Posted September 15th 2010 at 11:49 am by
in Miami Urban Think Tank Series

Wynwood: Cleansing the Urban Canvas in Preparation for Redevelopment

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.

“We should look at Wynwood as a clean canvas and see what amazing opportunities can happen here.”– major Wynwood property holder David Lombardi, quoted in Del Campo (2006)


One of the questions central to MUTT as a space of dialogue and exchange is: What kind of city do we want Miami to be? Through a series of posts about the neighborhood of Wynwood, located about two miles northwest of downtown Miami, I investigate this question by addressing contemporary place-making as a two-step process: unmaking urban spaces of economic production and remaking them into places of cultural consumption. The key questions are:

• How does Wynwood come to be viewed as a “clean canvas” for redevelopment?

• How has it been “cleaned” for such purposes, and by whom?

• As the urban canvas is prepared, what is being subsequently painted onto Wynwood, and how?

• Finally, what consequences do these changes have for different city residents?

This post addresses Wynwood’s historical “unmaking” in terms of economic production (jobs and industry) but also in terms of social reproduction, or residents’ means of survival, generation after generation. Processes of “unmaking” are still unfolding as the neighborhood’s “re-making” into an Arts District is under way. For an extended version of this post visit MUTT.


Cleansing the Canvas

Map of Wynwood & the Garment District surrounded by inner city areas from 1979 Garment District Redevelopment Plan.

Historically, the neighborhood of Wynwood was built as a residential area for the working classes and the area just south of Wynwood, was developed as a manufacturing and retail center for clothing, known as the Garment District. The Garment industry rode the wave of Miami’s growing popularity as a resort-wear trendsetter in the early twentieth century and expanded rapidly in the decades after World War II. However, this development was mostly a temporary fix for the steadily declining profit margins of U.S.-based garment manufacturers which, since at least the 1970’s, have increasingly outsourced their operations abroad (see Grenier and Stepick 2002; Clemente 2007; Shell-Weiss 2009).

As late as 1979, the City of Miami’s plans and goals for the Garment Center/Fashion District were to retain and expand the concentration of manufacturing-related businesses, albeit shifting the mix of businesses away from manual labor-intensive work like sewing and towards service operations such as design, marketing, transportation and distribution, etc. The plan also called for significant slum clearance in a Proposed Expansion Area.

By the time the plan was written, the Proposed Expansion Area had been cleared of 280 occupied but “substandard” residential structures, as well as 50 vacant homes and 9 “marginal business establishments” in order to convert 14 acres of land into industrial property. The plan called for the acquisition and demolition of 45 other homes interspersed throughout the rest of the Garment District and the implementation of zoning changes to prohibit “non-conforming” (low-income housing) land uses.

This was not the only policy initiative or political practice to seek the removal of low-income housing from Wynwood or the inner city in general. It is representative of a policy agenda established since the 1960’s of slum clearance in the interests of more upscale redevelopment. U.S. Census Tract data from 1980 to 2000 reveals that throughout Miami’s lower-income, inner city neighborhoods, poverty increased while affordable housing was demolished or not built fast enough to keep up with demand, coinciding with growing rates of overcrowded housing. During the last housing boom (2002-2006), the city’s poverty rate finally started to decline as lower-income households left the city and were and still are steadily being replaced by wealthier residents (see Feldman, 2007, State of Miami’s Housing Crisis).

Winwood House_Small Photos of same house in Wynwood, circa Winter 2006, featuring (plausibly) ironic commentary about being priced out of the American Dream at the height of a real estate boom transforming the neighborhood.

By the time the last housing boom struck, the garment industry that supported many Wynwood families had mostly left the area. The labor surplus benefiting the garment industry in the 1960’s and 1970’s faded. Cuban women in particular, but also other immigrant workers moved up the economic ladder, making way for new immigrant workers to take their place in the garment factories. However, the factories themselves started moving. In addition to garment manufacturers’ struggle to cut costs fast enough to compete with increasingly foreign-based factories (leading to harsh management practices that drove some of their workforce away), social unrest in Miami in the 1980’s and 1990’s (two “race riots” affecting Wynwood in 1990 and 1992) dramatically transformed the perception and reality of inner city areas like Wynwood and the Garment District as a viable place for business. By the 1980’s, the infrastructure of urban sprawl, with its massive interconnecting north-south and east-west expressways, was established and families who could afford it abandoned the urban core for the outlying suburbs or left the city altogether.

A future post in the Wynwood series will examine how and why urban violence becomes characterized and essentialized as racial (“race riots”), obscuring the material bases of conflict. Inner city social unrest was itself a condition produced by inter-related processes “unmaking” Miami’s urban landscape of economic production. The short version goes something like this: The loss of industry, the rise of poverty, the retrenchment of public funding and services, and the increased police presence (not only cops; also gates, walls, surveillance technology and the expansion of prisons and incarceration) that was/is deployed to impose “discipline” in the absence of viable systems of education, employment, parks and recreation, and especially housing, leads to overwhelming frustration, mistrust, and anger. What is “unmade” or at least severely undermined is not only the systems of economic production but also those of social reproduction, that is, the ability of families, communities, to survive in a place, generation after generation.

Not Hiring_Small A construction site in the heart of Wynwood circa Winter 2007, discourages locals from inquiring about employment. It is one of the many signs (literally and figuratively) that the demand for jobs has far outstripped the supply, and that the neighborhood cannot support its’ inhabitants generational survival; it no longer provides the means for their “social reproduction.”

Although plans for the “remaking” of such spaces were being written as early as the 1980’s, it was not until the onset of a long wave of housing price growth in the late 1990’s (peaking in the mid-2000’s) that investors were willing to take the risk. After decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment and slum clearance, Wynwood came to be viewed as a “clean canvas” ready for redevelopment.

Photos of Wynwood Dream/Utopia House and Not Hiring Sign by Marcos Feldman

Image of Garment District from 1979 Redevelopment Plan.


Clemente, Deirdre. 2007. Made in Miami: The Development of the Sportswear Industry in South Florida, 1900-1960. Journal of Social History, Fall: 128-148.

City of Miami. 1979. Garment Center/Fashion District Redevelopment Plan. Planning Department, Miami Metropolitan Archives.

Del Campo, Deserae. 2006. Midtown, loft projects transform Wynwood into vibrant district. Miami Today, January 19.

Grenier, Guillermo, and Alex Stepick. 2002. Miami: Ethnic Succession and Failed Restructuring, Pp. 135-150 In Unravelling the rag trade: immigrant entrepreneurship in seven world cities, edited by J. Rath. Oxford: Berg.


Shell-Weiss, Melanie. 2009. Coming to Miami: A Social History, Sunbelt Studies. Gainesville, Fl: University Of Florida Press.

Marcos Feldman is a doctoral candidate in the department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University in Miami.  His dissertation research is on resident and neighborhood organization political engagement with processes of gentrification in two Miami neighborhoods, Wynwood and Little Havana.

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