Gabriela Lastra is currently a senior at the Florida International University Honors College, majoring in Criminal Justice and applying to law school. She spent the summer of 2019 traveling in Europe, first on a study abroad trip in Italy with Professor John W Bailly and then on her own in Spain. Having moved to Miami in middle school, she is unfamiliar with much of the local history of both the city and the state and jumped at the opportunity to learn a different facet of it through Professor Bailly’s unique Miami in Miami course. She hopes to continue traveling and never stop learning about all the amazing things that are hidden in all the corners of the world for those who look further than skin deep.
A Day of Service: Lotus House Shelter
The Lotus House is a shelter for homeless women and mothers with their children. The Lotus House Shelter, located in the heart of the historic district of Overtown Miami, opened its doors in 2006. It is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to help women and mothers with small children who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. The facility has grown from house to village in the 14 years since its doors opened, helping countless of women with counseling programs, job training, and even a thrift shop where the guests of the village can work.
In Professor John Bailly’s Miami in Miami course, as in the Florida International University’s Honors College, we have learned so much about the world around us and about ourselves that it defies description. We have been encouraged to ask questions, to explore, to become the best versions of ourselves, and most important of all lessons, to be a part of our community. This year I have been privileged to participate in several community service projects through the Miami in Miami class. Amidst the global pandemic that has been paralyzing our planet since last November,we cannot forget that we are not the only ones affected. I arrived at the Lotus House through Professor Bailly’s class as he arranged for the class to have the opportunity to volunteer there for the day.
Where & What
On this particular Wednesday, the last in-person class of my bachelor’s career as I graduate this spring, we met at the Lotus House around 10 am. Here we got to meet some of the incredible women who make this place keep working, themselves former residents of the Lotus House. We received a brief explanation of how the facility runs and some of the different programs they offer to help residents get back on their feet and prepared for life after the Lotus House. We were led down the hall from the main reception area into a loading area. From here we were split into two teams; those who would stay at the loading area and the sanitation team. I volunteered for the second group. My small team of 8 was responsible for sanitizing all the rooms on the first floor of the shelter, including the dining room where all guests of the Lotus House gather for meals, the hair and nail salon, the children’s art and play rooms, and more. Though it seems fairly routine, in a place with so many vulnerable residents who come in and out and all inhabit the same limited space sanitation is vital. Everywhere anyone could conceivably lay their hand, no matter how improbable, must be cleaned for each spot we miss is a chance for anyone in the shelter to get sick. After a busy morning, we also got the chance to meet some of the residents during the lunch rush. The facility is filled with dozens of women of different backgrounds who all come together in one place to try to have a better life. After the lunch rush was over, we cleaned up one last time before saying our goodbyes.
To be a global citizen is more than knowing things and seeing the world, it is also learning to give back. Doing this, spending a day during such difficult times doing something good for someone else, even something small, was an incredible experience. In times of adversity is when most we must reach out to those around us, to help those who need it. Schools and businesses closed as our city prepared for lock-down, but during this time is when the work the Lotus House Shelter does is most vital. During times of strife it is easy to get caught up in our own problems. There is always someone in the world who is fighting a battle tougher than ours and that is something we shouldn’t forget. It was a humbling experience, but it was also an empowering one. Those women are incredible, and they are fighting against incredible odds to have a better life, for themselves and for their children. Meeting the women who dedicate their lives to helping people in the position they were once in was also incredibly humbling. These women made it; they are the proof that the system can work if you take advantage of the chances you are given, and once they made it they came back to extend that same chance to others. To them, and to all the people in the world like them who are selfless and strong and kind I say thank you. We could all stand to learn more from people like them.
Gabriela Lastra is currently a senior at the Florida International University Honors College, majoring in Criminal Justice and applying to law school. She spent the summer of 2019 traveling in Europe, first on a study abroad trip in Italy with Professor John W Bailly and then on her own in Spain. Having moved to Miami in middle school, she is unfamiliar with much of the local history of both the city and the state and jumped at the opportunity to learn a different facet of it through Professor Bailly’s unique Miami in Miami course. She hopes to continue traveling and never stop learning about all the amazing things that are hidden in all the corners of the world for those who look further than skin deep.
North Miami Beach (NMB) is often confused with its more famous neighbors Miami Beach and North Miami, but this unique neighborhood has its very own flair. It is located in the northeastern side of the city. Due to its interesting borders, NMB is surrounded by several other neighborhoods: Sunny Isles Beach, Miami Gardens, Aventura, Ojus, Golden Glades, and North Miami. As you can probably tell, defining the borders of NMB is not quite simple. It is roughly bound on the northwest by the Interstate 95 (I-95) and the train tracks and Biscayne Boulevard mark its eastern border.
Despite its name and the sandy images, it brings to mind, NMB does not have much waterfront property. The only water it borders is the 0.3 miles of the intercoastal waterway. North Miami Beach is an urban landscape, with nearly every single plot of land in use in some way and several main streets with dozens of businesses and small residential roads connecting everything. There is not much left of NMB’s natural landscape due to its development. Before everything was urbanized, NMB was home to mangroves and marshes, with Miami’s typical limestone soil. Despite its urban landscape, NMB has been named a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation for the past 31 years.
