Can Paint, Cellphones and Instagram Reinvent a Neighborhood?

January 07, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

A decade or so ago, a Miami real estate entrepreneur named Tony Goldman had an interesting idea. Goldman was working in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, a down at the heels place with lots of warehouses. It had been known as Little Puerto Rico, as other Miami neighborhoods of poor, migrant people were called Little Havana and Little Haiti. It had been known for crime, as certainly not a place where Miami's wealthy people and visitors would venture. It was known for graffiti, painted on the big, empty walls of abandoned warehouses.

Tony Goldman saw potential where others saw only vandalism. He began encouraging street artists to come to Wynwood and paint commissioned works on the walls. The artists responded. Wynwood was a great canvas. I've seen street art in places like Melbourne. But there you have to go into alleys to see it. In Wynwood, entire, sunsplashed streets could become street art galleries.

I don't know if Goldman, who has passed away, anticipated two technology-related developments that would act as accelerants for Wynwood. One was the cell phone, which put a camera into every tourist's hand. The second was Instagram. At one point in the dark, distant past, it was considered gauche to push friends and acquaintances to view your vacation pictures. With Instagram, it stopped being gauche. It became trendy.

Thus developed the phenomenon that is today's Wynwood. Five or six years ago, when I last visited, there was art on the walls, but there weren't many visitors. You might see a photo crew doing a shoot on NW 2nd Avenue, and trickles of people walking and observing. But now, Wynwood has become  the urban equivalent of a Disney World ride.  People come to visit in tour buses.

There is a park of perhaps ten acres called Wynwood Walls that the Goldman enterprise maintains, complete with dozens of street art displays, official guided tours, a gallery, cafes and a gift shop.  It may seem strange. But in the gallery, paintings rendered on canvas that are copies of Wynwood street art have price tags as high as $80,000, which is considerably more than I get for my photographs. 

Wynwood fills a need in today's world. People who like to post pictures of themselves on Instagram like to have jazzy backdrops for those pictures. Wynwood Walls is nothing if not jazzy backdrops.

So you see a woman with a white bridal veil on her head posing with four or five women in black tee-shirts that say "Bridal Squad." They're not just posing. They're doing some kind of pantomime that involves the bridesmaids pretending to pull the bride in different directions. Against another wall, a man jumps into a cheerleader's spreadeagle, while a woman crouches with her cellphone, recording the image for posterity. A lot of people seem to be emulating the duck-lipped, coy poses pioneered by Instagram heroines like the Kardashians and the Jenners.

Now, I like it when I see urban neighborhoods revive. Despite all the downsides of gentrification, I think it's a healthy phenomenon. But I am not sure if what's going on in Wynwood is eventually going to be seen as a successful urban revival. It has some of the signs of urban revival. There's a cafe that sells both crepes and art. There's a restaurant with sidewalk tables and valet parking. There's a WeWork space on the eighth floor of a parking garage, which suggests that young entrepreneurs like the Wynwood vibe.

But I didn't see much evidence that actual people are moving in. There's an enormous empty lot across from Wynwood Walls, enclosed by a fence. The buildings that once stood within the fence have clearly been demolished, and a sign on the fence promises that a mixed development of retail and restaurants is coming. In 2019. So that schedule has slowed down, and there's no active building going on in the lot here in the first days of 2020.

Maybe, I think, residential revival is going on beyond my view, in neighborhoods near Wynwood. Or maybe Wynwood just has business and industrial bones which nothing can change.But Wynwood has already proven that art can change a neighborhood. In years to come, I hope to visit again and see what's happening.  




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