Sunday, December 4, 2011


Social sustainability hinges on the ability to foster community, which, in the built environment, emerges from public spaces - streets, squares, parks - that engage, excite and reward the people who use them.

One of the best developments in Miami in recent years has been the explosion of large-scale graffiti in the Wynwood district north of downtown. These murals transform neglected streets into vibrant public space.

Centered on the series of courtyards between converted light industrial buildings now housing galleries and restaurants called Wynwood Walls, the neighborhood's stucco walls have become the canvas for an extraordinary range of mural artists. Among the works commissioned there is this new wall by the brilliant LA-based artist, RETNA (above). At the same time, Wynwood has retained its existing mix of wholesalers and auto body shops, while emerging as a home to art galleries (whose numbers have increased from about 5 to over 40 in the last four years) design stores, restaurants and bars.

Other works commissioned for Wynwood Walls include the amazing Hulk Baby, Ying/Yang Thing and Camouflage Deer that spill out of the mural by Ron English (left). This year, Portuguese artist Vhils carved a portrait into one of the walled-over doorways in the complex (below). Vhils works through selection and excavation, carefully removing layers of material to create images, as if they were hidden in the material.

Wednesday night, the first night of Art Basel and its related fairs, we met Isaias Crow, who came from San Diego to make a mural, even though he didn't yet have a site. He approached a building owner, showed him some of his work, and started improvising. By Saturday, the wall looked like this. The neighborhood - and Miami - are changing quickly, and in very exciting ways.
The food truck rallies have become a regular event in Wynwood, too. We've written about them before, and this kind of flash urbanism typifies the social aspect of public space in the metropolis. It's the antidote to the depersonalized sprawl of the suburban motopolis. Like the graffitied walls of Wynwood, which transform derelict and marginal places into social spaces that encourage public use, the food truck rallies turn a barbed-wire-fenced lot into a richly active public square. It's an encouraging confirmation that Miami is capable of producing and using these kinds of democratic spaces. We gather, we celebrate together, and we create community.
As much as we need to credit business leaders like developer Tony Goldman for the transformation of Wynwood and Miami, we also need to be wary of its cheap exploitation. The private party thrown by LA artist/filmmaker/impresario Mister Brainwash, and sponsored by Absolut, had the pretentious air of an exclusive night club. Exclusivity is antithetical to fostering community, and it seems particularly at odds with the nature of graffiti.


  1. Criticism of the recent transformation is that the neighborhood has been gentrified and it's residents displaced. How do you respond to that critique and how do we analyze if it's true?

  2. Great question.

    Gentrification is really only bad if it means (a) existing residents and businesses are displaced (because they can't afford higher rents) or (b) people don't feel welcome because of the nature of the new activities (like boutiques that appeal to a narrow clientele).

    In Wynwood, the body shops, wholesalers and concrete batching plant are still there, as are the neighborhood residents who've been there a long time. We haven't seen them pushed out, yet. And the amazing thing about graffiti and food trucks is how accessible they are to a broad public. You see a really diverse crowd out there, I think.