The credited founder of North Miami Beach is Captain William H. Fulford of the U.S. Coastal Guard during the Spanish-American War. In 1881 while patrolling the Atlantic Coast, he explored what was then known as Big Snake Creek (now the well known Oleta River). In 1897, Captain Fulford used the Homestead Act to acquire the patent for 160-acres of free land from the federal government under President Grover Cleveland’s administration. The land along the Oleta River was fertile and many farmers settled there to grow peas, beans, sugar cane, and tomatoes. The area was briefly named Ojus, the Seminole word for “plenty”. Though the distance between Captain Fulfords homestead and Ojus was only around a mile, with poor road conditions and the constraints of transportation at the time this distance was not easy to traverse. In the early 1900’s they discovered that the rocky foundations of the area were ideal for road construction and many quarrys were established around the area, which created several small lakes in the area, especially in the Sky Lake area.
In 1912, Lafe Allen came to South Florida and purchased over 500 acres of land, including Captain Fulfords original lot. He planned to build a perfect city, with 80 foot wide residential streets and 125 foot wide commercial streets. Some of the streets now are laid out according to his plans, with his Fulford Boulevard now known as Northeast 172nd Street and Flagler Boulevard now known as Northeast 19th Avenue.
In the mid 1920’s, Carl Fisher was developing Miami Beach. He wanted to make Miami the winter racing capital of the world and so had the Fulford-Miami Speedway, the fastest speedway in the world, built at the north end of what is todays NE 19th Avenue. The speedway hosted 20,000 spectators at its first and only event before being destroyed by a hurricane in 1926. The hurricane ended the South Florida land boom and devastated the area. In this time of hardship, the local residents came together as the Town of Fulford and were incorporated in 1927 as the City of Fulford. At the time, parts of the beach in Sunny Isles Beach were part of the City of Fulford. In 1931, the state authorized a new charter for the city, renaming it North Miami Beach to capitalize on the growing fame and popularity of Miami Beach. By 1933 there was a council of 5 with a mayor as the capital head. In 1936, renovations began on the Fulford By-the-Sea power plant building on NE 19th Ave and NE 170th St as the new cite of City Hall.
IN the 1950s and 1960s, the completion of State Road 826 made North Miami Beach much more accessible to Americans in other parts of the country. During the 1980’s the city began to focus on development of the city, beginning to do neighborhood construction improvements in 2000. During this time, the city adopted the motto “Where People Care”.
Unlike Little Havana or Doral, North Miami Beach has no one overwhelming ethnic majority. It is, much like Miami as whole, an epicenter for people of all backgrounds. As of 2018, the total population of North Miami Beach is 45,887 people. The median age of the residents of the neighborhood is 38.5 years old, with 51.7% being female. The median household income for residents of NMB is $40,316, with men usually earning more. The average male income is $58,931 while the average female income is much lower at $44,078. The largest racial group in NMB is black, with a total black population of around 16,900 people. The second largest demographic is Hispanic or Latino with around 16,700 people. Though Miami has not Little Italy or Chinatown, it should be noted that there is a considerable Asian population in North Miami Beach, with 1,420 Asian residents.
One resident of North Miami Beach is Amanda Yamilet Velazquez. Amanda is a black Cuban woman and has lived in the neighborhood since 2015, moving here from Coconut Grove in search of safe, and affordable, housing for her large family of 9. “The neighborhood is quiet and calm, with lots of nice little places to eat and its not that far a drive if you want to go to the more touristy areas. But really the neighborhood has a bit of everything you need, its got lots of markets plus the big stores like Publix and little parks every few streets and the community pool. It’s great,” she says. She enjoys living here because though it is not Miami’s most glamorous neighborhood it is well situated, close enough to the beach to still enjoy it without paying beach front prices or getting stuck in beach front traffic.
City Hall Building & Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater
This beautiful building can be found on NE 19th Avenue and NE 171st St. It doubles as North Miami Beach’s City Hall as well as the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater. The Littman Theater is owned and operated by the City of North Miami Beach. The building was formerly a basketball stadium known as Victory auditorium. It was purchased by the city and renovated, opening its doors as the North Miami Beach Cultural Center in 1994. In 2004, the City recognized Councilman Julius Littman, without whom the Theater would not be there, by renaming it in his honor.
Located at the intersection of NE 23rd Ave and NE 172nd St, the Fulford-By-the-Sea Monument was built in 1925 by the Fulford-By-the-Sea Company. It was meant to be one of 5 similar fountains placed at the access points to the development. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the subsequent end of the Florida land boom meant that the other 4 fountains were never built. The fountain was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Fulford by the Sea Entrance on November 29, 2010. Now it features as the central image on the seal and flag of North Miami Beach.
The Ancient Spanish Monastery & Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux
The Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux began construction in 1133 AD near Segovia, Spain and was completed 1141 AD. After almost 700 years of use, the Monastery’s Cloisters were sold and converted into a granary and stable. In 1925 William Randolph Hearst bought the buildings and had them dismantled into over 11,000 boxes and shipped to the United States. Unfortunately he went bankrupt soon after and the crates stayed in a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York for 26 years until they were once again purchased and finally assembled. It was once again purchased in 1964 by Colonel Robert Pentland who presented it to the Bishop of Florida. Now it is the active congregation of the Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux and holds services in both English and Spanish.
