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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
February 2017

New Brickell group wants to bring advocacy to a vertical community

APix_EleazarMelendez_2-17s a world traveler who also happens to be a fan of iconic towers, Brickell resident Bill Fitch says he’s particularly fond of the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei. Yet while he’s read about and visited many of Pei’s modernist, cubist-style buildings around the globe, Fitch admits it took him a while to find out that the 47-story Miami Tower, which dominates the view from the north-facing balcony of his Brickell apartment, was actually designed by Pei’s firm.

It wasn’t until very recently that Fitch heard of the lavish past of the colorful skyscraper, which had been originally named after banner tenant CenTrust Savings & Loan, then Bank of America, and currently TotalBank. Its interior included a sky lobby with a reflecting pool, gold-plated executive bathroom sinks, Baccarat chandeliers, Persian rugs, and a marble-and-brass grand staircase so enormous it had to be lowered into the building’s penthouse suite via helicopter.

Fitch’s wife, Ann-Rhea, says she sees that same dynamic all the time in Miami, a strange mental warp that somehow blinds people here to the history of things that might be quite literally in front of them.

Citing demographic research that points to the high number of Miamians born outside the city or region, she mentions how commonplace it is for people to be shocked to find out Miami does indeed have cultural institutions.

“An astounding number of people who live here right now have never been here before,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re going to the opera? There’s an opera in Miami?’ and meanwhile FGO [Florida Grand Opera] has been here for decades.”

Rather than lamenting that lack of awareness, Ann-Rhea and Bill are counting on it for what they describe as their next adventure in community organizing, a project known so far as Forward Miami.

A veteran of dealing with homeowner associations and activist groups, Bill Fitch served as vice president of the umbrella group Brickell Homeowners’ Association until just last month. He’s counting on many great ideas for making public engagement interesting in Brickell. There’s just too much hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered by residents.

He cites initiatives to improve pedestrian and cycling experiences, make creative use of urban open spaces, and promote art in public places, all of which are already the topic of cocktail parties and imaginative urban planners.

“This stuff has been here, but the people haven’t,” he says. “The changeover [in Brickell’s resident mix] has been such that the population doesn’t really know what’s here and what’s possible.”

It’s certainly a hopeful sentiment, although it does face some significant social barriers that make community organizing and advocacy difficult in high-rise communities. Most of the work in that regard has for years centered around the homeowner associations in individual buildings, with those groups sometimes banding together to magnify the power of their individual voices.

It’s one thing to chase down public works officials and badger them to fix cracked sidewalks, or to lobby state bureaucrats to lower speed limits, or to haggle with city commissioners over proposed swale planting projects. Getting people to engage and mobilize on gauzy, aspirational ideas like pedestrian safety, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.

Yet Fitch’s Forward Miami initiative comes admittedly at an inflection point in the history of the neighborhood. His former colleagues at the Brickell Homeowners’ Association are as powerful as they’ve ever been, buoyed by the increased engagement from owners in the buildings they represent.

Across the river to the north, two umbrella homeowner association groups, the Downtown Neighbors Alliance and the Biscayne Homeowners’ Association, have seen leadership turnarounds in the past two years that have transformed those groups into powerful advocates and conveners. The usual discussion at meetings of fixing roads and dealing with construction trash has increasingly been balanced, across all three groups, with higher-level conversations on issues like how to ensure that families have access to education resources throughout the urban core.

Meanwhile, millennial-led organizations with a wider city and regional focus have set the bar for doing community organizing that’s meaningful, high-minded, and fun.

A board member of one such group, Engage Miami, was present at the initial meeting for Forward Miami held during the Martin Luther King Memorial weekend. Over bagels and coffee on a beautiful January morning, a handful of Brickellites and invited guests discussed ideas for the group to take on.

Annette Collazo, a teacher who has worked as a community organizer for both political campaign and activist causes, says that in other communities, including her hometown of Hialeah, she has seen a hunger, and sometimes unexpected acceptance, for the kind of thinking that Forward Miami is pushing.

“It might just have to do with the political atmosphere and a tone that’s coming down from the national level,” says Collazo. “This resurgent sense that we have to become active in our communities again.”

But how do you create that community feeling and organize in a place like Brickell, where apartment-dwellers come and go, sometimes without ever meeting their neighbors, and where so much of the population essentially just got there?

“Well that’s the question, right?” she shoots back. “In a philosophical sense, the idea of community is something very mutable -- people are part of their building community, but they’re also part of their ethnic community or their work community. Maybe they see Brickell as a temporary home, but nonetheless, a temporary home can still be a place to foster a sense of community. That might be the trick.”

Collazo says the small group that gathered to kick off the organization is already off to a good start, in terms of mobilizing individual talent and reaching out to the local activist community. With contacts in the management of many buildings in Brickell, they also have some resources other community organizers would envy.

“Everything is within these buildings, with the gym and the pool, so it’s possible to revolve around that, and that could be the best way to establish a connection to that community,” she says.

“We’ve traveled all over the world,” says Bill Fitch, “and we’ve seen phenomenal things in other cities. We were in Barcelona, where they shut down the main highway on the weekends and hand it over to pedestrians and bicycles. That’s the kind of big idea we’re looking for.”

Ann-Rhea adds, “We want to be a source, almost as a think tank, to bring positive ideas and project them out to other sources who have the ability to affect change.”


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