It all started with a rotting papaya: A look inside Miami’s Center for Subtropical Affairs

How it all began

The foundation for the Center for Subtropical Affairs started years ago when Casey Zap moved to Miami from New York and tossed a rotting papaya into his backyard, to try and compost the plant. He checked back later and saw that little papaya trees had started to sprout.

From there he started learning about fruit trees, and started his journey on gardening. And then he started to dive into the science behind fungi and how plants talk to each other when he took a mushroom cultivation course taught by Peter McCoy.

“He talked about how the trees communicate with each other through the ground, through this sort of internet of fungus — the joke is, it’s the wood wide web,” Casey said.

After learning from McCoy, he started to think of nature as a collaborative system and wanted to find a way to cultivate that community in Miami. And to educate more people about how accessible the science is behind plants, mushrooms, and more.

“It’s really got to be about teaching science in the kitchen, science in the garage, science in the garden,” he said.

And not long after that the center started to really take shape.

The center and its goals

Casey and his team established the center at 7145 NW 1st Ct., off a narrow street near where Liberty City and Little River meet.

The property was three separate lots with abandoned homes on each one. The property owners tore down two of the houses and in 2017 they asked Casey if he and some other volunteers wanted to start a garden.

“There was limestone and sand and pretty much nothing else, and it was almost impenetrable for plants. So we said no initially,” said Casey.

Eventually they set up an irrigation system and cultivated the area for the plants to grow. And after cleaning up and replanting after Hurricane Irma, the garden got going in earnest.

Casey and the team then started using it as an events space, and hosting bands and artists — along with scientists, biologists, and experts on mycology.

He said the approach was based on his experience in the nightlife industry and the hope that even if people just show up to hear the band, they can also hear from a scientist right before the music starts.

“When you ask someone to show up for a three-hour talk about native plants you’re kind of asking too much for the average person,” says Casey. “But if they’re hanging out with their friends and they don’t feel like they’re being preached to, then they feel like they’re hearing the information and hearing a cool story, it’s kind of like a podcast.”

Organizations they work with

Beyond making the center accessible through using music and art, Casey said he always had the goal of working with community organizations, particularly to educate local kids.

“If we can’t make science cool by blending it with art and music, kids aren’t going to want to do it,” Casey says.

Since starting they’ve partnered with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and the Million Orchid Project, Nature Links for Lifelong Learning, Urban GreenWorks, and the BioTECH High School in Richmond Heights.

Casey said they’ve also made outreach to nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral, and they’re working to open the center up more to the community.

“If I had it my way this would be a public park,” Casey says. “What I really want is for people to get involved and learn how to do this stuff themselves.”

How to get involved

The center hosts events on about a monthly basis that blend performance with education on urban agriculture and farming.

You can find those events by following the center’s Facebook page and head to their website for more info on how to volunteer.

And as the center grows, Casey hopes that people will grow more of their own food and also take the knowledge they gain to advocate for farmers in south Miami-Dade and beyond.

“If we want to honestly talk about helping farmers it’s going to take urban citizens understanding agriculture as well to start pushing legislation [to help farmers],” Casey says. “To me, this is really just one big civics lesson where people can come pick tropical fruit.”