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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
January 2018

DIY public space activations are the model for downtown’s future

TPix_EleazarMelendez_1-18he light-rail car screeching its way into the station wasn’t exactly helping. Neither was the person behind the wheel of a nearby Mercedes, frustrated with Friday evening traffic that made it impossible to merge lanes, and blasting the horn to let us know.

Yet despite of the unwelcome noise, in spite of the fact that their would-be “stage” was hemmed in by idling construction equipment, the members of Magic City Opera were performing for the crowd of music lovers and pedestrians as though they were in the packed concert hall at the Arsht Center, a few blocks north.

Another sight to behold was an alto singer who was belting out a billowy adaptation of a Broadway hit to the delight of the crowd. Tourists, confused at the singer’s efforts to be heard over Miami’s rush hour, seemed unable to do anything but walk right through the middle of the performance area. So did a couple so seemingly enchanted by each other, they failed to notice the performance taking place on the median outside the Metromover entrance.

Fighting the urban noise, the opera collective and dozens of other performers had all turned out for the most recent Buskerfest. A recent Miami institution, Buskerfest took over Miami’s Metromover light rail system (in a way), finding a space near or at many of its stations on December 15 for street performances as varied as they were outstanding. It’s the fourth year in a row the event has taken place.

Near the opera performance, a duo of ukulele players also struggled mightily against the noise -- in their case, keeping the tropical uke sounds going even as a fire truck made it all but impossible for anyone to hear them. A mime who might or might not have been part of the event lineup was rumored not to have faced the same issues with noise.

A few stations over from the opera singers, a standup comedian lobbed jokes at the crowd assembled at one edge of the platform, and managed to stay in character doing a frankly mediocre imitation of astrologer Walter Mercado (my harsh characterization here, in all fairness, might have more to do with the fact that said comedian decided to riff on your humble correspondent’s clothes for definitely more laughs than he needed to). Elsewhere, a harpist delighted the crowd by playing that unusual instrument; a folk music band entertained those getting a soda at the Government Center station’s second-floor kiosk; and rockabilly performers helped gather a crowd by the escalators in that central transit hub.

More outstanding than the performances is how Buskerfest has become entrenched downtown in four short years. Put together by an eclectic mix of performance artists, arts patrons, downtown boosters, and urban policy planners, the event was born in 2013 from the idea that “placing street performers throughout downtown would create an immediate boost of activity and vitality in the neighborhood,” according to the event’s mission statement.

In that way, it’s a microcosm of the energy that drives so much of what’s interesting and new in Miami’s urban core neighborhoods of Wynwood, Overtown, downtown, and Brickell. Downtown, in particular, coming with its history and infrastructure as the original Miami, has proved in the past few years to be a fertile ground for this kind of do-it-yourself urban revival experiment. More often than not, it ends up in something interesting, if a little impractical or unwieldy.

It’s not all mission quests from overachieving Portland transplants, either. As they’ve discovered a neighborhood and decided that they’re going to stick it out for a while, newer residents have begun to appreciate the importance of community. Slowly but surely, social networks and social circles have built up around doing CrossFit at the same local gym; walking the dogs has morphed into plans and ideas for making the neighborhood better -- or at least defining and beginning to defend a view of what the neighborhood should be.

It’s a unique dynamic borne out of living in a part of town that would have raised eyebrows not too long ago, but which has transitioned to become a kind of domestic residential existence felt by those who moved in recently.

The rise in feeling local citizenship occurs in front of a busy backdrop where others are letting their imaginations run with the possibilities. Open-space advocates scout out possibilities for planting pop-up parks and plazas, or bringing out largely underutilized areas with cool public art projects. While some are more formal and planned affairs than others, the general Zeitgeist around them is a just-do-it attitude.

Miami’s lack of love for strict rules surely helps here, as a somewhat millennial rediscovery of the pride that comes from being able to redefine a public space for the benefit of all.

On a more entrepreneurial level elsewhere downtown, restaurant owners continue to test innovative ways to provide al fresco dining while dealing with the reality of aggressive panhandling, all while hoping that street redesigns or partial closures or parklets will help transform their slice of downtown into something like Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road or New York City’s Stone Street. Impresarios are betting on alternative transportation like Freebee, or unproven street events as they put up venues.

Urban planners work in a fashion that’s more by the book, but still freewheeling, in a willingness to experiment, tinkering here and there with an alcohol ordinance to encourage nightlife in certain parts of downtown, embracing pilot programs for temporary use, or rooftop bars, or street-focused nightlife.

To be sure, not every experiment seems to have worked to make the city better. Notably, rules designed to help promote historic preservation seem to have been co-opted mostly to make sure property owners can get big payouts, with many historically significant buildings downtown getting little love or protection from the wrecking ball.

As those experiments continue -- with specific ones flourishing or failing -- they inevitably change the ways people interact, where they go, what activities they engage in, and why they do it. That means the advocacy efforts to defend successful visions of what the urban core should be, and of what living there should feel and look like, are going to be absolutely vital.

This all brings us back to Buskerfest. The amazing group that’s been behind it from the beginning has made a commitment to going beyond just promoting a moveable street party. They are also supporting the legal rights of performers and redefining the uses of public space. It’s a smart plan, and others trying to make sure they can keep doing cool things downtown would be wise to imitate it.

 

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