Opa-locka, FL: Opa-locka Community Gateways

rtist rendering of a public site at night with a large wirey scupture to the left and a two-story community center to the right
Image courtesy of R & R Studios

How can a community organization use art as part of its larger toolkit to help turn around a historically challenged neighborhood?

For Opa-locka, a small city northwest of Miami, a set of barriers originally meant to control drug traffic and reduce crime in 1980s remained in place long after they were actually needed, standing as a constant reminder of the city’s troubled past. In an effort to shift the city from its past problems toward a more optimistic future, a local community development corporation set out to recast the area as one with affordable housing, vibrant gathering spaces, and public art.


Founded in the 1920s by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, the city of Opa-locka, FL, got its start in a time of prosperity and possibility. Over the years, though, the city has gone through a series of challenges, facing a sluggish economy and soaring crime rates. The Magnolia North neighborhood (formerly known as “The Triangle”) has long been isolated from the surrounding city by a set of imposing barriers put in place in the 1980s originally designed to stem the flow of drugs that scourged the area during that time. The Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) was founded in 1980 to address the distressed unemployment conditions in North Miami-Dade County and help with overall revitalization initiatives for the city of Opa-locka. Since then, it has developed over 2,000 new housing units, including over 1,400 affordable units and rehabilitation of over 200 abandoned and foreclosed single-family homes. For the past five years, it has broadened its scope and programming to encompass transformative initiatives that promote sustainable development.


Of the 15,500 residents in Opa-locka today, 31% now live below the Federal Poverty Level and the median family income is $19,000 (compared with a national average of $51,000). Though citywide demographics are about 65% African American and 35% Latino residents, the Magnolia North neighborhood consists mainly of African-American families who have either lived there
since before the barricades were put in place or are struggling householders in need of temporary and low- cost housing. It is a community also tied together by the many churches which intersperse themselves among the houses and help to define the weekly rhythms of the area.


As the OLCDC emphasizes, the Magnolia North area “faces a bleak future if current trends are not reversed.” Some change has begun to take shape -- the drug scourge of the 1980s and 90s is under control, for example, and OLCDC has developed many affordable apartment units in the area. The metal barricades put in place in the old “Triangle” neighborhood stayed long after their aims had been accomplished, leaving the area disjointed from the surrounding city. In order for the city to move forward, the OLCDC needed to create strategic plans that could address both the existing barriers and the overall larger physical fabric of the neighborhood.


With the renaming of the neighborhood as “Magnolia North,” the city and OLCDC set about to invest in a comprehensive strategy of housing creation, public space development, and public art. In place of the barricades, OLCDC imagined public spaces that would offer a different message. “You have to dispel this perception of a tough area,” says City of Opa-locka Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley. To do this, OLCDC hired four artist teams: Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt designed an open-air community room as a terminus to the future Duval Market Street; Gale Fulton Ross conceived a steel sculpture to be assembled by community members; architects Jennifer Bonner, Christian Stayner, and Germane Barnes related designs to convert foreclosed houses into sites for community spaces (“public houses”) and microenterprises; and landscape architect Walter Hood designed public spaces that connect the urban landscape, take into account the natural environment, and integrate recycled automobile parts. Collectively, these projects fall under the umbrella project called Community Gateways. Within these efforts, the OLCDC recognized that art had to be used strategically as part of their larger community development goals and not as a stand-alone effort. As OLCDC President and CEO Willie Logan says, “we couldn’t do public art and not put food on peoples’ tables and help them with jobs. It had to all work together.”



As with any successful urban initiative, Community Gateways was the result of a coalition of partners coming together with a common purpose. With OLCDC at the helm, the project involved a diverse group of public and private organizations. The City of Opa-locka was an integral partner, creating and amending zoning policies to support the role of public art in urban development. The project also benefited from an advisory panel comprised of Perez Art Museum Miami associate curator Rene Morales and members from the Art in Public Places program at the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. As a way to encourage community involvement, Logan worked closely with the county art liaison and the city’s planning department to review public input into the project. This network helped attract attention from far outside the city itself. As Logan puts it, “if it weren’t for our friends, four people would have seen [the public art call]. Instead, they got responses from national, and even international artists.” Since the project started, OLCDC’s partnerships have increased tremendously in order to meet its larger neighborhood revitalization goals.


The Community Gateways came about through a number of earlier planning efforts. Beginning in 2010 with a community visioning charrette, the OLCDC, City of Opa-locka, national experts, and community stakeholders began to examine how to meet its development goals for Opa-locka. Then, in 2011, a second charrette, with support from the Loeb Fellows Alumni Association at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, OLCDC enabled a team of fellows to bring outside expertise to issues confronting Opa-locka. Using these findings, OLCDC launched the Community Gateways project. Managing the project was an intricate and sometimes daunting task, particularly for an organization unfamiliar with arts management. As one team member remarks, “we’re building the ship while we’re sailing it.” Central to that strategy was bringing on the right people to serve as advisors to the process. As Logan acknowledges, “we knew we didn’t have the answers, but we wanted creative minds.” Allowing the artists to focus on their work, OLCDC has worked to secure the funding and administration, including zoning work required for open space development, and push for an overlay amendment that would allow for live/work residential spaces. A 2011 Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Planning Grant from HUD and 2012 HUD Sustainable Communities Challenge grant allowed for sustainability planning effort has allowed the city the chance to continue refining the project.


The project has had important tangible effects on the neighborhood and city, and provided community members with a vision for the future. The four proposed artworks are in different stages of funding and implementation, though OLCDC is committed to seeing all move forward. These artworks were strategically chosen to attract further support for future parts of the plan. While OLCDC has identified a goal of tripling the population of the Magnolia North neighborhood, it understands it will need to consider a long-term time horizon for the art to have that measurable effect. OLCDC is committed to assessing the metrics of the project, including population growth, crime rates, and property values, and it acknowledges the intangible value of the artists’ non-linear processes.


Even though the organization had been deeply embedded within the community for decades, one of the most difficult issues of the project was getting residents to overcome their sense of apathy during the various planning processes. Having been subject to years of planning with little to show for it, many residents did not see the current planning efforts as much different. With the commitment of individual artists who repeatedly sought community input, residents became increasingly involved in the different projects. One project artist, architect Germane Barnes, moved to the area to help see his project come to fruition. Looking back on things Germane reflected, “When you grow up in an area, and you’re used to things being a certain way, it takes a lot of convincing to prove that maybe this new method will work. And a lot of times it’s a matter of being able to prove to the community that this isn’t just talk, it’s about action.” Using art and design to help convert buildings into sites where small micro- enterprises could happen – such as cutting hair or baking, Barnes is working through a series of community activities, including building a new park, to help renovate public spaces and buildings. “It’s a matter of asking ourselves as artists and designers, how we can take these best laid plans and implement them in a timely manner, so that people can believe that their collaborative efforts can be successful, and that when it’s done, they know it will work.”


Opa-locka Community Development Corporation

  • The City of Opa-locka
  • The Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs
  • Perez Art Museum Miami
  • Florida International University
  • University of Miami
  • Miami-Dade College
  • Catalyst Miami
  • Legal Services of Greater Miami
  • Golin (formerly GolinHarris)
  • Design2Form
  • Veterans of Foreign Wars
  • Community Empowerment Team
  • War on Poverty
  • Mount Tabor Ministries
  • Early Learning Coalition
  • Tri-Star Leadership
  • Miami-Dade County Public Schools
  • Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department
  • Healthy Start Coalition, Institute of Child and Family Health
  • Jessie Trice Community Health Center
  • Jay Weiss Institute for Health Equity
  • Bring Organics Back
  • Center for Child and Family Enrichment
  • Center for Child and Family Enrichment
  • Fatherhood Taskforce of South Florida
  • KaBOOM!
  • City of Opa-locka
  • MetLife Foundation
  • Florida International University
  • Gold Coast Section of the Florida American Planning Association
  • South Florida Regional Planning Council
  • Citizens for a Better South Florida
  • Boise Paper
  • Alliance for Community Trees
  • Public Allies Miami
  • Roberto Behar & Rosario Marquardt, R&R Studios
  • Gale Fulton Ross, Artist
  • Jennifer Bonner, Christian Stayner & Germane Barnes, Architects
  • Walter Hood, Landscape Architect