Wynwood’s transformation prompts mixed reviews from long-time residents

The arrival of art galleries and pricey restaurants has breathed life into a once-violent neighborhood. But the results are uneven, with drugs and drunks still a common sight just blocks away.

Two decades ago, Victor Rivera dined regularly with his Puerto Rican friends at the restaurant at the corner of Northwest Second Avenue and 25th Street in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. A typical Latin meal cost $1.

The restaurant closed for good during the 1990s, as did many other Wynwood businesses. Taking its place now is Joey’s, a restaurant profiled in national and international publications, where a salad can cost $12. Nearby, along a stretch of Second Avenue south of 29th Street, there are art galleries, boutiques and graffiti murals painted by world-famous artists.

On Friday, Rivera, 61, pointed to the new and remodeled buildings of his neighborhood and said: “This neighborhood has really changed!”

When Rivera arrived during the 1970s, the neighborhood’s economy depended on textile factories and warehouses that employed many of its residents. Most of these enterprises fled Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, and left the neighborhood rife with drugs and violence.

Now, real estate agents have transformed a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses into a popular destination for middle- to upper-class tourists and South Floridians. Its gallery nights, one Saturday every month, lure thousands.

Yet some residents continue to see such progress only from afar.

Oria Cruz, 62, who has lived in Wynwood for more than 30 years, considers the changes a threat to her neighborhood.

“Many of the places where we used to go no longer exist,” said Cruz. “Little by little, small businesses are disappearing, and our neighbors will end up leaving, too.”

Like many in the neighborhood, Cruz knew about the three youths who carried out a brazen armed robbery of Joey’s the evening of Aug. 29 while customers dined, stealing all the cash from the register and one customer’s iPhone.

The Miami Police Department’s response was immediate. Lázaro Ferro, the area’s commander, met with real estate agents and store owners to discuss increasing the police presence in Wynwood. On Thursday, one of the suspects, whose fingerprints were found on the cash register, was arrested.

The robbery of Joey’s, 2506 NW Second Ave., prompted discussions among Wynwood’s officials, customers and businessmen in the news media and on social networks. Worried about the possible impact it could have on the image and safety of the new businesses, they are calling for more security. Over the weekend, several police officers patrolled the neighborhood.

As they did, a family from North Port, Fla., rode their Vespa motorcycles with a guide to check out Wynwood’s artistic graffiti.

“I read about the tour in a magazine, and I found it fascinating,” said Brent O’Brian, one of the visitors. “We have learned a lot about the neighborhood.”

There were a dozen customers inside Joey’s. Chef Mazzón Ivo said the robbery did not seem to affect the business at all. The night before, he said, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado had been there for dinner.

“Back to normal,” Ivo said. “We’ve already forgotten what happened.”

Like the owners of the art galleries, business owners in the poor areas of Wynwood say they, too, want to see more of a police presence.

Evelyn Rivera, owner of Evelyn Hair Stylist, 3208 NW Second Ave., said she sees drug sales and drunks walking the streets every day.

“In this area we also need the same vigilance they get over there,” said Rivera, who has worked in the neighborhood for 26 years. “It’s not that that area is more important or that this side is more important. We are human beings, businesspeople. There are customers there and customers here. With money or without money, it’s the same.”

Ferro said he is not ignoring those claims.

“The difference in the vigilance sometimes has to do with our own tactics,” he said. “In the gallery area, where we don’t see drug sales, we apply a high-visibility tactic. In places where we know there are people selling drugs, we want to arrest them. So, we are there but they don’t see us because we are undercover.”

Ferro recalls the 1990s, when the neighborhood was considered one of the most dangerous areas of Miami. In 1990, Wynwood exploded with violence after the acquittal of six Miami police officers accused of beating drug seller Leonardo Mercado to death.

Ricardo Marroquín, manager of El Jibarito supermarket, 3322 NW Second Ave., said the neighborhood has improved a lot in recent years.

“When I came here in 1989, crime, drug selling, all of that was visible. It happened openly on the streets,” said Marroquín, 46. “Today, you still see the gangs, but not like before.”

José Eucedio, 78, agreed. He said he has never visited the galleries, but he is proud they are now part of his neighborhood.

“All of that is progress for the neighborhood,” he said. “Maybe it has not benefited us residents, but it has not harmed us either.”

Source : https://www.miamiherald.com/