Marcos Feldman of FIU’s Center for Labor Research and Studies and writer and curator Gean Moreno question the dominant narratives of art and development which have surrounded Wynwood over the past decade. The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which took place at Feldman’s home in Little Havana.
GEAN MORENO (RAIL): The narratives that have emerged around Wynwood in the last decade are rather triumphalist. This once-awful place or non-place, they usually go, has been turned into a vibrant new hub of culture. This sort of storyline hasn’t really been met with any degree of ambivalence or distrust on the part of artists. On the contrary, it’s almost as if artists have been complicit in generating the kind of historical amnesia that scaffolds these new narratives.
MARCOS FELDMAN: Artists have always had a funny relationship to this kind of neighborhood change. There is the way that they relate to the neighborhood’s history, their political practice, their values—these things seem to vary from case to case, with different stories coming out of San Francisco and SoHo, etc.. Miami has its own very peculiar history as a city, never mind who these artists are and who the people in Wynwood are. So, I don’t know if your question is exactly: Why isn’t there more resistance or discussion or recognition of the neighborhood’s history? Or ambivalence? Never mind resistance, just ambivalence. Just putting down a question mark behind all this, as opposed to just accepting these narratives.
RAIL: There is a disregard for what Wynwood once was (a manufacturing and garment district) and may now be less and less (a-low income neighborhood). But there is also a disregard for what has happened in the course of turning the neighborhood into an Arts District—the displacement of residents, a series of local business closures. A process of erasure has been activated, and Wynwood, in these new narratives, appears out of nowhere in 2002 or thereabouts. Before then, there were only unused warehouses there.
FELDMAN: You are referring to the area south of 29th Street, what the City of Miami used to call in its planning documents the Garment District, the Fashion District. The area between the tracks and the highway, and 20th to 29th, but carved around those low-income units on the southwest corner [of this area]. There is a lot of history, though. There are people who care about the historical architecture, and lament its loss. And then, there is a lesser history of caring about the actual people. It’s interesting to say it like that, because we don’t really care very much about our buildings in Miami to begin with.
There is a history in the ‘90s of the Miami School of Community of Urban Design and the New Urbanist people—they came into Wynwood in 1996 and made a Master Plan for the neighborhood. There is also the role of Corpus Christi Church and local organizations. One of the goals of my research is to understand not just that so many of the historical community organizations of Wynwood are complicit in the production of gentrifiable urban space, but why and how. There are a lot of claims made about placelessness, lack of roots, lack of place attachment, coming from all corners of Miami. There is something to the importance of the transience, but it’s more interesting when you actually look at what happens when you have really high turnover in the immigration of a place. One of the interesting things about Wynwood is that it is this sort of gateway immigrant neighborhood, a place where constant immigration shaped the way that community organizations operated. This made neighborhood level politics porous and malleable and allowed collaborations with big outside organizations, government agencies, NET [Neighborhood Enhancement Team] offices. Wynwood was produced over 50 years through this dynamic between small local organizations and external organizations. [There is also] the role of the University of Miami and the role of different people in defining it as a place that is empty of people and defining its history around the manufacturing industry. The exit of that industry set in process a plan: If you have empty warehouses, this naturally implies having to fill them. This sets the stage to import the Lombardis and the Goldmans of the world. Especially Goldman. You were speaking about history and memory. Nobody knew better than Goldman what you do to former manufacturing buildings. He had practiced it in Boston and Philadelphia and New York and other places where he had worked before. So, there is all this history. I don’t feel like all this began in 2002. The narrative burst on the scene in the last few years, but all these processes go back several decades. You look at the way the city was doing its policing and revitalization plans. All this fits into the larger narrative of U.S. urban redevelopment, but it also has its local players.
RAIL: So there is all this unincorporated knowledge around the narratives of the New Wynwood. You spoke about the geographical division that 29th Street represents. To the south is the vibrant new cultural hub and to the north, particularly a block or two west of North Miami Avenue, is an area that hasn’t been incorporated into the axis that connects Wynwood and the Design District. One thinks of how the inability to bring the Scope Art Fair back to Roberto Clemente Park can be read, from the vantage point of developers and the like, as a missed opportunity for the area to participate in these new neighborhood dynamics and reap the supposed benefits they offer.
FELDMAN: I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that last point. I was thinking about the ambivalence that Scope generated when it was in Clemente Park. I asked shopkeepers: “Did you make money off that?” And they said: “Yeah, I sold 10 more bottles of water and more cigarettes.” Some people may just see that [the presence of Scope] as the tentacles of gentrification reaching further into the center of the neighborhood. And then, there is the Bakehouse [Art Complex].
RAIL: But the Bakehouse has been there for much longer.
FELDMAN: Right, so there is a history. There is a conversation between art and commerce. It has been happening for decades.
RAIL: But then, places like the Bakehouse are excluded from the narratives of the New Wynwood.
FELDMAN: The Bakehouse is an interesting institution. They’ve had to deal with the neighborhood. They’ve brought neighborhood kids to do murals as a community policing project in order to develop relationships with the residents instead of vandalism. In that sense, by coming into the neighborhood they have had some dialogue and interaction, and that changes the relationship.
RAIL: It also seems that these New Wynwood narratives foster opportunities through which dialogue around the real effects of gentrification are replaced by superficial arguments. So, for instance, the question of the authenticity of the street murals replaces any conversation around serious social issues.
