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Beyond South Beach: Why You Should Visit Miami's Arts Districts

You never know what’s around the corner in Miami's up and coming arts districts: overnight skyscrapers, vegan food trucks, voodoo art – even unicorns.

I’ve been coming to Miami since 1987, and each time, things are so different that I’m reminded that one of its original, promotional nicknames was the Magic City – presto, it changes. Of course, given its long and colourful history of tycoons and traffickers, the “magic” could also refer to the “poof” investment money made as it disappeared. But if you’re a visitor whose biggest concern is the humidex, there’s more than ever to explore beyond the blaring beacon of South Beach.

Faena Hotel, Miami Beach

Flora and fauna abound at the Faena in Miami Beach, from the hotel exterior to the Living Room inside.

Mid-Beach: Faena Arts District

Since it opened in Novmeber 2015, the Faena Hotel in Miami has been called glamorous, decadent, outrageous and over-the-top, and I tend to agree. My vantage point helps: I’m sitting in the centre booth of the hotel’s gold-domed restaurant, Pao, and directly above my head, on a pedestal, is a $6.5 million golden unicorn sculpted by Damien Hirst. In my hand is the signature cocktail, the Myth, a mix of Absolut Elyx vodka, coconut, pineapple, ginger and cherry liqueur served in a unicorn-head goblet that I have trouble lifting. Soon to come is a starter dish, the Unicorn, a sea-urchin and grilled-sweet-corn pudding served in the spiny shell.

As high as prices at the Faena Hotel can be (slow-sip that $25 cocktail), my outlay would be insignificant compared to the $1.2 billion already invested in the Faena District. Reimagined by Argentine developer Alan Faena, the project is an attempt to transform six blocks of Miami’s Mid-Beach, which was a boomtown in the 1950s but has been a “drive-by” area since then. The plan worked in Buenos Aries, where Faena successfully redeveloped an abandoned dockland area, Puerto Madero, in the early 2000s.

Sea urchin and corn pudding dish

Sea urchin (uni) and corn pudding make for a dish called Unicorn at onsite restaurant Pao.

This time, the scheme is even more grandiose. That’s apparent as I walk around in the afternoon sun with my guide to all-things-Faena, Julia Kaufmann, a tall, young Brazilian-German woman who speaks five languages. Taking up both sides of Collins Avenue between 32nd and 36th streets, the District is set to have lavish hotels, luxury condos, high-end stores and fabulous restaurants, as well as an arts forum by Rem Koolhaas – he’s designing a high-tech parking garage, too (the city’s second starchitect car park; there’s already one on Lincoln Avenue by Herzog & de Meuron). Faena, always seen in a white suit and a white hat, calls this style of development urban alchemy. The properties are in various stages of completion – jackhammers drill and construction cranes hoist. A smattering of tourists go by, on the way to the beach or perhaps up the road to ogle the Fontainebleau Hotel (where the opening of Goldfinger was filmed), one of Mid-Beach’s few draws until Faena saw his opening for opulence.

We pass the Faena Park (the garage), the Faena House (condos), the Faena Forum (the arts centre), on our way to the showpiece structure, the Faena Hotel (yes, all seven buildings bear his name). And indeed, as we walk up the steps to the entrance, a world of luxury beckons: Nothing so mundane as a “lobby,” but rather a “cathedral,” with goldleafed columns and eight floor-to-ceiling murals, themselves tinged with gold leaf. My head is already swivelling in search of the hotel’s most famous occupant, Damien Hirst’s massive beachside golden mammoth (it’s a real mammoth, dipped in gold). And eureka, I see it, far away through the courtyard, encased in glass, glistening in the sun, a creature from beyond time ready to be tamed with a selfie stick.

There is much more to the hotel – the rooms, all in red and blue; the Library Lounge, with antique books and red velvet; the theatre, created with a consult by Baz Luhrmann in what I’d call Moulin Rouge red (except this red is a signature Faena colour), where a cabaret show called C’est Rouge mixes elements of Cirque du Soleil, Cats and Esther Williams; the dedicated butler service; and so on – but I suspect I am not alone in that my main impression remains the mammoth. It’s a mammoth destination.

Wynwood Yard, Miami

Wynwood has been changing its stripes for more than a decade.

Midtown: Wynwood Yard

And then there is the Wynwood. Once an urban wasteland, with crippling poverty and massive unemployment, over the last decade it morphed into the Wynwood Arts District, with well-heeled visionaries and Art Basel leading the way. When I last visited in 2010, it was already world-famous. Artists and galleries were being priced out and the cognoscenti complained that it had passed its prime, but even still, parts remained sketchy, remnants of the no man’s land it used to be. Now, on a Saturday afternoon, the area is a frenetic, graffiti-covered outdoor mall. Skinny bearded dads push prams right beside corn-fed dads from flyover states; vegan yoga practitioners and harried housewives shop side by side for upcycled handbags and socially conscious eyewear; everyone, of course, searches for a smoothie, a latte or a craft beer. Whether it’s vital revitalization or shocking gentrification (always a topic in a city that has among the highest real estate prices and lowest wages in the United States) – and a few minutes chatting in line for cold-pressed juice tells me both sides have advocates – I can’t deny the energy.

