration of a newly renovated youth center and a neighborhood festival.
Political and neighborhood leaders will host a ribbon cutting ceremony and grand opening celebration of the Dorothy Quintana Youth Center in Roberto Clemente Park at 5 p.m. The inauguration will be followed by Art, Fashion and Flavor, an extravaganza showcasing neighborhood artists, galleries, fashion vendors and eateries.
The event includes an art exhibit, fashion show and a display of motorcycles and collectible automobiles.
The youth center, a staple in the neighborhood, is being named after Dorothy Quintana, now in her 90s, a lifelong Wynwood resident and advocate for the community.
The Wynwood neighborhood, roughly from 20th to 36th streets just north of downtown is showing signs of life. Open now are a half-dozen art galleries and a handful of other businesses, including lofts, vintage stores, eateries and bars. They are being fashioned from warehouses and factories , much like the first steps of the nearby Design District to the north, and South Beach.
“We are on a mission to revitalize this area,” says Christine Morales, Wynwood/Edgewater NET (Neighborhood Enhancement Team) administrator for the city of Miami. “Events like this attract not only local residents, but also visitors who can experience the flourishing commercial and artistic opportunities that our community offers.”
CHANGE IS HAPPENING
Published March 19, 2002
Things of beauty have the wondrous ability to flower no matter what surrounds them.
The Wynwood neighborhood of Miami is not yet paradise. Nondescript warehouses and cluttered auto garages dot the area. Discarded newspapers, caught on a breeze, flutter fitfully down the street. The working-class area, a rainbow of Hispanic, black and white, is a place where art is a luxury few entertain.
It’s not paradise. But, for some, it’s getting there.
Damien Boisseau, a transplant from Nice, France, took a look around the neighborhood two years ago and saw the potential. In September, he opened the Damien B. Contemporary Art Center to host exhibitions and offer space for resident artists to create. “We chose this neighborhood because we . . . got a good deal and we’re close to the Design District and we’re hoping it will develop more,” says Boisseau, whose gallery is at 282 NW 36th St.
Boisseau wasn’t exactly the first to test the Wynwood waters, and he balks at the tag “visionary.”
In the two years since his first visit, the area - roughly sandwiched between 20th Street on the south, 36th Street on the north, Biscayne Boulevard on the east and I-95 on the west - started to slowly bloom with the addition of a half-dozen art galleries and lofts, vintage stores and eateries. The refurbishing of this once decaying neighborhood mimicked Miami’s nearby Design District and, of course, South Beach.
“Galleries such as Damien B. are invaluable to this neighborhood,” says Christine Morales, Wynwood / Edgewater NET (Neighborhood Enhancement Team) administrator for the city of Miami. “They build upon the rich cultural diversity in our area and showcase it. Art can be, and has historically been, an effective and wonderful catalyst for economic development and beautification within an area.”
But Boisseau had to find a niche to call his own to stand apart. He would focus on European art, a style overlooked in a region that generally concentrates on Latin or Caribbean art. He would provide studio space for resident artists from South Florida and around the world. He would do so in a not-for-profit gallery. So, along with his parents, who help behind the scenes - dad Bernard’s a painter, mom Jacklyn’s an engineer - Boisseau, 29, or Damien B., as he is known, opened the gallery.
Carved out of a warehouse, Damien B.’s three-story, 8,000-square-foot gallery boasts eight studios, which currently house the works of seven artists, a parking lot and a street-level stage used for musical performances during exhibit receptions.
Recent exhibitions included Simply Art, featuring works by the center’s resident artists - Asandra, Benedicte Blanc-Fontenilles, Bernard Boisseau, Rick Delgado, Juanita Meneses, Melissa Pena, Bianca Pratorius, T.J. Sabo and Sara Stites. Through April 8, the center hosts The Illustrated Text, poetry illustrated by six French and Italian artists in honor of Franco-Italian Month.
Competitors welcome the entrance of B. and his band of artists.
“Damien B. comes with a particular bent in that it’s a not-for-profit gallery and it allows for artists that, perhaps, wouldn’t be seen in this country if not for galleries like Damien B.,” says Bernice Steinbaum, who owns her own 10,000-square-foot, SoHo-style gallery on North Miami Avenue. “They work very hard for their artists. I also think that nonprofit and alternative spaces must exist next to commercial galleries that have been on the scene for a long time and whose point of view is quite different from that which Damien sets forth. He’s a welcome member of this community.”
