Stand at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 26th Street in Miami, and there are shoes as far as you can see.
Not real shoes. The low-slung industrial buildings that surround you are crudely painted with images of pumps and sneakers and wingtips, with signs touting "shoes direct from factory" and "cash and carry shoes." Some of the buildings are occupied, others empty. The weeds that sprout up through the cracked pavement and broken glass are withering in the July sun.
These are fantastic visions that riff on urban street life, and dream life, and even shoes - all as far as the eye can see.
You are in the Wynwood district of the city, once a hub for garment production, later a center of shoe import and export, and now a fast-rising arts district of the kind that can make real estate fortunes. The second Saturday of every month, as many as 20,000 people come to wander the streets of what was once a blank spot on the map. They check out the murals, they visit the ever-growing number of galleries, and they pack into the few restaurants and bars on the once-desolate streets. And it’s not just second Saturdays. Increasingly, this is a place where Miami’s creative minds come to hang out and work and do business.
At the center of it all is Wynwood Walls, the brainchild of developer Tony Goldman – who was instrumental in changing New York’s Soho from a decaying industrial neighborhood into an arts hub back in the 1970s, and who also led the way in the revitalization of Miami’s South Beach.
"Tony saw these building as a canvas for an art form he really cares about," says Marlo Courtney, managing director of Goldman Properties. Courtney met me at the Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, a restaurant that opens out onto the walls themselves – more than two dozen murals from the best street and outdoor artists working in the world today, Shepard Fairey, Os Gemeos, Nunca, and Stelios Fatakis among them.
Goldman invested in the Wynwood neighborhood about 8 years ago, and the artists started painting walls inside the Wynwood Walls complex, a former shoe warehouse in 2009. This had for years been a neighborhood where graffiti artists came to tag, but the work commissioned by Goldman are spectacular in scale, and completely legal.
Now the art has exploded beyond the walls, and the neighborhood has become a seemingly limitless forum for artists who work in spray paint and wheat paste. The high-minded crowds of Art Basel flock here during their yearly convocation.
Rezoning has meant that office and residential uses are now a possibility. There are a few high-end restaurants. Panther Coffee, a specialty roasting plant and café whose owner comes straight outta Portland, has set up shop.
“We are coming out of the incubator phase,” Courtney tells me. The investment is starting to look like it will pay off. Five years ago this was one kind of place. Now it has become another.
At the same time, Courtney emphasizes that no residents have been displaced, and that the businesses moving in are creating dozens of new jobs. It’s not really gentrification, he tells me. “It’s more like gentlefication.”
And yet the Wynwood story calls to mind all the uneasy and uncomfortable truths about the ways cities change over time. If all goes according to plan, the shoe business will fall away entirely, the restaurants will multiply, condos will be bought and sold. Money will be made.
The artists who have gotten the call to come here, who have been given the paint and time and space to make their work in the oxymoronic luxury suites of street art, see the contradictions and ambiguities. In a terrific series of short films about the project called “Here Comes the Neighborhood” (directed by Jenner Furst and produced by Goldman) they almost all talk explicitly about the uncomfortable alliance between the street and the establishment that Wynwood Walls represents.
“It’s like a gated community of murals,” says the young artist Gaia. “It’s where art goes to die.” And yet the project has given him new inspiration, and he has taken his work well beyond those gates.
Artist Kenny Scharf, a gray-haired veteran of the street art scene, says some people see the gentrification process as a great thing, and some see it as a kind of death. “I see both,” he says with a shrug.
In the end, the project is an undeniable illustration of the power of creative minds to transform an urban place. The Mexican artist Sego sums it all up: “It is incredible to change the image of a city with your art.”