Camila Alvarez started noticing how run-down walls in Wynwood were becoming canvasses and changing the look of the neighborhood.
“All of a sudden, I saw artists coming and painting on walls, and it made me very curious as to how or why all this was taking place,” said Alvarez, 26, a Colombian native who moved to Miami when she was a teen and recently graduated with a degree in fine arts from Florida International University.
In December 2009, Alvarez’s curiosity led her to the streets, where she began talking to people about the changes happening in Wynwood, now a trendy, artsy neighborhood. She decided to capture the changes in Right to Wynwood, a 21-minute documentary she produced about the neighborhood’s gentrification that is set to be shown Oct12.
She soon realized that the story of Wynwood — a crime-soaked spot before the artists and entrepreneurs moved in — was “very intricate” and called on her former Miami Dade College classmate Natalie Edgar to help tell it.
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Edgar, 25, a Miami native, brought her photographic and film editing talents to the project.
“This is a project I immediately connected with,” said Edgar, who has a bachelor’s degree in visual journalism from the University of Miami. “I was interested in the topic of gentrification and wanted to learn more.”
Right to Wynwood gives a voice to the area’s artists, developers, gallery owners, real-estate agents, urban sociologists and residents, many of them with Puerto Rican roots because the neighborhood had once been a Puerto Rican enclave.
The gentrification has displaced some longtime residents whose homes were torn down by developers in search of land to build restaurants, galleries and the like. One of the residents who lost her home is Oria Cruz, who is featured in the film.
“This is the house I grew up in,” sobbed Oria’s daughter, Caridad Cruz, at a recent screening of the documentary. Every inch of the home’s walls was covered with graffiti. Shortly after the screening, the home, off Northwest 25th Street, was demolished.
Developers like David Lombardi, owner of Wynwood Lofts — a four-story, 36-unit condo building on Northwest 23rd Street — say the gentrification has improved the neighborhood.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Wynwood was a haven for drug dealers and crime, much of it violent. Its most famous case: the beating death of 35-year-old crack dealer Leonardo “Cano” Mercado in December 1988. Six Miami cops were charged with bludgeoning Mercado to death in a bloody five-minute beating at his small Wynwood apartment. When the cops were acquitted, riots broke out in Wynwood.
Lombardi, in the film, boasts about how he “took chicken s--- and made chicken salad.”
He brags about how quickly he can get a building permit to change the neighborhood.
“Within a week, I had the permit … the neighborhood policeman came and told them (tenants) they had one hour to get out because the building had been condemned and was being torn down,” Lombardi says.
It was those conservations with Lombardi that sparked Alvarez’s interest to finish the film.
“When I interviewed David Lombardi, it was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me,” she said. “I knew this film was going to be great because listening to him speaking, you realize … ‘Wow, this is really messed up.’”
The two filmmakers financed the project themselves. It took more than three years as they financed the project, which cost about $3,000, from their freelance jobs. Alvarez is a freelance writer and artist for online magazines, while Edgar is a freelance videographer. They both started the project as college students — Alvarez at FIU, Edgar at UM.
“Most of our family and friends thought we were a little crazy for putting so much work into something that had no support or financial benefit,” said Edgar. “But when you believe in a story, there’s not much that can stop you.”
“Many times, I felt like giving up,” said Alvarez. “I had no experience, and we’d go out and spend the day shooting something that we thought was really cool, and later when we reviewed it, we realized that it sucked and that our hands were too shaky or that the lighting was off. So we had to start at square one.”
Said Edgar: “This project destroyed and rebuilt us time after time.”
The film is getting noticed. Last year, Right to Wynwood won the Jury’s Award at FIU’s Film Festival and won best documentary at the Miami Short Film Festival.
“The film is a great introduction to what gentrification is really like,” said Felix Acuña, 24, a New College graduate who majored in psychology and recently viewed the film. “What’s most remarkable about the film and what serves as the biggest eye-opener of all is listening to what the developers have to say and realizing that they have no consideration for the well-being of people.”
Alvarez and Edgar have begun working on a second project, an installation art exhibit named “Walls,” which will feature Wynwood locals and neighborhood newcomers.
In the meantime, Alvarez and Edgar are preparing for the film’s premiere.
“Some days, I would think, ‘Nobody is going to care about this,’ but then I would listen to Oria tell her story and listen to what some of the other residents had to say,” said Alvarez. “And that brought me back to that feeling — this is real, this matters and these people matter.”
If You Go
If you’d like to watch “Right to Wynwood” you can visit Right to Wynwood on Facebook and send a private message requesting a link.
The film will be screened on Oct. 12 at III Points Festival at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St. The festival will be from 1 to 5 p.m. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-576-4350.