Greynold’s Park is one of the largest parks in North Miami Beach, with several children’s playgrounds, picnic and barbeque areas, volleyball courts, and lots of little trails for a walk through nature. Originally a quarry owned by A. Q. Greynold’s, the Miami-Dade County Parks department made a deal for 110 acres of land to turn into a park in exchange for dedicating it the MR. Greynold’s. It was dedicated in 1936, making it the second oldest park in Miami-Dade County. Entrance to the park is free for everyone.
Snake Creek Park
This small park along the Royal Glades Canal can be found behind the North Miami Beach Public Library. It is host to the Senator Gwen Margolis Amphitheater and sits next to the Patricia A. Mishcon Athletic Field. The park is one of several nestled along the paved walkway that borders the canal, dotted with benches and exercise stations where residents can come to enjoy the fresh air and all the cute little ducks waddling around.
North Miami Beach offers two methods of public transportation. The first is the NMB Line, which are free trolleys that run throughout the city of North Miami Beach. The trolleys run 6 days a week, the only day not running being Sunday, and offer 4 different routes. They also offer real time updates on their free NMB Transit app. The trolleys are air conditioned and also have security cameras for rider safety.
The second method of public transit is the Miami Dade Transit Bus system. Of the numerous routes that take you all over Miami-Dade County, 17 of them take you to and around North Miami Beach. Unfortunately, the lack of Metrorail’s and other more efficient means of public transportation in the area means that most people rely on personal vehicles and traffic on the major roads can be a nightmare.
NMB is host to a variety of cultures and the food in the area reflects this perfectly. There are a myriad of different restaurants, cafes, and shops for any taste. There are a handful of Kosher grocery shops and restaurants in the area around NE 183rd St, where the Skylake Synagogue is located, and a variety of Latin restaurants from countries all over Latin America. I could really go one forever about all the delicious places there are to grab a bite, but I’ll walk you through some of my personal favorites, recommended to me by some of the locals.
El Rinconcito Argentino
This little bakery is definitely one of my favorites. With its decorations of my favorite Argentinian soccer team, River Plate, and its friendly staff it was already winning me over before I even tried the food. The empanadas come in a variety of options and are all delicious and freshly baked every day. Their balcarce cakes and other traditional Argentinean pastries I tried are all excellent, authentic, and fresh. It is a little corner of Argentina hidden in Miami.
Pho Mi 2Go
This is another of those little hidden gems, the kind that I like best. Pho Mi 2Go is a small Vietnamese restaurant about one block up from the Ancient Spanish Monastery. It is family owned and operated, with a small but delicious menu. The locale is small with only a handful of tables, but the pho soup is worth the drive no matter what part of the city you live in. If you don’t want to dine in, you can order over the phone and pick up your food to enjoy it at home.
Blue Marlin Fish House
While not my favorite of the bunch as I am not very big on seafood, the Blue Marlin Fish House cannot be left off the list. The restaurant opened its doors as the Blue Marlin Smoke House in 1938 when it also doubled as a trading post for local fishermen. It was reopened once in 2005 by Florida Parks as Blue Marlin Fish House and is once again reopening in 2020 under new management as the Blue Marlin Fish House Restaurant & Adventures.
The Mall at 163rd
The Mall at 163rd Street was the first regional mall in Florida when it opened its doors in 1956. At the time it was open to the air and boasted many shoppers. The Mall was enclosed in 1982. Today, it is not the shopping hub it might have been in the past, with few people wandering in to the Ross or Sally’s. Its business days are at the beginnings of the MDC public school years when the school uniform shop on one of the higher floors gets lots of local traffic.
As I mentioned before, while Miami does not have a Chinatown, NMB does have a pretty varied selection of different Asian restaurants and businesses. Beijing Mart is one of several Asian markets along NE 163rd St. Despite its name, it has a wide selection of goods from several East Asian countries.
North Miami Beach is an urban, multicultural melting pot of a city. Though it shares a name with its more famous neighbors, it is a city all its own with a variety of people reflected in all aspects of the city. When the city was first constructed, they could not have predicted how it would expand. After doing this project, I have to admit I did not know my city as well as I thought. I have lived in North Miami Beach for around 5 years and though I knew somethings like the great places to eat and where some of the local parks were, I had never stopped to wonder what the fountain on NE 172nd St was or what the old stone building in front of my favorite Vietnamese restaurant was. One way I do think the neighborhood should improve is transportation. Because all the available transport is packed into small 2 or 3 lane streets and it is all buses/trolleys or cars, traffic during rush hour can be a nightmare to get through. One thing that I do really like about the neighborhood is how many small businesses there are all over and how close they are to the residential areas. It is perfectly feasible to walk from your home to any of the business areas.
Gabriela Lastra is currently a senior at the Florida International University Honors College, majoring in Criminal Justice and applying to law school. She spent the summer of 2019 traveling in Europe, first on a study abroad trip in Italy with Professor John W Bailly and then on her own in Spain. Having moved to Miami in middle school, she is unfamiliar with much of the local history of both the city and the state and jumped at the opportunity to learn a unique facet of it through Professor Bailly’s unique Miami in Miami course. She hopes to continue traveling and never stop learning about all the amazing things that are hidden on all corners of the world for those who look further than skin deep.