Shooting the tropical breeze at Mortar & Pistil, Miami

Shooting the tropical breeze at Mortar & Pistil in Wynwood Yard.

And few are more energetic than Della Heiman, who I meet in Wynwood Yard, a food-truck hub that opened last November. Armed with an MBA from Harvard, she visited 100 locations before leasing four lots that have become a culinary pop-up and incubation space. “My aim was to make vegan food fun,” she says, as I gobble down a dalé bowl, a Mexican-inspired dish with black beans, brown rice, cashew queso and salsa verde. Looking around while Heiman talks a mile a minute, I blink in the sun and see there are four food trucks, a bar called Mortar & Pistil, a dilapidated but strangely elegant British tea garden and an area where herbs grow. The whole Yard is green and a bit ramshackle (in a good way), and I make a note to come back for one of their parties.

Artist King Serge in Little Haiti, Miami

King Serge has tall ambitions for a mural in Little Haiti.

Northeast: Little Haiti

A few kilometres north, my guide, Sandy Dorsainvil, is waiting for me at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. It’s 10 on a Friday morning and the streets are pretty much deserted. “Everybody is just waking up,” Dorsainvil says, leading me up Northeast 2nd Avenue, past a Caribbean marketplace and a strip of colourful stores and murals, some of them by local artist Serge Toussaint, who has been painting the fronts of butcher shops, bakeries, barbershops, along with dilapidated walls, since the 1990s. The area is known for block parties and music shows, and many urban pioneers – from bohemian artists to land speculators – think it could be Wynwood’s heir apparent.

Karla Ferguson at Yeelen Gallery in Miami

At Yeelen Gallery, Karla Ferguson showcases stories from the community.

At the Yeelen Gallery, Karla Ferguson is happy to show me her recent upgrades. Formerly a civil rights lawyer, Ferguson had a gallery in Wynwood before moving to Little Haiti in 2011. Knowing that I am Canadian, she points out a work by Tim Okamura, from Edmonton, who likes to depict African-Americans and other minorities in urban settings. “The main reason I left Wynwood was commercialization,” says Ferguson, who is originally from Jamaica. “It was all about parties – young people coming in to drink alcohol – and not about thinking.” The purpose of her gallery, she tells me, is to tell stories from the community, from the Haitian immigrants fleeing Papa Doc Duvalier in the ’60s to the LGBT and anti-police-brutality activists today.

Not far away is the vast working studio of acclaimed painter and sculptor Edouard Duval-Carrié. An easygoing raconteur, he lived in many cities, including Montreal, before settling in Miami 15 years ago. As he shows me pieces he is working on – a large papier-mâché head that he just finished; a Vodou-/African-pantheon-inspired painting that partially represents, he hints, the innocence of the god of healing – we get to talking about how the neighbourhood has changed. When he first moved here, he had to fight bulldozers and eviction; now he is famous and an ambassador for the community. And the evolution continues. The other day, he says, an architect and a team of young South American speculators with “massive money” had come by, having bought up 33 acres in Little Haiti. “They say they have the community’s best interest at heart,” he says, smiling. “But who knows?”

My first, romantic impression of Miami was formed back in the 1980s, at a patio table in front of the Edison Hotel in South Beach, peering in the sunlight at the beautiful people and the SoBe art deco scene that was just about to go ballistic. This trip, when I try to drive up Ocean Drive, starting at South Pointe, I get caught in a traffic snarl, move three blocks in 10 minutes and give up. Some dreams die hard, unicorns don’t really exist and you can’t put magic in a bottle. But in Miami, that won’t stop someone from trying. Watching them flop or fly is a big part of the fun.

The Next Frontier: Leah Arts District

A 30-minute drive from South Beach, Hialeah is a working-class, heavily Cuban-American city that has seen an artistic opening: With real estate prices in Wynwood hitting the stratosphere, the Leah Arts District is a subsidized zone for artists to live and work. “People have always made fun of Hialeah, but young people like me, secondgeneration, we want to be proud of it,” says my guide, JennyLee Molina, as we drive past rows of warehouses and stores covered in graffiti murals by artists like Trek6 and Kazilla. “We didn’t want to be the butt of another joke, so we got the best street artists we could find.”

The heart of this 10-street mini-Wynwood is the Flamingo Plaza, beloved for its thrift shops – and that, or a block party, is a good place to start for anyone who wants to sample an area that may be on the rise. Sprouting up around Flamingo Plaza are workspaces, studios and at least one microbrewery (Unbranded), set to open next year. leahartsdistrict.org

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ARTS & CULTURE     FAENA     FLORIDA     MIAMI     SUN DESTINATIONS     TRAVEL GUIDE    

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