It's just after 10 p.m., and there's a throng of people surging along 23rd Street in Miami. Music has been blaring from multiple ad-hoc sound systems, but now one of them, playing dubstep, is dominating. There's a clearing in the middle of the crowd, and two guys are having a dance battle.
Behind them is a towering tangle of twisted and polished steel tubes that look like re-purposed bicycle frames and car exhaust systems, illuminated from inside by amber lights and screens. Murals dot the building walls.
This is Miami's Wynwood neighborhood on "Second Saturdays." Sidewalks are dense with people and food trucks with long lines are scattered up and down the street. Vendors sell tacky jewelry. A strange vehicle glides by. It's a beer bike—10 or so people on bar stools mounted to a car frame, pedaling while a bartender in the middle serves drinks and a driver up front steers.
I pass more crowds of people. Some are wearing masks. Others hats with horns. Many are carrying beer bottles and cups, openly drinking in the street. A four-propeller remote controlled helicopter flies overhead, illuminated in bright green and blue. There are one or two galleries still open, but none who's names I recognize. This party will continue well into the night.
Second Saturdays started in 2005 as a monthly gallery walk, but it's long since become something else entirely, closer to a street party than anything to do with serious art.
In 2000, Brook Dorsch moved his gallery—--known for cutting-edge art and events that brought in performers from the local experimental music scene—from Coral Gables to Wynwood. Back then, the neighborhood was still desolate and crime-ridden. Dorsch bought an abandoned warehouse building and an adjacent former crack house and renovated them, creating a gallery with an apartment for himself in the back. Over the next few years, others followed. North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art opened an annex here in 2005.
Still, the neighborhood had a reputation for crime and blight. That finally changed with the launch of Second Saturdays. People would come for the great art and stay for the free booze, turning the monthly event into a sort of street party. At the new but well-respected Castillo Gallery, the backyard was transformed into a nightclub, with glowing bars serving a different cocktail (alcohol was provided for free by a high-end vodka maker) in each corner while a DJ played. Grolsch beer gave their oversized swing-top bottles to galleries by the truckload, and metal buckets of the stuff began to appear everywhere.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world began to take notice. First a few restaurants opened in the neighborhood. In 2005, construction began on Midtown Miami, a 20-square block tangle of residential towers and stores that gradually opened over the next few years. The drab walls of the neighborhood warehouses were repainted in bright colors. Then murals began to pop up, first here and there, and eventually everywhere. Lester's, a coffee shop with a small collection of books and magazines for sale, opened and became a destination for literary events. Then came Panther Coffee, a shop with an industrial roaster and owners who travel the world for beans. The bars followed soon after.
Wynwood property rates tell the rest of the story. They were below the Miami average until 2004. Since 2004, they've tracked up and down with Miami, staying generally above and sometimes spiking way higher. Over the last year the two appear to have permanently diverged, with Wynwood prices soaring well above the rest of the city.
By early 2011, the party that brought so many to the neighborhood had gotten out of hand. Gallery owners started sharing stories about drunken visitors damaging or breaking art. At a meeting of neighborhood stakeholders, it was decided: no more alcohol on Second Saturdays, no more staying open late into the night.
At that point, Second Saturdays continued to get bigger and stranger. An empty lot next to Castillo Gallery became a monthly pop-up fair, with a DJ, and food trucks, and stands selling t-shirts and tchotchkes. Street performances stretched into the night. With each passing month, Second Saturday becomes less and less about visiting the galleries.
Gallery owners took notice. Two of the most prominent local art dealers, Fred Snitzer and Anthony Spinello, have moved their galleries outside of Wynwood in the past few months. Tellingly, they're also the only two Miami galleries represented in the main fair at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Before the galleries moved in, Wynwood was a mix of commercial and residential buildings, much of it abandoned. But plenty of the original residents and business owners were less than enthusiastic about the changes. "Is it rising? To those of us who love a good gallery and a gourmet cup of coffee, for sure it is," says Beached Miami editor Jordan Melnick, whose mother grew up in Wynwood after she moved from Puerto Rico as a child. "For the long-time residents who may soon be priced out of the neighborhood, maybe not. Personally, I'm conflicted."
I'm talking to Brook Dorsch inside the gutted hull of his gallery about all this. The building is in the midst of a lavish renovation. When it re-opens, as Emerson Dorsch, the building will have retail space in the front, rearranged and refurbished galleries, and a sleek new glassed-enclosed reception area. Like most of the serious galleries, its opening receptions will not be held on Second Saturdays. Every month there are more food trucks (last count: 42) and less art. Dorsch says he's given up on the art walk. But he's doubling down on the neighborhood.
A few months ago the building across the street was painted orange and opened as Gramps. There are people on the street every night, and big crowds every weekend. There's a new beer garden, and a microbrewery under construction. A Ducati dealership is getting ready to open down the street.
The story of an arts scene revitalizing a neighborhood and then being driven out by rising property values is one frequently told. But what's happening in Wynwood is also about how attracting a big crowd can itself turned self-defeating. As Wynwood continues its rapid transformation, its "success" as a neighborhood is assured, but its status as the epicenter of fine art in Miami much less so.