The birth of Leah Arts District

Paul B. Hernandez’s career in government had quite a bit of a head start. “When I was 6 years old, my grandma was visiting her sister, whose neighbor was running for city mayor,” he recalls. “He came straight up to me and asked me for my vote, and there was something about that encounter that bit me. By the next day, I was working all my elementary teachers for their vote — I really wanted this guy to win. Ever since then, I would come home from school and put on C-SPAN, I thought it was the coolest thing.”

Paul B. Hernandez (right) in the new Leah Arts District. (Courtesy of JLPR)
Paul B. Hernandez (right) in the new Leah Arts District. (Courtesy of JLPR)

The young councilman found early success in the field, landing an internship with the city council straight out of high school, and going on to win his first election at just 23 years old. Serving as councilman for the City of Hialeah for the last four years, Hernandez’s current mission marries his greatest loves — government, art, and Hialeah — in order to reposition local artists for success in an oft-forgotten industrial city.

“My whole life, I had to leave Hialeah in order to do something cultural,” Hernandez said. “So I wanted to create something that would give people a place to do that, while also restoring a sense of community.” He began working towards the idea of creating a live-work space for artists in the warehouse districts of Hialeah, a city whose industrial roots afforded a surplus of bare spaces ripe for development. “Hialeah warehouse space is extremely affordable,” Hernandez notes. “You can rent for as little as $12 per square foot, and I’ve even heard of some people who are renting for $3 per square foot, which is very cheap for Miami real estate.”

Launching the Leah Arts District. (Courtesy of JennyLee Molina)
Launching the Leah Arts District. (Courtesy of JLPR)

Hernandez had the vision — all he needed was a game plan. While mulling the idea over with a friend, she suggested he speak with JennyLee Molina, a local publicist who had her own ideas for revamping and re-energizing her childhood home. “For a long time, I had been noticing that Hialeah had become the butt of every joke,” Molina said. “It was being marginalized, people weren’t taking pride in the city, and no one was doing anything that was considered cool. It was important for me to figure out how to use my resources as a publicist to change those misconceptions.”

The two arranged to meet at the Starbucks on 49th Street — ground zero for the East-born (Hernandez) and West-residing (Molina) Hialeahians. “It took us three years to brainstorm and come up with a launch concept, because we knew that if we were going to do this, we had to do it right,” Hernandez said. “We couldn’t let Hialeah become the butt of another joke.”

After choosing a name and recruiting creative, private sector, and government partners, the Leah Arts District was born near the popular Flamingo Plaza district, which local insiders have long frequented for offbeat wares. The pair organized their first event, a street festival in April 2015, as a way to introduce the area to the burgeoning arts community and create awareness about what they were aiming to do. It definitely got Miami’s attention in the process. Popular muralists like Nicole Salgar, Kazilla, and Atomik livened up the warehouse walls, food and drink sponsors catered to the masses, and the pair brokered relationships with artists and private investors interested in taking over the spaces as landlords. Over 2,000 people attended the first event.

“Right now, the spaces are rudimentary,” Hernandez admits. “They need kitchens, bathrooms, studio spaces — essential living areas for a live-work space. The best would be for someone to come in, rent a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, prepare it for living, and then divide it and rent it out to the artists.”

A mural in the Leah Arts District. (Courtesy of JLPR)
Courtesy of JLPR

But finding the right partners takes time, as Molina and Hernandez insist that they need to partner with people who share their vision for the District. “We don’t want realtors to come in and start jacking prices up, for example,” Hernandez says. “This is about giving artists an affordable place to live and work.”

Their next step for making the Leah Arts District a reality involves getting the local government more involved. “Art and government don’t necessarily have this great relationship,” Hernandez notes. “So its important for us to accept whatever conditions necessary and let the arts move in slowly.”

A mural in the Leah Arts District . (Courtesy of JLPR)
Courtesy of JLPR

Hernandez and Molina plan on organizing info sessions for artists, comprised of city grant and zoning commissioners, so that the parties can have an open dialogue about what kind of funding is needed to get the District off the ground. “We want to get a city architect to come in and make some site plans, do a template of the code, and possibly secure government funding through federal grants,” Hernandez says. “We’re also encouraging artists to go out and get that funding for themselves — whether its through the Knight Foundation or a similar organization — so they can begin the process of moving in,” Molina adds.

While the pair has yet to officially announce the next event at Leah Arts District, they’re aiming to host an informative session sometime in November. And their purpose remains clear. “It’s not our intention to throw parties here and make the real estate prices go up,” Hernandez says. “This is about bolstering our community.”

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.