Overtown is the second oldest neighborhood in Miami. It carries remnants of its glory days in the early 20th century when it was the Black cultural center of Miami, dubbed “Little Broadway” for its numerous restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs which littered the area. The neighborhood fell into disrepair after the 1960’s and the building of the I-95 which runs straight through the center of the neighborhood. In recent decades it has begun to pick up speed in its redevelopment as well being recognized as a historic treasure. There is still an extremely long way to go however before this neighborhood can even begin to approach what it once was. Empty lots can be seen on every block and dozens of homeless men and women take shelter under the arches of the overpass. Residents who remember the glory days doubt that the magic of that era can ever be recaptured. Even if everything were rebuilt, you can never replicate the right people coming together in the right way at exactly the right time.
Overtown is a small neighborhood roughly bound to the West
by the Miami River and the Dolphin Expressway (SR 836), as well as the I-95
after it intersects the Dolphin Expressway. To the East it is hemmed in by North
West First Avenue and the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), likely on purpose
considering the origins of Overtown and its direct history relating with Henry
Morrison Flagler’s railroad. To the South, North West Fifth Street marks the boundary
until it intersects with the Miami River on one side and North West First
Avenue on the other. The Northern edge is roughly marked by North West Twentieth
Street until it meets the FEC and the I-95.
On July 28th of 1896, Miami became a city. Before that, few people were living so far south in the swampy environment of South Florida. In 1892, Henry Morrison Flagler began construction in the Florida East Coast Railway. Years later when he and Julia DeForest Tuttle, an American businesswoman who owned the land Miami was built on, decided to have Miami incorporated they needed more votes by law. Since there were few people living in Miami and of those only men could vote, the solution Flagler proposed was this: the black men who worked on his railroad would be given the right to vote in this particular election. Thus, Miami was incorporated and one-third of the original inhabitants were black. At the time, however, it was illegal for black men to own or rent property in white neighborhoods. Instead, all the men who had been used to incorporate Miami were immediately segregated to an area west of the railroad tracks and adjacent to downtown Miami. This neighborhood became known first as Colored Town, and then later as Overtown. In this area settled the people who worked on the railroad, but also those who serviced the streets and hotels of the area. As immigration from the Caribbean began arriving in Miami, more Afro-Caribbean’s settled in Overtown. The Black community there thrived. Business owners ranged from general goods and services to doctors and lawyers. This was the area known as “Little Broadway”. Most businesses here were owned and operated by people of color. Other black people from Coconut Grove and Lemon City would come to Overtown to shop and enjoy the entertainment of the area as well as do business. It was a prosperous time and the hotels of the neighborhood hosted people like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal and W.E.B. Dubois, artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sam Cook, and many others. Overtown was a flourishing place with music and life bustling on every street corner. Famous black artists performed in hotels and clubs on Miami Beach but were not allowed to stay overnight. They would make their way over town, which is how we got the name, to Overtown to play and jam in the lively jazz clubs of the city before retiring to one of the many famous hotels the lined the streets. In this thriving time, where people came from all over to bask the in vivaciousness of the Harlem of the South, black musicians and business owners thrived. It was a moment in the sun, a musical mecca, and everyone who came to Miami knew that Overtown was the place to be. This golden renaissance came to an end in the 1960s with the building of the interstate.
In the 1950s and 1960s the government was pushing expansions of the Interstate 95 as part of a national urban-planning idea that used President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act. The original plan was for the highway to be built east of Overtown, along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. White business owners in downtown as well as the city’s chamber of commerce opposed this idea and instead pushed for it to be built along Northwest Seventh Avenue, right through the heart of Overtown. At the time there was hardly, if any, black political influence and of course no one asked for the neighborhood residents’ input on this idea. The plan went through with barely any opposition, even though local officials were well aware that they would be devastating the grand majority of the citizens in the neighborhood. Families living in this neighborhood would get surprise letters in the mail telling them they had 6 to 8 weeks to uproot their lives and get out of the neighborhood. Around 40,000 people lived in Overtown at the time. The government deemed the effects of the interstate project minimal when compared to profits and offered no assistance to those forced to relocate citing expenses as the reason. Over 80% of the people living in Overtown were forced to relocate. The bustling center of black culture and progress was devastated. The neighborhood fell into disrepair and neglect. The only building still standing from its Little Broadway days is the Lyric Theatre which was purchased by the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc., restored and reopened in 2000. Numerous projects have been undertaken to restore this low-income neighborhood of only 9,000 residents to what it once was. Although some little progress has been made in reestablishing Overtown as a place of rich culture and history, many residents who remember the glory days say you can’t ever recreate that magic of organic growth and the right people coming together at the right time.
While visiting Overtown I spoke with Mrs. Beatriz Urdsneta, who has lived in Overtown for 5 years. She had much to say about the neighborhood and the people. When she first moved everyone told her it was too dangerous and that this neighborhood was a bad place to live. She has found that she disagrees. The people are nice and friendly. There is a lot of poverty and a lot of crime, but if you don’t bother people they won’t bother you. “The problema of this neighborhood are the problems of any neighborhood, people just see them more obviously here,” she said to me, “People here are a little rough but they’re good people. The public transportation is excellent. The schools could be better. It’s just a neighborhood like any other.”
As of 2000, the population of Overtown exceeded 10,000 people. The population of Overtown according to the 2010 census was just over 6,700 and was projected to continue dropping. The exact population is somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 people. It has always been and continues to be a predominantly black neighborhood, with anywhere between 60% to 70% of the population being of African-American or Afro-Caribbean descent, and around 20% are Hispanic or Latino. As far as gender, there is a roughly equal distribution of men and women, though the women outnumber the men by less than 1%. The median age in Overtown is a little higher than in the rest of Miami, hovering around 42 years old. The average income is around $13,000 per household with over 60% of the neighborhood earning less than 25,000 per household.
The Lyric Theater
Though it was first built in 1913 by Geder Walker, after his death in 1919 his wife Henrietta took over running the theater. At the time the neighborhood was known as “Little Broadway” for the numerous hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs that littered the area. For 50 years it was a symbol of pride and economic influence in the black community as well as the center of culture. When Overtown began to deteriorate in the 1960’s the Lyric Theater shut down, until 1988 when The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. acquired the theater and had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2000, it finally opened its doors once again to the public. It is the only surviving building from “Little Broadway” and is the oldest legitimate theater in Miami.
Dorsey Memorial Library
The Dorsey Memorial Library was built in 1941. It was the first city-owned building constructed for the specific purpose of being a library. The land on which it was built was donated by the person for which it was named, just 15 days before his death. Dana A. Dorsey was one of Miami’s most prominent black businessmen as well as a philanthropist. His library was only the second in Miami built for the use of African-Americans.
Black Police Precinct & Courthouse Museum
Miami hired its first black police officers in 1944 and due to segregation they spent six years struggling without a locale of their own. They were finally given their own precinct house, jail, and courthouse in Overtown. When Miami integrates in 1963 the precinct house closed down and became a historical landmark of the time of segregation. Now it stands as a museum that offers tours of this countries struggles with racism, which have yet to truly end.
Being so close to Downtown Miami there aren’t any parks of significant size with abundant nature in Overtown. There are however a couple of smaller parks of not. The biggest one is Gibson Park on NW 12th Street. It has a full football field as well as a baseball diamond and an Olympic size swimming pool. It has cute rainbow colored benches and was renovated in 2012. The other park of note is Henry Reeves Park on NW 10th Street. It is a small park just big enough for two small basketball courts and a small playground for children to play in. These places are gathering sites for the community and children and young adults can be found here by the dozen playing basketball games and enjoying the small green spaces found.
Transportation in this area is good when compared with the rest of the city. The Miami Metro has a stop right here, next to the Lyric Theater, and the trolleys run through the area with frequency and are free to everyone. There are buses that pass through regularly and the neighborhood is small enough that it lends itself to walking. Many residents can be seen biking, rather than driving, to grocery stores and local shops.
Soul food is one of the numerous treasures to come out of the African-American community. It is delicious and enjoyed in all corners of the country. Here in the Historic Overtown district, there is no shortage of delicious places to eat, and the influence of the people is certainly felt. Places of note include the famous Jackson’s Soul Food.
Jackson’s Soul Food is a family owned establishment dating back to 1946, where it started as Mama’s Cafe run by Jessie and Demas Jackson. Today, Jackson’s has some of the best soul food around. The place is small but the food is as scrumptious as it is filling!
Another notable place to eat is Lil Greenhouse Grill. Once again, its hard to get food like this outside of Overtown. With their homemade food and attention to hospitality, it’s impossible not to feel welcome in this small but amazing restaurant!
Overtown was once a mecca of music, bustling with jazz clubs and nightlife. Today, the businesses of Overtown are much more quiet. What you see most are little mini marts, liquor stores, and grocery stores. As efforts to revitalize the neighborhood continue, places like the Copper Door B&B hang on to bring back the Harlem of the South.
Overtown is an incredible neighborhood. It has so much history hidden away in its corners, and so much still to offer. Its Golden Age was cut short, but a Renaissance is in the works. Its public transportation is better than in most other areas of the city, and the work of the Black Archives to restore and revitalize the neighborhood is admirable. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without running into some new fascinating historical site. However, the neighborhood is more than just old and rundown. The social and economic consequences of the Interstate 95 are still felt deeply by this neighborhood. Schools in this area are some of the lowest rated in the city, infamous for their lack of quality. Driving under the overpass, there are whole streets filled with people huddled in tents and cardboard boxes with all of their belongings piled next to them. These people need help. A city can only be as prosperous as its least prosperous citizens, and that is where change should start.
This semester in Professor Bailly’s Miami in Miami class has been a journey and an adventure. I have learned so much, about my city as well myself. As part of the community, in this class we are encouraged to give back. We go to Chicken Key in Biscayne Bay and do a beach cleanup and we are also asked to do an independent service project. My project ended up being in the one area I was mostly uninterested in coming in: contemporary art. Professor John Bailly is himself a painter at a local gallery, LnS GALLERY run by Sergio Cernuda and Luisa Lignarolo, which focuses on showcasing contemporary art by local Miami artists. On November 16th I volunteered at the opening night of Professor Bailly’s first solo exhibition, THE ROSES OF FIBONACCI. I arrived early and was instructed by Sofia Guerra, the curator of the Project Room, on what my duties for the night would be. After walking around and getting to enjoy the works on display for a while, the people started arriving. I put on my gloves and spent the night showing those who came into the room the works stored in the drawers and answering questions as best I could or directing them to Sofia when I could not. It was honestly an incredible night. Everyone who came in was so fundamentally different and the way they viewed the works was shaped by their differences. Seeing the works through their eyes and listening to all the different questions I could be asked about the same piece made me see them differently myself. So captivated I was by this brand new world I was beginning to appreciate that for the second part of my service project I chose to venture in once more, this time at a much larger venue.
UNTITLED, Art. is one of the fairs that comes once a year for Miami’s Art week. It hosts exhibitions of dozens of galleries from all around the world and gets over 20,000 visitors a day over the week. Though Miami Art Week is a place for both the old and the new, UNTITLED, Art. focuses on contemporary works. I had already decided to volunteer at the fair before I had seen it. When we did visit as a class, I was fascinated by the entire experience. I could not wait to go back. On December 7th I arrived in the morning to find the place already buzzing with activity. My role for the day was meant to be assisting at the Press Desk, where journalists and writers checked in. At fist I helped to make the press passes and translated when a few Spanish speaking journalists came up and the two Press Desk employees had communication problems. After a while I was asked to help by going to the back offices and getting packets out of storage. Later in the afternoon when another volunteer at the fair failed to show up on time, I was asked to cover her spot. I was placed in front of the door where the art works were stored and told the code for the door. I was to make sure that only authorized personnel came in and took art works from the room and that they signed each work out. It was an enormous responsibility and while I was at first quite nervous, I enjoyed it a lot. I got to see many of the works that were not being displayed and I had the privilege of speaking with the artists and gallery directors who came in and out of the storage room. It was without a doubt the most interesting responsibility I’ve ever had. I can say with total honesty that the course of my life has been irrevocably changed. I am applying to law school this winter and after these experiences, I am no longer sure of exactly which area of law I want to practice. What I do know is that I am not ready to leave the incredible world of art. Art is a way for people to reach out to each other, to express themselves and take in the world around us.
My name is Gabriela Lastra and I am currently a senior in Florida International University’s Honors College. I am majoring in Criminal Justice and hope to pursue a career in law, focusing on civil litigation and commercial law. I was born in Cuba but came to the United States as a child. I lived in various places before finally moving to Miami in 2010. I have always loved to travel and spend time outdoors. I always thought Miami wasn’t all its cracked up to be, but after my recent experiences with Study Abroad Italia, I realize the face of the city that visitors see is not all there is if you just know how to look. Despite living here for nearly a decade, I know there is so much of Miami that I have yet to discover and I am excited to be able to see this city in a whole new light throughout this course.
Metro as Text
Miami is a melting pot of a city, with dozens of cultures
living side by side and mixing a little more every day. I have friends from all
corners of the world and yet we still live, as Professor Bailly puts it, in our
little bubbles. Communities group together, the Cubans in Little Havana, the
Venezuelans in Doral. In the near-decade I’ve lived in Miami, not once did it
occur to me to ride the Metrorail. I have a car, and before I did my parents
drove me everywhere. I had no need of it and so no idea of the things I was
missing. When people think of Miami, they think of the Miami James Deering
presented to his guests at Vizcaya: beautiful and polished and on the cusp of
eternal summer. It is crazy to think that in all my years in Miami, I’d never
before been to Overtown unless I was driving through on my way somewhere else.
I remember my grandfather in the back seat warning not to stop in this part of
town, though I’m sure he had seen even less of it than I. I couldn’t believe
the Lyric Theater has been open in Miami since 1913, through an age of
segregation and discrimination, and I’d never even heard of it before. There’s
an incredible community with a rich cultural history thriving around the metro,
from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens with its very own stop to Northside with a
mural by Purvis Young, a street artist whose career began in the 1970s in
Overtown painting scenes from the things he observed around him. There is so
much of Miami that I don’t know, so many facets I don’t even know are there. In
a single day, the way I think about my city has changed. I can’t wait to see
what more there is to find.
Downtown as Text
Downtown Miami is like no other part of the city. It is an eclectic mix of ultra-modern glass skyscrapers and the façades of old buildings only a handful of stories tall. In some parts, the sidewalks are broad to allow foot traffic for people to walk along the center of their city. In most parts, they are narrow barely able to accommodate two people side by side. The mix-mash of Miami is a product of its history. As a city, it is not very old, only a little over 120 years since Henry Flagler brought his railroad down looking for unfrozen citrus crops. It sprung up from the mangroves and swamps and grew at a rate its original inhabitants could never have predicted. Miami is a city of promise and progress, but like all of history, it has its darker aspect. In a little area of green nestled along the Miami River is Lummus Park. It is quiet and empty, and on its green grass sit two old buildings, one of wood and another of stone. In a way, these buildings encompass the true essence of not just Miami, but our country as a whole. The long single-room stone building was named Fort Dallas by the soldiers who used it as barracks during the Seminole Wars, a people who had lived here long before them and whom they had driven from their lands. Before it was part of Fort Dallas however it was something different: a plantations slave quarters. And the irony doesn’t end there for after the army no longer needed it, this building which housed an untold number of people who were viewed as less than human and treated worse than cattle became the first courthouse in Miami. And then? It lay forgotten and empty, on a little known park in the heart of a city which grows and changes and yet stays exactly the same. And isn’t that ironic?
Deering Estate as Text
The Deering Estate is a treasure trove of hidden secrets. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been in there before, every time there is something new to find and marvel at, from the antiquities of times gone past to the spicy, burnt garlic taste of the guinea hen weed. When I think of the habitats of Florida I think of the marshy Everglades and sandy beaches. Rarely do I remember the Pine Rocklands and all the incredible diversity they sustain. The Tequesta lived on these lands for 10,000 years before the Europeans came to the Americas. Now, there isn’t a single word of their language recorded anywhere in the world and all that they left behind are graves and shattered fossils. Most of this I knew already, from past visits to the Estate. Shards of tools made of conch shells bigger than any we get today are scattered throughout the land, in the huge treacherous solution holes dotting the property. From those pieces, we learn about these people, our geographic ancestors. From colorful pieces of pottery, no bigger than a quarter, we know that the Tequesta traded with other native tribes as far north as the state of Michigan, as the color of the tiles comes from ore deposits found there. It is incredibly sad how little there is left of these people, and even sadder how the little we know is rarely common knowledge.
One thing emphasized in class is the fact that though we are not related to the Tequesta people, they are the ones who lived on this land before us and in a way, they are our geographic ancestors. In the course of the day, something that was said stuck with me and has lingered in my thoughts since then. When the Europeans came to Florida, they brought with them diseases that devastated Native American populations. Those who survived were often taken captive and sold into slavery. This was the fate of the Tequesta. In particular, the Tequesta were taken and sold into slavery on an island in the Caribbean: Cuba. To those of us who live in Florida, the Tequesta are our geographic ancestors but a significant portion of the people in South Florida are Cuban immigrants or the descendants of Cuban immigrants. It is possible then that to some of us, myself included, the Tequesta are more than just geographic ancestors. In a way, it’s like they finally made it back to their ancestral lands, or at least I’d like to think so.
Chicken Key as Text
Chicken Key is a small island right off the coast of the Deering Estate in Biscayne Bay, about a mile and a half out. The morning we were set to go dawned hot and sunny, and after a day of a nonstop downpour, there were no more than a few lazy clouds drifting slowly across an azure sky. Out in the distance, the water glittered, giving the impression that the ocean and sky blended into one or that you could simply fall off the edge of the world. As we made our way out to the island, most of us for the first time and many lacking experience on canoes, we followed Professor Bailly into a channel cutting through the mangroves. It didn’t seem so bad at first if you could ignore the distinctly unpleasant odor of wetlands and marshes. The water was dark and muddy and not too deep, just enough for the canoes to smoothly glide through the roots of the mangroves if you could avoid getting tangled in them. Of course, being as inexperienced as we were that’s the first thing that happened to my canoe and the one right behind me, bringing up the rear. By the time we were beginning to get the hang of it we had fallen far behind and were beginning to realize we had a problem: the tide was going down. Every time we got stuck, the water level went down a little more and our professor was a distant figure, at first occasionally glimpsed through the branches and then not at all. Soon enough the tide was so low that the canoes couldn’t stay afloat. Even if they could, the space between the mangrove roots was so narrow the canoes no longer fit through them. We were well and truly stuck unless we got over our disgust and hopped out of the canoes and into the blackish smelly water.
We trekked through the marsh, having to lift and push the canoes sideways through tight spots and over roots, slipping and sliding through the slippery mud. In the sticky oppressive heat, we marched on, occasionally falling victim to huge sinkholes hidden under the water, impossible to see until you had stepped into one and sunk to your chest, grabbing onto hanging branches to pull ourselves out and getting our fingers pinched by crabs. Our legs were scratched by branches hidden under the water and the mosquitoes were out en masse. The 5 of us who had been stranded out there sang songs and joked to keep our spirits up as we began to get dehydrated and the canoes filled with the brackish water, covering all our stuff and even all of my food for the day in the pungent muddy water. We had to stop to catch our breath, my chest getting tight with the beginning signs of my asthma acting up. Simply getting through the mangrove marsh took us two grueling hours. As we approached the end, the clear freshwater springs allowed us to hop back into the canoes and gladly paddle the rest of the way. We had made it when the trek had seemed interminable. From somewhere deep inside us, we had found the strength to push through. We were survivors, and we are stronger and closer for it.
When we finally made it to Chicken Key, muddy and exhausted but having had a truly unique experience, we finally got to the main event: trash clean up. Chicken Key is covered in the detritus of everything that falls into the Bay. We found dozens of pairs of shoes, chairs, pool floats, plastic buckets. There were enough glass bottles to fill a whole canoe and with our 10 canoes, there was still so much we couldn’t carry. We returned to the mainland exhausted, but having done something, however small, to help preserve our precious and endangered ocean and every moment was worth it, an unforgettable experience.
