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How Germane Barnes is reviving a forgotten Miami suburb

The urban planner is working to bring more resources and money to help Opa-Locka preserve its unique architectural heritage

Photo by <a href="">Matthew Roy</a>.
Photo by Matthew Roy.

It's not everyday one finds himself on the corner of Ali Baba and Sinbad avenues. But for those who live and work in Opa-Locka, Florida, like architect, artist, and city planner Germane Barnes, this strange intersection may just be part of their commute to work. A Miami suburb built by aviation pioneer and Arabian Nights enthusiast Glenn Curtiss in 1926, the city is primarily known for two things: A collection of domes, minarets, and Moorish Revival architecture that would make a theme park owner's head spin, and a reputation for violence born from at one point having the worst violent crime rate in the country (crime and cocaine became so rampant in the '80s, the city decided to block off its entrances with metal barriers).

Barnes wants Opa-Locka to be known for something else. The recipient of a grant from the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) that brought him to the city in 2013 as a designer-in-residence, the 29-year-old believes the city can bounce back using art and architecture as a means to build and engage the community. He knows it can happen because he lives there, and has seen the work of a group of artists and organizers slowly change the landscape.

"This experience has let me know that architecture can speak to and touch people and change things, regardless of what academia or what the old guard may want you to believe," he says.

Photo by Matthew Roy.
Photo by Matthew Roy.

Barnes first heard about Opa-Locka while studying for his master's degree in architecture at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. The city's history intrigued him, not merely because it seemed like a perfect case study for his thesis about revitalizing a community without gentrification, but because it also spoke to his own experiences. In 2009, Barnes studied abroad in Cape Town and worked for a professor and firm, SJM Architects, who did pro bono design projects for neglected townships. It spoke to his experiences as a teenager in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, when a program called Mayor Daley's KidStart hired him and others to paint a mural at a local high school.

"That was my first exposure to how you could galvanize a neighborhood with the arts," he says. "When you come to Opa-Locka, a low-income black community, the immediate question is, how do you get resources here?"

Photo by Matthew Roy.

Barnes in front of the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation's Arts & Recreation Center. The mural is by artist Lekan Jeyifo. Photo by Matthew Roy.

For Barnes, who moved into the Triangle neighborhood in January 2013 as part of a team that included Los Angeles designers Christian Stayner and Jennifer Bonner, the answer lies in activating the city's unique landscape. Since arriving in 2013, he's focused on community actions and development projects meant to revitalize the city's core. For him, being part of the community he's working in has made all the difference.

"When you see the problems first hand and build a rapport with your neighbors, you're able to have more manageable and measurable goals," he says. "What starts as a grand proposal may need to be scaled back, big time. So now, we may only do three or four projects instead of a dozen, but it helps us focus on things we can change instead of spinning our wheels."

Photo by Matthew Roy.

Two hundred volunteers painted Ali Baba Avenue as part of a beautification project led by Walter Hood. Photo by Matthew Roy.

A project in the Triangle designed by famed landscape artist Walter Hood enlisted more than 200 volunteers to repaint a stretch of Ali Baba Avenue, a beautification project meant to show how a small amount of money can activate and enliven the area. Along with an arts and recreation center and Magnolia North Community Park, these projects have helped spur talk of a community renaissance, of turning the low-cost area into an up-and-coming arts district, akin to what happened to Wynwood, a Puerto Rican neighborhood in north Miami that's become a gallery district and art world darling.

Magnolia North Community Park, before and after.

Barnes wants to achieve that kind of development, but without the displacement caused by gentrification. His next series of projects, including a community garden and urban farm as well as a proposed series of public houses, open studio spaces meant for the community, aim to provide much needed infrastructure and fresh food.

Photo courtesy Aileen Alon.
The Opa-Locka administration building, formerly City Hall. Photo courtesy Aileen Alon.

He's also working to bring more resources and money to help the city preserve its unique architectural heritage. While 20 structures are listed on the National Historic Register, including the onion-domed Administration Building (formerly City Hall), Opa-Locka is one of the few municipalities in the county that doesn't have a preservation board, and needs more funding to truly capitalize off perhaps its most unique feature.

"The community is very proud of their architectural heritage, so it's important they get the money they need to preserve it," says Barnes. "We want this to be like Art Deco in South Beach, a place that draws tourists. The irony is that all the big money does come through here, since the executive airport is in Opa-Locka. But as soon as they land, they just run away."

For his part, Barnes doesn't seem to be leaving anytime soon. While he was initially asked to stay just a single year in Opa-Locka, he's decided to stay on to see his projects through.

"The City Development commission doesn't want me to leave, City Hall doesn't want me to leave," he says. "That's a pretty good sign. I want to leave things in a sustainable place, so when I come back and visit in a few years, I know thing are still moving forward. I never thought things would have manifested in this way."

Photo by Matthew Roy.
Photo by Matthew Roy.

· Exhibit Explores Old Opa-Locka, City Of Hot Arabian Nights [Curbed Miami]
· Groundbreakers 2015 [Curbed]
· Young Guns 2015 [Curbed]