North Miami art galleries struggle as the city tries to reinvent itself
Cafe Creme in North Miami was the place to be last Friday morning for France's World Cup quarterfinal match against Uruguay. By the time Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho sauntered in during the second half — he's something of a regular there — it was standing room only.
Business is good for owner Cory Finot and chef Claude Postel, who relocated to North Miami two years ago after selling their successful Buena Vista Deli in the Design District when the rent became too steep.
"Cafe Creme took a risk on us," said Rasha Soray-Cameau, director of the North Miami Community Redevelopment Agency, standing on the restaurant's white brick patio entrance as the crowd buzzed inside.
It was a risk for multiple reasons. When Cafe Creme opened in 2016, with help from a $324,000 matching grant from the redevelopment agency, the chic bakery and bar was betting on downtown North Miami's uncertain future. Two years earlier, right next door, the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) — the linchpin of the business community on Northeast 125th Street — had broken away from the city and established a new arts organization in downtown Miami.
North Miami kept the majority of MOCA's 600-work permanent collection in a settlement and remained open. But the museum's reputation took another hit in 2015, when director Babacar M'Bow was fired after allegations of sexual harrassment.
Then, when Cafe Creme opened, the redevelopment agency was on the verge of being shut down by Miami-Dade County amid discrepancies in its financial reports. The neighborhood's heyday, including the recording studios and live music venues that once made North Miami cool, felt like a relic of the distant past.
"We had hard times," said Scott Galvin, the city's longest-serving council member, who was first elected in 1999. "I can't tell you how many jokes at mine and the city's expense I've had to bear."
Now, some officials say things are looking up. In late 2016 the county approved a new plan for the redevelopment agency, extending its life for 30 years and giving it renewed influence to shape the city's future. MOCA's operations were stabilized; earlier this year, the museum appointed a permanent director for the first time since 2015.
A push to transform downtown North Miami appears to be the next step. Late last month, the redevelopment agency unveiled a $37,000 marketing campaign to attract new visitors and businesses to the area, developed by consulting firm Redevelopment Management Associates — the same firm that helped draft the agency's amended plan in 2016. The marketing effort came complete with a "Brand Standards" manual, a new logo and even a slogan: "To NoMi is to love me."
On June 29, the redevelopment agency, whose board consists of the mayor and four city councilors, held an event to show off the campaign, including new banners lining 125th Street with images of local artists and business owners, a walkers' guide and a promotional video. In conjunction with MOCA's monthly jazz night, the city broke ground on renovations for the MOCA plaza, which is slated to become a more attractive performance and gathering space in time for Art Basel in November.
"Two years from now, you come back to 125th Street," Mayor Smith Joseph said in an interview. "It's gonna be totally different."
That transformation may include the street itself, which serves as a through road to Interstate 95 to the west and Broad Causeway to the east and makes for treacherous pedestrian crossing. According to city officials, the Florida Department of Transportation has approved a proposal to build a median, add curb extensions and plant new trees on the stretch between Seventh and Eighth avenues.
Meanwhile, as rents rise across the county, signs of gentrification are emerging in North Miami as businesses targeted to middle and upper class clientele show a willingness to give the city a shot. NoMi Bar and Grill, a spacious restaurant with soul food and live music, opened this year. Two microbreweries, Descarga and Lost City, are in the review and permitting stage for locations about a mile east of Cafe Creme.
"It's not that hard of a sell to get people to invest in a particular area if they think they can make money," said Kevin Burns, the mayor of North Miami from 2005 to 2009 and a real estate agent. "Unfortunately in North Miami, some things take a long time to get approved."
Development has historically been a tough sell in the city of about 60,000 people. In the 1970s, a moratorium on buildings above four stories was implemented as high-rises cropped up on Biscayne Boulevard. That policy stood for decades, and despite looser zoning regulations in recent years, the downtown area still consists mainly of one- to two-story buildings.
"You have to allow taller and denser buildings," said Burns. "You have to allow creativity, thinking outside of the box."
Officials like Joseph, the current mayor, say an openness to development will be a boon to residents and businesses alike. But not everyone is convinced that glossy marketing campaigns and new microbreweries can help them.
In recent months, several art galleries across the street from MOCA have relocated, including Blu Egg Interiors, which moved to El Portal. Moti Vinograd, the owner of a gallery called Casa Mondo, said he isn't making money, despite his efforts to attract museum-goers after MOCA events.
"It is a struggle here," Vinograd said, surveying his gallery with pieces that range in price from $10 to thousands of dollars. "I can't point a finger to why."
Vinograd said he has faith in Soray-Cameau, the redevelopment agency director, but is not sure the city's vision is intended to lift up businesses like his. Genaro Ambrosino, who owns the Casa Mondo building and other gallery sites downtown, agreed.
"I bought the building because I believed in what was happening at the museum," Ambrosino said. "The city of North Miami still doesn't understand, in my opinion, that art is a big driver of money."
In North Miami, faith in the redevelopment agency is fickle, given its near-closure in 2016. The agency walks a blurry line between funding pet projects and addressing slum and blight — a critical mission in a city where the median household income is around $37,000 and about 24 percent of residents live in poverty.
Some spending decisions have raised questions. Last month, the redevelopment agency board awarded its biggest-ever grant for the expansion of Comprehensive Health Center, a private practice west of downtown. The practice's owner, Dr. Rudy Moise, initially requested $1.2 million, four times the amount given to Cafe Creme, which in May opened a second location just north of the Buena Vista Deli. After backlash from residents, the request was modified to $600,000 and the grant was approved in two installments over two years.
Galvin and Vice Mayor Carol Keys opposed it.
"My view of the [redevelopment agency] is we are supposed to be bringing businesses, helping the little guy get their businesses, eliminating slum and blight," Keys said at a June 12 meeting. "I've been getting calls for weeks now from constituents, and they're just not happy with us, not happy with our spending."
Notably absent from the agency's list of grant recipients this past year were salons and barber shops, which serve the city's largely Haitian and African-American populations.
"We have enough," Joseph told the Miami Herald about the number of salons downtown. "The type of salons that I would like to see on that strip are what you call higher-end salons. Unfortunately, they cannot come because we have already been over-saturated with low-end salons."
Sharon McCormick, the director of business attraction and marketing for Redevelopment Management Associates, wants North Miami to present a unified front — celebrating its racial and economic diversity as an asset and tapping into a rich culture of art and music.
A rising tide, McCormick said, could lift all boats.
"No one is trying to push anyone out," McCormick said. "You want to celebrate an entire community coming together."