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Wynwood Is Dead. Long Live Wynwood.

Mark Hedden
Seen in Wynwood during Art Basel 2013.

There are an exasperating amount of think pieces on the Internet about Wynwood. Its rise, fall, flourish and continued economic growth have all been continually documented both locally and across the world. There has been change recently and people have noticed.  Businesses never thought possible are moving in while most of the serious, professional artists have physically moved their studios downtown, to Little Haiti and even Opa-Locka.

There’s a bank moving in, a portentous capitalist omen for all things hipster and indie. What’s mostly absurd about the St. Petersburg-based C1 Bank branch slated for Wynwood is the art on the walls and the planned laser light shows at night when the bank is closed. 

“I'm morally opposed to it for many reasons, not least because they have lasers but don't have Catherine Zeta-Jones working her way through the lobby,”  claims Hunter Braithwaite, editor of the Miami Rail, with a reference to the sultry heist scene from the 1999 film "Entrapment." He further jokes that he doesn’t know, “how their ATMs are going to function under all the postal-sticker graffiti.”

“I look forward to shopping at Forever 21 on Northwest Second Avenue,” says Lucas Leyva, head of the Borscht Film Festival. There is no planned Forever 21 in Wynwood. It’s another joke, but it’s a common sentiment that the neighborhood is changing in a way that people don’t really want it to, and almost becoming a cartoon version of itself.

Serious artists move out while a corporate bank with laser-light shows and a Ducatidealership move in. Artist Kevin Arrow suggests that around 2010, “third- and fourth-tier galleries, indoor shooting ranges and CrossFit gyms began opening like a toxic, black mold grows in an abandoned house.”

But the jokes need context. Wynwood, like the think pieces written about it, can be exasperating. And it’s not just the new businesses moving in that seem to frustrate people. Ask artist Emmett Moore, whose recent installation -- "Since You Broke My Heart," a gigantic pair of steel sunglasses on the outdoor wall of Gallery Diet -- was defaced with an unwelcome graffiti face underneath. Moore admits that he “sort of expected it to happen but was disappointed for sure."  In a neighborhood where every inch of available wall space is covered in graffiti, there are still some moments where disappointment at its display is obvious.

But perhaps the conversation should begin to be about how absurd it is to think that a neighborhood has some kind of obligation to the purity of art, or art to the purity of a neighborhood.

  A lot of people in the creative community felt disappointed in Wynwood when the multi-faceted bar and coffee shop Lester’s closed. Many creative locals look back and lament what its inability to survive means. P. Scott Cunningham, director the O, Miami poetry festival, states, “I loved their coffee and there's nothing else like that place in Wynwood. There was a real sense of community and culture, and their absence has a left a big hole.”

The common refrains of discouragement are: Art Walk has become a nightclub, there’s no art anymore, it’s too corporate, and Wynwood is dead. As if these aren’t the same complaints some Miamians have about Art Basel Miami Beach.

But perhaps the conversation should begin to be about how absurd it is to think that a neighborhood has some kind of obligation to the purity of art, or art to the purity of a neighborhood.

Perhaps we should stop thinking about Wynwood as a place that has some sort of "soul" worth fighting for, or a place that's going through a crucial identity crisis.

All of these businesses move into Wynwood hoping to capitalize on the cachet created by a neighborhood mirrored on creative spirit. It’s not news that when driving down Northwest Second Avenue, the murals of Wynwood bleed into themselves. They are the omnipresent output of countless artists –studio, street, local or flown-in – and they have built what is now seen as the aesthetic heart of Miami, with each creator pumping paint through the alleys and warehouses. But the artists didn’t really create the neighborhood; they just gave it a fresh set of paint.

Kevin Arrow asks us to remember, “that Wynwood is first and foremost a working-class, Puerto Rican neighborhood that deserves the basics that everyone in Miami takes for granted.” And the point is important -- many of these families remain through the art and according to Arrow, they deserve, “a few banks, Publix, Starbucks and a Walgreens or two.”

Maggie Nieto, a community organizer assigned to Wynwood for Miami-Dade County’s Community Action and Human Services Department believes that “the arts have been great for the Wynwood community and the residents have welcomed it." And her impression is: “The art galleries have boosted the economy in that community and more people come to Wynwood and are spending their money." Many forget that the longtime residents benefit, despite the flailing questions of the gentrifying artists and their patrons.

P. Scott Cunningham goes on to suggest that “‘Wynwood’ as we know it is a mythical construction, as designed by Tony Goldman and David Lombardi,” the developers that dreamt of and invested in Wynwood’s current, thriving nature. “The entire concept of ‘an arts neighborhood,’ whether in Miami or elsewhere, is a developer's construct, so when people comment on it, whether positively or negatively, they're just reinforcing the myth.”

As with everything in Miami, we have turned Wynwood into a party and a tourist attraction.

  Is Wynwood a myth? Perhaps the language of a poet could call it such, but the bricks and mortar being wrought and overwrought on a daily basis are undeniably real. What is more nebulous is how the people of Miami project unto the neighborhood itself. The narrative of Wynwood being “finished,” “alive,” or "losing its soul" is simply human nature projecting our utopian hopes onto a neighborhood that was able to pull itself out of poverty due to the heavy investment of a few unbelievably wealthy people. And though the developers Goldman and Lombardi had the greatest initial say, no one person or entity can control the outcome of where it goes next. Because of this, lamenting the death of an “arts district” is simply empty practice. It makes more sense to call for self awareness, especially here, in yet another think piece about Wynwood. 

As with everything in Miami, we have turned Wynwood into a party and a tourist attraction. Perhaps it was inevitable, but mourning the neighborhood’s transformation forgets that people lived there before and doesn't recognize that it's part of the greater narrative of the city's constant and diverse growth. Let the neighborhood continue to thrive for those who live there, and continue to bustle for the newcomers who party there. Let it live even if you hate the party and think the art is terrible. Let it live if you can't afford the drinks anymore and can't ever find parking. Let it live even if you never set foot within the district's limits again. Long live Wynwood. 

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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