Damien B. purchased the building for $235,000 and charges artists $1 per square foot per month for individual studios, which are about 250 square feet. The artists say they are drawn by the neighborhood, the communal spirit that brings about inspiration, and the opportunities for exposure.
“I moved there because it’s a little off the beaten track, but it’s also in an area where the arts are gravitating toward now,” says Miami Beach painter Asandra. “That’s the trend right now, taking on warehouses as galleries and/or studios. It’s affordable in an area that is undeveloped.”
Pratorius, who lives in Miami Beach, concurs. “Artists always sort of move into these areas. Like SoHo. Artists are always pioneers in going into areas that are dangerous - but it’s not that bad here. People around here are very nice and curious. They want to know what we do.”
“There’s a competitive edge among the artists, and a lot of that has to do with Damien’s personality - that very warm French, kissing-on-both-cheeks edge,” adds painter Stites. She drives to her studio at the center from Marathon, where she runs a hotel with her husband.
Damien B. is flattered by the praise but realistic. “I will never say I will change the world,” he says. “But maybe a project like mine will bring more artists and galleries into this neighborhood, and with time everything will change. The city is helping to improve the neighborhood, and [it] will change like all of Miami in a way. Since I’ve been here, there already have been big changes. Biscayne Boulevard is being redeveloped from downtown to the Design District. It won’t be in the next couple months, but this neighborhood will change a lot.”
To that end, Damien B. has his eye on the future.
Through the center, Pratorius is working with some of the neighborhood’s preteens at the nearby Aspira School on North Miami Avenue. The kids are learning painting with Pratorius, and Damien B. plans to showcase their efforts in a forthcoming exhibit.
“It’s great,” says Pratorius. “It’s getting them to do something different.”
But with progress comes the very real threat of gentrification and displacement. The residents who would most benefit from an area’s improvements would be the first to be priced out of their homes as the area becomes more desirable.
“The Wynwood/ Edgewater community is a working-class community, which is very proud of both their heritage and this area,” Morales says. “Whenever the economic pie expands within an urban area, displacement and gentrification are very real possibilities and considerations to be carefully evaluated.”
Several agencies - the Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust, the Rafael Hernandez Economic Development Corp. and the Edgewater Economic Development Corp. - engage in dialogues between residents and businesses. Changes, brought about through the efforts of places like Damien B., don’t follow a set timetable.
“It’s hard to say,” says Henry Mojica, project manager for the Rafael Hernandez Economic Development Corp., which has helped Damien B. and others with refurbishing of warehouses. “The Beach took awhile, but I think the proximity of the water and the beach itself attracts tourism. It moved a lot quicker there. In Wynwood, the dynamics are different. But [Damien B.] is one of the positive things in this area.”
There have been other pressing challenges, too, for Damien B. There was a break-in before the alarm system arrived. There’s the perception that the streets aren’t safe after dark, not to mention littered.
“It’s not a perfect neighborhood. We knew that when we came here. Some people living here throw paper on the ground,” Damien B. complains. “Strange that they don’t care for the place that they are living in. We want to keep it clean, but it’s something we have to work on every day.”
Morales acknowledges the problem. “We need to address and closely monitor cleanliness and safety as top priority items on our ‘quality of life hit-list.’ These are the major ‘deal breakers’ for many businesses, not only for the art community.”
The artists are, more or less, unfazed.
“I like that it’s funy around the edge,” Asandra says. “There’s something raw about it, and that’s wonderful for an artist. You’re working with a blank canvas and creating something and, here you go, it’s raw and it’s not polished and beautiful and finished but it has a lot of character.”
Published Feb. 7, 2002
The Wynwood property that Bill Cocose first set eyes on five years ago was hardly a developer’s dream. Eight-foot-high mounds of garbage, old tires and cast-off furniture choked the site and spilled into the street, and vagrants and crack addicts had moved into one of the buildings.
To make matters worse, the commercial laundry that once operated there was suspected of contaminating ground water and someone had buried drums of heavy fuel oil under all the trash.
