Let’s not make Wynwood’s mistakes in Little Haiti

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected].

Last month, I stood alongside a high school senior from Little Haiti as she called parents, teachers and classmates to tell them that the neighborhood mural painting project she organized was abruptly canceled.

This student organizer and budding civic leader recognized for the first time the true power dynamics of development – that a non-local property owner could easily make a decision that dismisses the feelings of her entire community, without repercussions.

My organization (Unconventional) had partnered with Haiti-based nonprofit SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) and the property owner to beautify a community garden in Little Haiti. For weeks we had worked out all the most minute details.

But the night before the event, the project was abruptly canceled by the property owner who’d invited us to paint a fresh mural on one of his walls. The grounds for canceling: he said our mural design did not reflect the community.

Considering Miami’s track record for development and gentrification (see: Wynwood), I applaud this property owner for his concern for the community. We know all too well the power dynamic between real estate developers, artists and community members. Art goes up on the walls, urban streets become colorful, developers start investing in the neighborhood, prices go up, artists can’t afford to stay, and, finally, people complain about the “soul” of the neighborhood being lost.

The local residents are sandwiched in there somewhere, but they mostly become a topic of public discussion when a critical mass of activists start complaining on their behalf far too late in the game.

While the property owner – a Miami resident, though not from Little Haiti – did make a reasonable request on the surface, there was nothing about our project that was done without the community at the center of it.

My team worked directly with a superstar student from Little Haiti to gather youth from the neighborhood’s Miami Edison Senior High School. The plan was simple: she asked us to co-create a mural with residents that would capture their heritage and generate dialogue about the relationship between Little Haiti and their homeland.

We invited Luis Valle, an artist residing in Little Haiti, to lead the mural-making process and gathered input from the students on what it should look like. We partnered with a Haitian nonprofit and even invited one of the student’s grandmothers to serve up some delicious Haitian food (she insisted). Editor’s note: This paragraph has been updated to correctly reflect Valle’s relationship to Little Haiti.

Luis decided to illustrate a Haitian child holding a soccer ball with his country’s flag on the front. Nearly every student we worked with submitted drawings related to soccer when we asked to express their culture artistically. The property owner didn’t see it as such. His response? “This is not a soccer field.”

It was a valid point – it was a community garden after all. But it was what the community wanted. He asked us to get rid of the Haitian boy and add more images of trees and other types of botany.

We couldn’t reach a compromise. At 9 p.m., only 12 hours before the event, the property owner canceled the event and halted the mural.

This incident put us right in the middle of the murky intersection between artistic integrity, community values and business interests. On one hand, the property owner deserves to choose exactly what his property should look like. On the other hand, local residents walk past that property every day.

They deserve to have a mural that speaks to their culture and peoplehood.

This type of mural is not just charity or an act of kindness from a property owner. It’s a real opportunity to leverage culture and give local residents a sense of shared ownership and responsibility in their neighborhood’s growth (Culture 21, 2016).

This is exactly what was missing during Wynwood’s development over the past decade. In Wynwood, developers employed artists to paint a mural that is attractive for art aficionados and tourists alike. They did not, however, invite local residents to participate in that beautification process.

Inviting residents to paint a mural alongside a professional artist allows residents to point to the mural and say, “I painted that!” Public mural painting goes from an isolated act of self-expression to an act of cultural citizenship and participatory democracy. What was once a way to give artists a sense of ownership and responsibility for the look and feel of a community becomes a strategy to distribute responsibility to locals most affected by development. It empowers them  to participate in their community’s growth.

With Wynwood in our backyard, don’t we have enough reminders for what happens when urban development excludes the local community? If outdoor shopping malls and an expensive purse store make for a great neighborhood, then perhaps the Wynwood of today works.

But the rest of us wonder what happened to Little Puerto Rico (Wynwood’s nickname before it was Wynwood). Little Haiti is in only the early stages of this type of development. There’s still time for us to do it better this time. This time let’s pay more attention to the nuances, truly make an effort to work with locals and hold everybody accountable, no matter how icky it may get.

Unconventional produces socially responsible art installations for businesses looking to strengthen human relationships & boost brand loyalty. More info can be found at www.BeUnconventional.co.

 The property owner responds

Gary Feinburg is the co-founder of the Little Haiti Community Garden and the property owner referenced above. 

The cancellation of the Garden mural in Jordan Magid’s opinion piece “Let’s not make Wynwood’s mistakes in Little Haiti” was not due to the ‘murky intersection between artistic integrity, community values and business interests.  The project was canceled 12 hours before by me because of a lack of organization, communication and shared vision.

It was understood from the beginning that I would approve the final sketch.  This sketch was delivered to my inbox after 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, the night before the mural was to be executed.  All the arrangements were in place except the most important piece,  the mural design.

Last fall, I was approached by a Miami Beach High School student and member of the SOIL club. She wanted to organize a mural  project that would bring together students from Beach High, members of SOIL, Unconventional,  an established muralist, students from the art club at Miami Edison and the Garden.

The main mission of the Garden is to grow healthy food (we do grow incredibly good arugula, kale and mustard greens) and to involve the local community.  Since the founding of the Garden in 2009 by Tamara Hendershot and myself, we have spent countless hours and dollars in outreach to the local residents to engage and educate.  We have had an open gate policy to the neighborhood.  Additionally we created a self-sustaining micro business that has created jobs and volunteer opportunities by turning a vacant lot into a beautiful and transporting urban farm. Naturally the mural project was met with great enthusiasm.

The wall to be painted is a private wall inside the Garden.  It  has the start of a mural that was begun five years ago by an artist friend.  The old soul of the Garden is an 80-year-old ficus tree. The artist did a loose depiction of the tree on the wall. As I sat with a representative from Unconventional (Magid and I have never met) and the teacher advisor to the SOIL Club on the Tuesday before, I said I wanted to use the existing tree depiction as the main design element of the mural and the rest could be filled with plants, garden and landscape imagery.

We have collaborated with the Little Haiti Cultural Center on many occasions, and I showed some ceramic plates painted with Garden plants done by kids at the Cultural Center.  I wanted this mural project to be an opportunity for the participants to learn about the plants of Haiti and the plants grown in the Garden in Little Haiti. I thought this project could not only be a fun event but didactic as well.

When I finally received the sketch, it had nothing to do with what had been discussed.  I was told that the students from Miami Edison and the muralist had worked together on this concept.  I realized the failure of the project immediately – the students from the art club and muralist had never been to the garden.  They had no context to draw from. I had asked if we could modify the sketch but Unconventional was not prepared to make any changes. Given this was the night before, there was no time to resolve this difference of view.

I knew how much had been prepared for the next day and the number of people that were planning to attend the event. It was a very difficult position but I could not go ahead with the mural sketch that had been presented. This mural on the Garden wall needed to reflect and respect the space and speak to what the garden is: a quiet piece of nature.

Certainly, if all those involved are willing to paint a mural that reinforces the Garden’s mission, then I invite all back to the picnic tables under the ficus tree, next to the wall.  I believe we can complete the project as originally conceived.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected]