MUTT (Miami Urban Think Tank), is composed of a group of residents who actively meet to read, write and discuss Miami’s urbanism. The goal of MUTT is to provide a forum where professional values, critical thinking, and everyday experience shape analysis and action. MUTT advocates productive engagement between theory and practice, underlining the value of the city of Miami as a location for learning, research and progressive change.
This is the second post in a series chronicling the formation, thought and dialogue of MUTT.
The recent attempt to burn the Koran during the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks set in motion a controversy of global dimensions that focused the world’s gaze to our state. Turning towards another location in Florida, I would like to offer a window to a place that disrupts the value of incendiary politics and challenges fundamentalisms in the city.
The city of Opa-Locka is one of 35 municipalities, which together with unincorporated areas make up the fragmented metropolitan region of Dade County. Located at the northwest corner of the County, Opa-Locka is one of the oldest and smallest municipalities in our metropolitan area. The city was founded and developed during the 1920’s, a period in Miami’s urban history when the speculative development of newly planned suburban communities attracted investors, visitors and new residents to Miami’s burgeoning urban frontier.
Much has been written about how Miami grew westward from Biscayne Bay. From a small settlement of pioneers at the mouth of the Miami River and West Coconut Gove, to the planning and incorporation of new cities like Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Hialeah and Miami Springs among others. Indeed, Miami’s early 20th century urban growth transformed vast swaths of oolithic limestone, swamp and mangrove vegetation into modern theme-oriented design utopias. One could argue that Miami’s traditional neighborhoods were defined by the artificial, the copied, and the fake. We notice hints of them, here and there, as we speed by sprawl, built forms that seem out of place and aesthetic gestures that seem more whimsical than authentic.
What exemplified Opa-Locka, in the urban puzzle of Miami’s early thematic urbanism, was the stylistic signature it adopted. Miami Beach took on Art Deco, Coral Gables embraced the Mediterranean Revival Style, but Opa-Locka’s urbanism was deeply influenced by Moorish Revival arabesque architecture. The details, forms and motifs, which adorn this city’s main public buildings and many of its residences, represent a fantastic collage of Middle Eastern icons. In fact, Opa-Locka contains the largest concentration of Moorish style architecture in the western hemisphere. Up to 20 structures – residential, retail and public buildings – are designated in the US National Register of Historic Places. Standing as caricatures of the original forms located around the world, these buildings were simple wood-frame structures covered in the conventional stucco coating typical of South Florida. Within these material limitations, minarets were built, Syrian arches were constructed and arabesque parapets were assembled. This built environment made Opa-Locka an authentic copy.
What would fundamentalists in the city say about Opa-Locka? Far from political, religious or ideological symbolism, Opa-Locka’s emblematic place-making derived from a shrewd profit-driven scheme. Its vision was the work of Glen Curtiss, a renowned early 20th century aviator/entrepreneur who invented the aileron. Curtiss came to South Florida in 1916 with the intention of opening an aviation school but ended up becoming a real-state developer (1) Opa-Locka was his third development after the city of Hialeah and Miami Springs. Enamored with the silver screen Curtiss was inspired by a 1924’s movie called the Thief of Baghdad. He used the text of One thousand and one Nights as the template for this new city. When the great Hurricane of 1926 ripped through South Florida, the development boom, which had fueled Miami’s rapid growth, came to a standstill (2) With it, Curtiss’ enchanting fairytale ended. What remained were modest stylistic monuments to ingenuity and place-making.
After World War II, a military base that had supported the city’s local economy closed. Opa-Locka, went through several ups and downs defined by economic crises and community development plans. Today it remains one of many low-income communities in Miami bound together by shared values of history, economic marginalization and hope.
On February 17th 2009, Opa-Locka commemorated the election of Barack Obama by becoming the first American city to rename one of its streets Barack Obama Avenue. Close to that street, the doorway to a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and the lobby of the old train station mimic the entrance to an Islamic temple. Some blocks away, an American flag waves next to a fake minaret in the grounds of City Hall.
A place like Opa-Locka challenges religious fundamentalisms that exist in our backyards, but it also allows us to raise questions about the way we write history in Miami. Why didn’t Opa-Locka follow the fortune of better-known destinations like Miami Beach and Coral Gables? And what lessons can its thematic urbanism teach us about Miami’s urbanism in the present?
Opa-Locka makes us ponder about the complicated ties that connect place, national belonging, history, economics and politics unveiling contradictions and paradoxes. Its history of aesthetic appropriations and the reality of its contemporary urban struggles challenge all types of fundamentalisms in the city.
– Photos From Wilderness to Metropolis: The History and Architecture of Dade county (1825-1940) Metropolitan Dade County Office of Community and Economic Development Historic Preservation Division.
– Video of the Triangle, by the Miami Herald.
Hector Fernando Burga is a doctoral candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and holds a dual masters degree in town planning and architecture from the University of Miami. An architect and urban designer by professional training and an urban ethnographer by methodological emphasis, he is interested in the contradictions inherent to both the theorization of public space and the practice of place-making techniques in a rapidly globalizing city like Miami.