“We Were/Are Here”: Wynwood, Miami

The faded green and white sign marking the Eugenio Maria de Hostos neighborhood (Wynwood) in the City of Miami resembles the forgotten history of Miami’s historic Puerto Rican Barrio (Figure 1). I have lived in Miami for twelve years since my days as a University of Miami undergraduate, but I had never felt the presence of a “Puerto Rican Miami.” As a journalism intern attending county commission meetings, I often heard officials call Miami the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet, the only ethnic markers I knew were those associated with the Cuban and Haitian communities. So, when my parents told me stories of Miami’s Puerto Rican colonia, it seemed like a fable. They relocated briefly from the island in the 1970s to Biscayne Boulevard, close to Wynwood which runs from NW 29th to 36th Street along North Miami Avenue. My parents recall Borinquen Clinic on NW 29th Street, the medical services organization founded by Dr. Emilio Lopez, which I observe today as perhaps the most established marker of Wynwood’s centrality to Puerto Rican history in Miami  (Figure 2).

Wynwood’s past and present meet at the intersection of NW 29th Street and NE Second Avenue. The recent onslaught of high-rises, art galleries, and shopping malls encroach on the tiny, red Wynwood gates, a kind of official entrance to the old neighborhood (Figure 3). A bronze bust of Eugenio Maria De Hostos sits outside the De Hostos Community Center, home of Miami-Dade County offices and the De Hostos Senior Center (Figure 4).  The bust was dedicated to Maurice Ferré, the former Puerto Rican mayor of Miami  (Figure 5). However, when I ask one of the county employees about the De Hostos Center and its connection to the Puerto Rican community, she dryly says, “Oh, that’s just a name.” 

The markers of Puerto Rican history and identity throughout Wynwood may seem random to those without knowledge of Puerto Rican cultural typology. These markers tell a story of a colonia where migration from the island and the Northeast United States began in the late 1940s and early 1950s– years before the Cuban revolution or the Haitian exodus. As I enter the De Hostos Senior Center, I notice a small photo frame on the center’s dining room wall featuring aerial views of the island. A series of mosaic tiles adorn the Wynwood sidewalks outside the De Hostos Center–a Puerto Rican flag with the Puerto Rican coat of arms labeled “Caribbean State,” El Morro, a gallito (Figure 6-8). NE Second Avenue is also home to El Jibarito Food Market, Roberto Clemente Park, and the Dorothy Quintana Center (Figure 9).

Quintana, who passed away in 2011 at 101, was a major Wynwood pioneer and community activist. After moving to Wynwood from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, Quintana began helping Puerto Rican migrants and Latin American, Central American, and Caribbean immigrants acquire food and affordable housing. She founded a school and a series of housing projects. At 101, she was still a regular at commission meetings and served as a neighborhood watchperson. Said A. Martinez, program manager at the Senior Center and a native of Venezuela, shows me pictures of Quintana along with several honorary plagues bestowed on Quintana during her lifetime. Martinez laughs when recalling Quintana slept with a gun under her mattress, always prepared to defend the streets of her beloved Wynwood. 

Esther Nieto Couvertier, the executive director of the De Hostos Senior Center, greets me at her office, a framed picture of Quintana on her wall. Couvertier emphasizes that Wynwood was once dubbed “Little San Juan,” something I find interesting considering the name never caught on like other recognizable and official neighborhoods names, such as Little Havana (Figure 10). Couvertier speaks proudly of the recognition Quintana received from the City of Miami while she was alive (e.g. a new area of the Roberto Clemente Park named in her honor), yet she still sees the community as a whole as marginalized. “We are here,” she says. “We are no one.” A native of Puerto Rico and involved with the Wynwood community for over twenty years, Couvertier suggests that Puerto Rican Miami has little political influence. The community also seems to suffer from a lack of identity within the city. Though I notice several Puerto Rican flags hanging outside the neighboring houses, Couvertier says many Puerto Ricans have moved to other parts of Florida making way for immigrants from Central America, Haiti, and Cuba in Wynwood. She says that few Puerto Ricans use the De Hostos Center. Wynwood, according to Couvertier, was once bustling with Puerto Rican businesses, but slowly dwindled. 

 

The rise and fall of Wynwood, as witnessed by Couvertier, is a case study in gentrification, according to researcher Marcos Feldman and filmmaker Camila Alvarez. Feldman narrates Wynwood’s history in his dissertation, where he argues that partnerships between business developers and Wynwood community organizers were particularly unproductive for the neighborhood’s residents.[i] Wynwood was the center of Miami’s garment district from the 1920s and later the fashion district toward the 1970s. Feldman writes that census data on the number of Puerto Ricans migrating to Miami in the 1950s is unavailable; however, he cites the 1970s as the height of migration. According to Feldman, 2,577 Puerto Ricans settled in Wynwood and the neighboring areas of Allapattah, Edgewater and Buena Vista around the 1970s. This group represented about “39 percent of the Puerto Rican population in the City of Miami” (2011: 62). Currently, Puerto Ricans comprise about 3 percent of city’s population (2011: 60). Feldman suggests that when garment factories closed in Wynwood and re-opened in the suburban neighborhood of Hialeah, factory owners concentrated on hiring a mostly Cuban workforce, adversely affecting the Puerto Rican and African American population in the inner city and setting the scene for racial and class division.  

Toward the 1980s, Wynwood became one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. By the 1990s, the neighborhood saw two highly publicized race riots. A 1990 New York Times article documents the racial “disturbance” in Wynwood after six policemen were acquitted in what resident’s considered the “beating death” of Leonardo Mercado, an alleged Puerto Rican drug dealer. “We want people to know we exist,” one man is quoted as saying. “Puerto Rican alienation” was cited as a cause for the unrest—protesters reportedly “clutched Puerto Rican flags” during the riot, chanting “Viva Puerto Rico”[ii] (1990:1). Wynwood was labeled a slum. Though local organizations like the Wynwood Economic Development Corporation worked with city officials to establish the area as a free trade zone, it appears a host of failed deals and government bureaucracy plagued Wynwood’s development. [iii] The struggle between developers, the City of Miami, and local organizers led to a 1994 legal dispute over federally rather than locally administered housing loans– loans designated for the revitalization of the area. The suit was settled in 2009. Feldman writes that by the 2000s, land developers (including the New York-based Goldman Properties) saw the neighborhood as a “clean canvas” (2011: 41).  

Alvarez, a recent Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate at Florida International University, produced a short film about the gentrification of Wynwood for her senior thesis. The documentary, Right to Wynwood (2013) was a feature at the 2013 Miami Short Film Festival. The film includes a series of interviews with land developers, artists, gallery owners and Wynwood residents. Born in Colombia, Alvarez moved near Wynwood as a student. She began noticing changes in the neighborhood, changes apparent to most Miamians familiar with the downtown area —gallery nights, art walks, expensive eateries, and elaborate graffiti murals, now known to the hipster scene as the infamous “Wynwood Walls.” However, Alvarez decided to research how these changes were happening and what it meant to Wynwood’s residents.  She says, “It is not so much that these changes happened. It is how they were done.”

Alvarez emphasizes that Wynwood’s art scene was “business-plan driven,” rather than artist-driven. Today’s Wynwood is not a traditional bohemian neighborhood where artist colonies gave rise to a cultural scene which brought attention and artistic production to the area. Instead, Alvarez’s documentary exposes how developers bought buildings, and in some cases, drove out long-standing residents in order to market the neighborhood to out-of-state and local artists as inexpensive space. On my own walks around the innumerable Wynwood graffiti murals, I can’t help but notice that they seem almost like billboards hailing the latest Miami fad (Figure 11). Right to Wynwood shows how dozens of young people pack Wynwood streets such as NE Second Avenue, walking past the Wynwood gates, as they head to the latest gallery opening. Gallery owners interviewed by Alvarez complain that Wynwood’s revitalization has yet to profit art sellers. Rather, restaurants, caterers, and bar owners have benefitted from those crawling Wynwood’s streets. Wynwood residents, according to one of the female interviewees, often find themselves unable to leave their driveways due to partygoer’s cars. One of the male interviewees, a security guard and Wynwood resident who wished to remain anonymous, narrates in Spanish how he was once hired to keep locals or so-called “rough-looking” people from entering a gallery. “I am a pioneer from this area,” he says.[iv]

Alvarez named her documentary Right to Wynwood as an allusion to sociologist’s Henri Lefebvre’s book Right to the City (1968). Lefebvre’s book, among many things, argues for a sense of residents having the authority to create and re-create their urban spaces. Wynwood residents, according to Alvarez and Feldman, were denied that authority. The story of Wynwood and Puerto Rican Miami is one of indifference and lack of knowledge of a colonia which has occupied Miami since the second Great Migration. The recurrent words “no one,” “exist” and “blank” also suggest the repercussions of a history of colonialism characterized by the negation of history. Though the galleries and restaurants have brought commerce to the area, Wynwood residents, Puerto Rican or otherwise, seem on the losing end of such business. I wonder what might be done to see that residents benefit. Also, how might the entrepreneurial projects in Wynwood acknowledge the neighborhood’s history? For example, one of the art galleries, Casa Coqui, established by artists Hector Maldonado and MeMe Ferre, daughter of Maurice Ferre, is decorated as a typical Puerto Rican casita. Could artists offer affordable arts education programs for locals?

While research on Puerto Ricans in Florida often centers on Orlando, partly because of the number of migrations in recent years, Miami’s Puerto Rican community has quietly left its traces on a city memorialized as the cornerstone of the Cuban diaspora. Today, Wynwood seems like a community besieged by those who would wipe it completely from the record. As I leave the De Hostos Senior Center, I ask Couvertier, “Who was responsible for the Wynwood gates and the sidewalk mosaics?” “Oh, that was Emilio,” she says referring again to the founder of Borinquen Clinic. The clinic building sits proudly at a close distance from the graffiti walls, bars, and restaurants. I circle Wynwood’s city blocks and notice a few more Puerto Rican flags hanging in windows and a sign that reads, “Dorothy Quintana Way,” symbols of a colonia that was and is still here (Figure 12).


Recommended readings on Miami Puerto Ricans:

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

Duany, J. and F. Matos-Rodríguez. 2006. Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Central Florida, Policy Report Vol. 1, No. 1. New York. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.

Feldman, M. 2011. The Role of Neighborhood Organizations in the Production of Gentrifiable Urban Space: The Case of Wynwood, Miami's Puerto Rican Barrio. FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations.Paper 540. http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/etd/540/.

Shell-Weiss, M. 2009. Coming to Miami: A Social History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Notes

[i] Feldman, Marcos. 2011. The Role of Neighborhood Organizations in the Production of Gentrifiable Urban Space: The Case of Wynwood, Miami's Puerto Rican Barrio.FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 540. http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/etd/540/.

[ii] Holmes, Stephen. 1990. Puerto Rican Alienation is Cited in Miami Rampage. New York Times 5 December. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/05/us/puerto-ricans-alienation-is-cited-in-miami-rampage.html/.

[iii]Jimenez, Jose Luis. 1999. Miami’s White Elephant. Miami New Times 10 June. http://www.miaminewtimes.com/1999-06-10/news/wynwood-s-white-elephant/. See also Wynwood Community Economic Development Corporation, Inc., v. the City of Miami, 94-12875.

[iv] Alvarez, Camila and Natalie Edgar. 2013. Right to Wynwood. Senior Thesis. Florida International University, Documentary. See also: Hinton, Marva, How Wynwood Went from Abandoned Warehouses to Hipster Hangout. http://wlrn.org/post/how-wynwood-went-abandoned-warehouses-hipster-hangout/.


© Marilisa Jiménez García. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 3 September 2014.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.