Posted September 30th 2010 at 7:08 pm by
in Miami Urban Think Tank Series

Opa Locka: Challenging Fundamentalisms in the City

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.

Opa-Locka 1_530Arabian Nights Festival in Opa Locka. Source: Romer Collection, Miami Dade Public Library

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.

Opa-Locka2_530 Old meets new in Opa-Locka. The Hunt Building and Tri Rail Station.  Photo by Hector Fernando Burga

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.

Opa-Locka 3_530 Architectural Features Opa-Locka. Photo by Hector Fernando Burga

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.

2 responses to “Opa Locka: Challenging Fundamentalisms in the City”

  1. Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca says:

    Thanks Hector for this interesting post. This case reminds me that modern economy is largely dependent on the will and mood of investors. I don’t think economists have much influence or reliable theories. I believe that the economic development of cities, towns and neighbourhoods are rather influenced by intangible, psychological, subjective factors such as confidence or the business atmosphere, among others, that attract or repel investments. Politicians, including progressive ones, usually listen investors more than anybody else, because voters want the jobs and cash flow that come with investments. In short, our economy is mostly ruled by investors.

    I also believe that bottom-up local economic development initiatives can bring about lots of benefits, but in almost all cases they do need external support, which rarely happens.

    In the past decade, conservatives (and some socialdemocrats) in Europe and USA have been exploiting intensively people’s fear of difference and xenophobia, and Muslims have taken the worst part. I understand that conservative middle-size and large investors, which I believe are mostly conservative, have bought into the idea that Islam and its image is bad, or simply not attractive and thus not profitable. Does this explain Opa-Locka’s misfortune?

  2. Hi Jordi

    Its great to see you in MIT-Colab. I thoroughly enjoy your posts in Polis.

    Thanks for responding to this post. I think you touch upon a broad set of conversations. Indeed the economy or in this case the type of speculative development which drove Opa-Locka’s growth is ruled by investors, but I would also argue that it is equally ruled by buyers, competitors and other economic actors who deploy capital – or are deployed by capital – in society. I would also emphasize factors such as location and unexpected circumstances – such as a destructive hurricane which contribute to this city’s status.

    I personally don’t like to reduce human activity to sheer economic agency. Although I certainly agree that this is an important part of the story. Under this consideration, I think that Opa-Locka is a very unique case. To answer your question about Islam and Opa-lokca we would have to ask its leaders and residents to see what they think about it. Included within this discussion the voices of other residents from Metropolitan miami would would also be important, since this city is not an island in Miami, it is very much part of a larger network and urban community.

    Part of my goal in showcasing this case is exposing the fact that we need to learn more about urban communities. I personally prefer to focus on the ethnographic character of these places to answer some of the types of questions that you pose. I think much work needs to take place in order to answer why didn’t Opa-locka follow the path of Miami Beach and Coral Gables. I use an anecdotal doorway, its thematic architecture to start this conversation, but certainly this is the tip of a much longer and substantial discussion.

    As an outsider looking in, I don’t think Islam has much to do with Opa-Locka’s situation. Miami is fairly diverse as a metropolitan area (this is not to say that there isn’t prejudice or spatial segregation in the city) and the presence of moslems is small. Opa-Locka doesn’t have a moslem population. It has plenty of churches but they are christian. But these are superficial observations that would require more in-depth analysis.

    What is important to point in relation to your question is that the city is 70% African American so this may be a factor on investment choices by investors. Racial prejudice may be a factor in this case. Adding to this potential factor I believe the question of location – Far from the coast – and the size of the city – 4.2 square miles also contribute to the challenges it faces. Opa-Locka is tiny compared to other cities with larger tax bases which could bring income.

    One interesting question to challenge your frame would be to ask: Why hasn’t Opa-locka gentrified? Arguably investors are always looking for deals, and in other parts of Miami they have brought development to equally poor areas of the city. The mystery continues.