Beyond Basel: What Wynwood, Miami’s Street-Art Hotbed, Can Teach Us About Urban Innovation

Marisa Cortright Marisa Cortright

With Art Basel come and gone, the art and design intelligentsia have either left town or shuffled back to their local galleries. Yet in Miami’s flourishing arts district of Wynwood, the spirit of Art Basel never really goes away. Known for its vast and impressive display of street art, mostly in the form of spray-painted murals, the vibrant neighborhood is a hotbed of contemporary art galleries and appropriately trendy but low-key bars, cafés, and restaurants. Wynwood is also home to a streetscape marked by wooden, chain-link, and metal-picket fences, separating and containing its various private and public spaces. Art Basel shows Wynwood doesn’t need them.

Wynwood in the making; source: Marisa Cortright

In Wynwood, fences serve as the next canvas for street art, as a large proportion of façades are already covered in elaborate murals. High-visibility murals rotate, crowds continuously Instagram, and, during Art Basel at least, artists spray for hours, night and day, to the delight of iPhone-wielding flocks.

Os Gemeos mural at Wynwood Walls; source: Wynwood Walls

Each new mural pushes Wynwood one step closer to complete saturation. The public-private ambiguity of Wynwood Walls—the interior space of several buildings and fences that play host to numerous vibrant murals—has spread down Wynwood’s main drag of 2nd Avenue, and split down its side streets, 24th, 25th, and 26th Streets. The demarcation between private and public is more often than not fastidiously spray-painted eight feet high in technicolor.

In Wynwood, everyone’s in on the action. Bus tours do not depart from the mid-block surface parking lot where The Big Bus Company stores its fleet—yet the company coolly advertises there in the hyperlocal style just the same.

The Big Bus Company tries to fit into the neighborhood; source: Marisa Cortright

Art Basel brings its own fences, which contribute not to safety but to the aura of exclusivity. A pop-up tent on 2nd Avenue was half-hidden by a makeshift plant-and-metal setup (see below). Even half-hearted attempts at physical exclusion effectively communicate social exclusivity.

Faux fence for Art Basel event. Physical exclusion indicates social exclusivity; source: Marisa Cortright

A new development—perhaps mixed-used residential, ground floor retail—sits just far enough on the periphery of the Wynwood core to not yet invite “legitimate” spray-painting (versus relatively crude graffiti) on its temporary wooden fences (see below). In six months, yet another stretch of 2nd Avenue will sport a fence out front and some display of public art appropriate to the neighborhood aesthetic.

New development under construction; source: Marisa Cortright

Wynwood currently grapples with one of the paradoxes of gentrification: land is developed to suit the whimsy of the local creative class, who subsequently populate the neighborhood, but only as long as they feel ‘safe.’ Pre-gentrification landowners are not always keen to sell, and in Wynwood this creates lots ostensibly ripe for development yet empty and somewhat spooky after dark (see below). Intrepid night owls will casually waltz by them, but for the young woman walking alone at night, this presents a concern.

Entire lots sit vacant, as landowners refuse to sell to developers. Street art is present, nonetheless; source: Marisa Cortright

Now a paradox of urban design: revamping the streetscape so that the empty lot is open to the street would remove the psychological illusion that the space is dangerous because it is fenced in. Remove the fence and the space won’t necessarily become safer. Yet, taking away the fence would introduce the potential for the space (and the street) to transform.

Better yet: what if the city of Miami, aided by the Wynwood Business Improvement District, arranged for chairs, tables, and lighting in the lot in exchange for tax incentives for the landowner?

This could function something like the anti-developer version of the privately owned public spaces that dot New York’s streetscape and accompany those buildings with floor area ratio bonuses and other zoning workarounds.

During future iterations of Art Basel, the Wynwood BID could host music, art, food, or dance events. It could create a centralized food truck space, like the ‘pods’ all around Portland, Oregon (see below). It could implement even the most modest program for a magnified effect on the streetscape.

Street-side food carts in Portland, Oregon buzz with foot traffic; source: Dave Reid

It would be improper to portray Wynwood’s streetscape as some neglected expanse between galleries. In January, the Wynwood Arts District Association performed an ingenious feat in tactical urbanism with the installation of Wynwood Ways, a set of crosswalks fluent in the vernacular (see below).

Wynwood Ways, an artist-commissioned crosswalk at NW 2nd Avenue and NW 25th Street; source: Wynwood Arts District Association

Arguably Wynwood’s locus, Panther Coffee exudes a vision of the future in line with ‘good urbanism’ (see below). Generous, porous, and comfortable, its outdoor seating area hosts crowds all day, and well into the night. Local businesses and developers should take notes, because this is the stuff of great neighborhoods.

Panther Coffee’s outdoor seating space acts as Wynwood’s living room; source: Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Much of Wynwood’s fenced condition can be attributed to its economic and social history. Until the early 2000s, when late developer Tony Goldman started buying and developing properties, the area resembled something of a ‘Little Puerto Rico,’ home to working-class Puerto Ricans and primarily industrial uses.

Without dissecting precisely how Wynwood gentrified, suffice it to say that it has and will continue to do so. The future of that ubiquitous infrastructure of containment and exclusion—the fence—is highly consequential for the social and physical image of the neighborhood.

The annual influx of artists, art lovers, and those even remotely inclined to appreciate cultural production shows that Wynwood is a destination unto itself.

As the vestigial infrastructure of an industrial past, Wynwood’s fences do not contribute to its allure as a gentrifying neighborhood, unlike, say, the warehouses of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Needless barriers should no longer obscure the neighborhood’s concentration of massive and beautiful murals, nor its burgeoning street life. Wynwood can and should be Miami’s poster child of an innovative urban community; it just needs to free the streetscape.