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Florida’s Failed Moorish Utopia Plans a Better Future Through Art

Opa-locka City Hall (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
Opa-locka City Hall (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)

Domes in muted colors and geometric murals adorn the buildings in Opa-locka, which, despite its abundance of Moorish revival architecture, is a long way from north Africa. The town in Florida was planned in the 1920s, but before the development could be finished the real estate market collapsed, leaving it incomplete. According to the United States Census, 39.7% of its population lived below the poverty level between 2009 and 2013 (compared to 16.3% for all of Florida).

Michael Marriott captured the contemporary perception of the town in a grim 1989 New York Times article:

Moorish domes and minarets rise like a vision from the Arabian Nights from the smoky taverns and rundown thrift shops of this poor Miami suburb, an amusement park without the amusement. Along palm-studded lanes with names like Ali Baba Avenue and Sinbad Street, Sultan and Harem avenues, violence and drugs lurk like desert snakes. The most dangerous neighborhoods are sealed off by barricades in hopes of discouraging armed crack dealers who operate openly.

Opa-locka home (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
An Opa-locka home (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
Opa-locka home (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
An Opa-locka home (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)

Now Opa-locka is looking to spark a revival through art. The AFP reported this week that the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation is putting $2.5 million toward improvements like murals and cultural events. This past, December Opa-locka planned a commission from dance artist Nora Chipaumire to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, and according to WLRN other projects include “incubator pods” for creative projects, public art made from recycled materials like car mirrors, and artist residencies. A public art master plan launched in 2012 is taking hold, with the announcement in April that Opa-locka would collaborate with artist and architect Walter Hood on revitalizing one of its main thoroughfares with a painting project focused on geometric patterns reminiscent of the town’s original Islamic-influenced design.

Florida is dotted with these odd attempted utopias, such as the hollow Earth community of Estero, and Tarpon Springs, where Greek divers were lured in the early 20th century to practice sponge fishing, only to see the local sponge fields decimated by a red algae bloom in 1947. The spirit still continues with Disney’s idealistic, all-American Celebration, opened in 1996.

Opa-locka was conceived amid the Egyptomania that was sparked by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, and as Orientalism was spreading through American architecture — although nowhere so dense as in this Florida town. With that unique aesthetic on its side, proximity to Miami, and a determined cultural program, it may finally be on its way to a long-awaited revitalization.

Opa-locka's train station (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka’s train station (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka's train station (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka’s train station (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka's Crouse House (photo by Katostrophy, via Wikimedia)
Opa-locka’s Crouse House (photo by Katostrophy, via Wikimedia)
Opa-locka's E E Root Building (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka’s E E Root Building (photo by Philip Pessar, via Flickr)
Opa-locka VFW (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
Opa-locka VFW (photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, via Flickr)
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