“This was the cancer of the neighborhood,” said Cocose, president of Atwater Capital Group, a Boca Raton company that specializes in redeveloping brownfields - abandoned or underutilized industrial or commercial properties where possible environmental contamination hinders development.
Now the former brownfield site is being hailed as an example of what can happen when government, private business, and the community work together to reclaim property that used to scare investors away.
A new MetroMix cement plant, providing dozens of much-needed jobs for the neighborhood, will open today; the contamination is gone and across the street from the cement plant, rusting machinery and conveyor belts have been ripped out of the old laundry and the 44,000-square-foot shell is ready to begin a new life.
Cocose is negotiating the sale of the laundry building at 2136 NW First Ave. and a smaller adjoining building with a group of developers who are interested in transforming it into artists’ studios and living space.
When Cocose first saw the site he was able to look beyond the mess. The laundry - with its green tile facade - had the “potential to be a great art deco building” and the lot across the street with the buried drums was well located for an industrial site, he said.
Cocose, who had redeveloped several brownfields sites in the Chicago area before coming to South Florida, said he used to do traditional real estate projects but was attracted to the challenge of brownfields redevelopment.
“We think we can see the intrinsic value in properties when others can’t,” he said. “Part of brownfields redevelopment is looking beyond the obvious.”
Still, the Wynwood project was daunting. The property was in bankruptcy court, there was an IRS lien against it, several years of back taxes were owed, and a creditor had a judgment lien in excess of $1 million. Then there were the environmental problems.
Michael Goldstein, Cocose’s lawyer and chairman of the Miami-Dade Brownfields Committee, helped Cocose get past many of the legal hurdles and access state and local incentives that made the redevelopment of the Wynwood site financially feasible.
To qualify for benefits under Florida’s brownfields program, a property has to go through a formal designation procedure that includes two public hearings and the establishment of a community advisory board. Currently there are 45 designated brownfields sites around the state - but there are far more brownfields.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nationwide there are 500,000 to 1 million brownfields. Robert Schwarzreich, an economic planner in the Miami Department of Real Estate & Economic Development, says there are around 400 brownfield sites scattered around the City of Miami alone.
The city had already targeted the Wynwood property for redevelopment before Cocose came on the scene. “It really was the major blight in that section of the city,” said Schwarzreich, “but I was worried about how we were going to get things started.”
The immediate area around the laundry had lost 75 percent of its workforce since the 1980s, and improving the site was considered a vital part of the city’s effort to jumpstart economic development in the neighborhood.
“We were lucky we had two people who were very interested in the site (Cocose and Jose Diaz of MetroMix) and who had a lot of grit,” said Schwarzreich.
In 1996, the city received a $100,000 EPA grant that it used for assessment at the site. Three years later the city got $500,000 from the state and targeted most of it for additional assessment and cleanup of the Wynwood pilot project.
When the cleanup was completed last summer, Cocose sold part of the land to MetroMix. That sale enabled Cocose to settle the judgment lien on the property. His profit from the project will come when he sells the green tile building and a smaller building behind it.
He is asking $900,000 for the two. He declined to say exactly how much he has invested in the project, but said it is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.
“This is not a big home run financially, but the fact I’ll make any money given the problems is a miracle. This was truly a public/private partnership or it wouldn’t have happened,” Cocose said.
“We all worked together on this, but the property would still be sitting there if we hadn’t gotten the state funding,” Schwarzreich said.
Since the mid-1990s, there’s been a lot of momentum in brownfields redevelopment, said Goldstein. In 1996, Miami-Dade County began its brownfields initiative, which provides tax credits, low-interest loans and grants, and the following year the state created its brownfields program.
New brownfields legislation signed by President Bush Jan. 11, doubles the funds available through the EPA to help communities clean up and revitalize brownfields from $98 million to $200 million in fiscal 2003. It also includes $25 million for urban development and brownfields cleanup that will be available through the Depatment of Housing and Urban Development.
And significantly, it reforms the Superfund law - providing more liability protection for prospective purchasers, and innocent landowners and nearby property owners. Under Superfund, such owners and operators of suspect property can be held liable for the cost of cleanup - regardless if they caused the contamination. Now Cocose says he’s ready for his next brownfield project. “I’m anxious to take the lessons learned here and the team we assembled and do multiple deals.”