Miles inland from the sun and chic of South Beach, I gazed from a car window at some of the dullest, most depressing streets in Miami. Vast warehouse walls, gray and windowless, seemed to melt into one endless miasma of aesthetic resignation. Then the car turned a corner, and so did the neighborhood.
Suddenly walls and doorways shimmered with explosive color and fantastic imagery — abstract sinuous female forms, a giant cartoon monster mouth, neon-bright geometric patterns, an angry green baby, a shadowy urban nightscape. My car mates and I felt like Alice in street-art wonderland, where basic graffiti turns to eye-candy gold.
We had arrived at the Wynwood Walls, a series of 40-and-counting giant murals painted by renowned artists from around the world.
Begun in 2009 by Tony Goldman, the late developer also responsible for revitalizing South Beach, the project has served as a vibrant anchor to an up-and-coming artsy destination.
Sunburned Miami tourists who need a break from the beach already follow well-trod paths to Lincoln Road Mall and the Design District for shopping. But adventurous ones, looking for a truer sense of the city, can head to more offbeat neighborhoods. Wynwood is one of two areas in transition that offer enough to satisfy both art and design buffs and casual looky-loos. The other is MiMo, short for Miami Modern District, which had its heyday when car culture was king, went to seed in the ’80s and is in the early stages of an architectural-restoration comeback.
Modernism, on the mend
Motoring south on Biscayne Boulevard from 77th Street to the low 50s, if you squint narrowly enough to block out the weed patches and crumbling concrete, you can almost see the young Draper family from “Mad Men” piling out of a Chevy Impala in the porte-cochere turnaround of the Vagabond Motel and into the pool with the mermaid made out of tile on the bottom.
At the moment, that pool is dry, and the once-lush, swingin’ Vagabond is in a state of advanced decay. But developers are at work restoring the ’60s hot spot to its tropical-hideaway glory.
Down the street, the rehabbed New Yorker Motel is already attracting intrepid guests on a budget.
Lined with motels designed in modernist style, all acute angles and futuristic accents, MiMo was the city’s gateway from the north in the postwar years when the auto was the main mode of middle-class vacation transportation and the resort economy was booming. It was also the site of the first Playboy Club franchise outside of Chicago.
“If you were coming from anywhere on the East Coast, Biscayne was the way to Miami,” said Jeff Donnelly, a retired history teacher and historic preservation enthusiast who leads monthly tours of the area through the MiMo Biscayne Association. After air travel and the siren call of a ritzier beach led the tourist crush away, the area became a red-light district, the vestiges of which have not entirely dissipated.
“After Interstate 95 opened up, these family places became no-tell motels and flophouses,” Donnelly said. But several years ago, MiMo was marked by city officials for a good scrubbing and buffing, and the results are beginning to pay off.
Chic restaurants like Michy’s and Soyka, where you can lunch on a tasty fruit-and-quinoa salad, are popping up between old neighborhood standbys like Andiamo’s Pizza, located in a former gas station so space-age sleek, you expect Judy Jetson to glide up and take your order.
Not only the remaining lodging but area businesses feature dozens of the period’s design elements, like cantilevered roofs, cutout decorative designs, including round “cheese hole” patterns, and brise-soleils, metal grilles and glass-tile mosaics adorning textured-stucco facades.
A must-see landmark is the original Coppertone girl, a giant vintage sign sporting a cheeky peek at the girl’s tan line that marks the north edge of MiMo at 73rd and Biscayne. The 1963-built Bacardi Building, 4 miles south at 21st Street, is also worth a detour. Though the company has moved on, the city-protected building, showing off a mix of modernist shape and ornate tropical-inspired details, rises like a monument to departed opulence on an otherwise unremarkable section of downtown.
Making waves with walls
Wynwood has little to boast of architecturally, but has become the next horizon of Miami’s bustling art scene. Once home primarily to block-shaped, featureless clothing-assembly plants and storage facilities, Wynwood is also a working-class Puerto Rican residential neighborhood. Well before the walls went up, its industrial side attracted low-income artists with its rock-bottom rents and huge studio spaces. Though pockets remain bleak, galleries, shops and restaurants have appeared over the past few years, and clusters of street art inspired by — or perhaps competing with — the Wynwood Walls mothership seem to pop up overnight like mushrooms.
Goldman, who died in 2012, had a special knack for making the old new — and profitable. He saw the graffiti already cropping up organically as a jumping-off point.
“The neighborhood had a graffiti vocabulary already,” said Marlo Courtney, now senior managing director at Goldman Properties. “We just took it to the next level.”
And then some. Goldman and crew invited boldface names like Shepard Fairey of Obama “Hope” poster fame and Kenny Scharf, one of the bad boys of the ’80s New York scene, to create murals, eventually widening the net to draw in notable artists from as far away as Brazil and Ukraine. The project has expanded to include paintings on many of the area’s large metal doors. Every second Saturday, hundreds congregate in Wynwood for a daylong festival of outdoor music, food, parties galore, and oh yeah, art viewing.
During Art Basel Miami Beach weekend (Dec. 5-8 this year), several thousand more, including celebrities and artists from all over, will descend on the city. While the event’s nexus remains the Miami Convention Center, those looking for an edgier environment will be in Wynwood.
While the Goldman company’s development efforts are unabashedly commercial — they also own the two busiest restaurants in the area and are developing residential property. including artists’ lofts — they are drawing tourists and businesses to a downtrodden neighborhood and all the art they commission can be seen for free.
Danilo Gonzalez, a painter who runs the nearby gallery the Art Place Wynwood, on 2nd Avenue, just opened the Wynwood Cafe, also in the gallery, that sells sandwiches as cheap as $3.
“I don’t want to price people who live here out of the neighborhood,” he said.
Outside, 25-year-old artist Skött Marsi was painting a mural of Marilyn Monroe on the side of the gallery. He recently relocated to Wynwood from New York City.
“I want to be part of a scene that is still starting to happen,” he said.