FELDMAN: In other places, gentrification was slower. Urban economies were different too. And artists dug in longer. Even if they were a beachhead for what was coming, they were still getting involved and laid more roots—created artists’ associations and unions, and they had politicized themselves as a class of workers. And so, when these kinds of arguments came up, they were really nasty and political in a more real way. The fact that artists started to get pushed out and displaced by the gentrification process helped them create alliances with tenants, workers, and other people in the neighborhood. This happened to some extent in New York, and San Francisco, and especially in some cities of Western Europe. Bigger coalitions were built, and these things became not just ambivalence and conversations, but full-on social movements that turned into squatting and really aggressive stuff. Artists themselves radicalized, and it all started from their position as artists and their beef with developers and the corporate world, and museums, and the commodification of culture. In Miami, the superficial conversation doesn’t seem to come from the same place.
RAIL: Maybe there was a necessary moment that never happened. There was what was there when artists arrived (the bodegas, the cafeterias) and then there were the wave of new galleries, boutiques, coffee shops and bars. Artists produced galleries and alternative exhibition spaces, aimed at audiences from outside the area, but didn’t root themselves in the everyday life in the neighborhood.
FELDMAN: The café district ordinance is one of the strategies that the city, in collaboration with developers, will use. They did it on 8th Street. They are going to do it in Little Haiti. They create a compact geography—a district with boundaries—where they allow up to 25 liquor licenses. And, you know, there are schools and daycares in neighborhood. As much as there has been an erasure, talk of no one living in the neighborhood, there are 3000 residents in Wynwood. There are reasons why a government would want to think twice about flooding an area with bars. And so, they had to go through a city commission process to pass the ordinance. The Goldmans led the lobbying effort on that. They got letters of support which all said the same things, especially one phrase that was exactly the same: “This cafe district is going to bring foot traffic to desolate streets.” The letters are in the record—it just keeps hitting you: desolate streets, desolate streets, desolate streets… I started asking artists about this, and was struck that hardly anyone knew about it. This is why I was struck by Arlys Raymond and the Bakehouse. They were the only people I found away from 29th Street who were interested in this,they thought this was going to rebrand the Wynwood Art District and make it Wynwood Cafe District, and the Bakehouse wasn’t included in the boundaries. There is not a disappearance of people. They are living there, next to the bar, next to Wood Tavern.
RAIL: But the disappearance has been verbalized in these documents and it goes on to have real consequences. And this has generated no reaction from cultural producers.
FELDMAN: Definitely not from the ones that you are referring to.
RAIL: From which ones then?
FELDMAN: There was an activist campaign started by the Miami Workers Center. In 2005, they started a media campaign to raise consciousness about gentrification. They called this RENT [Regional Equity for Neighborhoods and Tenants], and that brought them to look at Wynwood. In 2006-07, they started organizing in Wynwood, holding town halls, having conversations with residents and small business about the threat of gentrification. Two projects grew out of that. One was Galeria del Barrio. They set up a roving truck-gallery. They had residents take pictures of the neighborhood, things that were meaningful to them, things that represented the history of the neighborhood, things that depicted in their eyes the threat of changes to the places that they cherished. They got a gallery space and some press coverage.
They also campaigned to reopen the Dorothy Quintana Community Center, before it was the building that you have now. It had been condemned and closed since 2003 or 2004. It was messed up, eaten by termites. There were a lot of typical government problems, delays in repairing it. So they [the activists] took advantage of the symbolic contradiction of the Midtown Towers rising a few blocks away while this community center had been shut down for four or five years. It was a campaign to reopen the center, to get more money committed to it, win something back for the neighborhood. They related that to gentrification, raising the question of who benefits from reinvestment. So some people spoke up, but it didn’t last. And few people know about it.
RAIL: This highlights a huge divide between artists and activists. This may boil down to a problem of class division.
FELDMAN: Miami imports many of its activists. Our history of civil rights, labor organizing, all that kind of stuff that was exploding in other cities in the 1960s, is different. The typical narrative about that is that it was interrupted by Cuban immigration. Some books imply that Cubans stole the Civil Rights movement and stole the politicized language that African-Americans were using. Some of that is true, but there is something to [the fact] that you haven’t had working class and more privileged folks of similar political orientations [sharing] space together for a long period of time. You mentioned how fast things happened in Wynwood. All this has something to do with it. There is not a lot of time for different people with similar political values or who would be coming to a similar political space to actually interact for a sustained period of time. There are pressures that move things really quickly here. Transience and time have something to do with it.
When you were talking about small businesses, I was thinking of a handful of Puerto Rican grocery stores—Borinquen and Vega Baja, across from Midtown. All the ones below 29th Street, by the warehouses, are gone. They were there in 2000, 2002. I’m curious if any of the early pioneers of Wynwood went to those places. Why wasn’t there a conversation about them when this cafe district came along? There was a cafeteria crackdown by the City of Miami. You had people there, drinking with their cans in a paper bag, and they were getting in trouble or the store owner was being fined. Code enforcement was bringing pressure on those businesses, while the cafe district started to blossom. That didn’t spark conversation. Maybe if more people like yourself were hanging out in Borinquen—would there have been more dialogue about that?