Wynwood as Text
I have always known Wynwood to be the neighborhood of the artists and the hipsters. It is littered with little galleries, trendy restaurants, and of course the famous Wynwood Murals. It is well known as a neighborhood for the young and artistic, hosting some truly incredible collections of contemporary art. The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, which we were privileged to go and receive a tour of from Mr. Martin Z. Margulies himself, is an incredible deposit of some of the greatest works of contemporary art. As soon as you walk in, there is a gorgeous Frank Stella work full of colors and three-dimensional pieces. Miami is a city of modernity and mixing cultures and from the merging of cultures comes the birth of creativity. Contemporary art is not something I’m very familiar with or particularly interested in, but I have never been to a contemporary art exhibit like this one. Every single piece was beautiful and captivating. I will admit to being drawn more to pieces with story and significance like those at the De Las Cruz Collection. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a name I did not know before and now I’m unlikely to forget it. Every single piece captivated me, from his “31 Days of Bloodwork” to his pile of his father’s favorite candy. What the De La Cruz and the Margulies families are doing is the work of modern-day heroes. They collect these beautiful works of art and then open their homes and lives to the public, not for any kind of profit but simply for the joy of sharing something beautiful with people who might otherwise never get the chance. The De La Cruz family offer scholarships and during art Basel week, literally open the doors of their home for people to come in and marvel at all the beauty they have collected. If being willing to share such incredible gifts with the world simply because it is a kind thing to do, with no benefit to themselves whatsoever, does not make you a hero I don’t know what does.
HistoryMiami as Text
The HistoryMiami Museum is located in the heart of the city, directly across from both the Miami Dade Public Library’s Main Branch as well as the Government Center Metro station. The Museum itself is one of the largest history museums in South Florida, with its permanent exhibit spanning around 10,000 years of human occupation on the peninsula. The exhibit, “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida”, covers everything from prehistoric settlements of the original inhabitants to modern-day history. We were lucky enough to receive a tour by HistoryMiami Educator Maria Moreno, who not only took us around and gave an amazing tour but was honest. She didn’t gloss over problematic parts of history and she didn’t sugarcoat the areas where the museum was lacking. The entire history of slavery in Florida was a single display, tucked into a corner next to the section on pirates in the Caribbean.
History, as they say, is written by the victors. It is not nearly as surprising as it should be that that was all there was. No one paid attention to slaves and records are few and colored through the lens of white supremacy. And yet, the HistoryMiami Museum has acknowledged this problem of erasure in the history of marginalized groups and is working to correct it. As we walked further, we came upon an image of black workers from Flagler’s railroad, the men who were given the right to vote only long enough to have Miami incorporated and then were immediately segregated to “Colored Town”. This image is one I thought about long after we left. We have been to several incredible historic cites throughout the course of this class and one thing that was very common is that most of the names of the people who actually worked on the railroads or built the beautiful villas at Vizcaya and the Deering Estate, mostly people of color and immigrants from the Caribbean, were all but forgotten, their names lost forever in favor of the white men who benefited from their labor sometimes at the cost of their lives. This picture, however, was different. Underneath the picture hanging on the wall was a laminated sheet of paper with the title “Black Pioneers of Miami”. It was a list of names of the 12 men in the picture. They were not forgotten. It was and amazing exhibit, engaging and vibrant with so much to look at I could stand there for days and still go back to take in every detail.
Miami Art as Text
“The More Things Change” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at UNTITLED, Art.
Miami Art Week is one of the busiest weeks in Miami. People stream in from the world over to enjoy, buy, and sell art at any of the numerous fairs the spread from Miami Beach all over the sunny city. Works by artists from our very own city are displayed alongside those from as far as Ghana. People from all walks of life come to enjoy this once a year treat, around 83,000 people at Art Basel in 2018 from renowned celebrities to local college students and everything in between. Our visit begins at UNTITLED, Art, a gallery known for its contemporary focus. It is a sprawling white tent right on the sand in Miami’s most iconic neighborhood, South Beach. It hosts collections from galleries in various countries and a plethora of artists. We had the opportunity to speak with several gallery directors, including some local and some from very far away. Most notable in my mind were exhibits by Sapar Contemporary featuring works by Faig Ahmed and Gallery 1957 featuring works by Joana Choumali and Godfried Donkor. These artists gripped my attention because though each was displayed as contemporary artists, their works were not at all what I picture when I think of contemporary art.
“Coherency” by Faig Ahmed is a gorgeously woven carpet, steeped in the tradition and history of it’s medium and yet with its unique shape one cannot say that it is anything but contemporary. Similarly, Godfried Donkor’s “St Muhammad” with its oil and gold leaf halo on linen calls immediately to mind the flat disc halos of medieval art, before artists learned to show perspective in their paintings. His subject matter, however, is most definitely a modern figure, infamous boxer Muhammad Ali. Joana Choumali’s “Sometimes I wonder if they can hear it as well” is a gorgeous 2 by 1-meter mixed media digital photo printed on cotton canvas and then embroidered with chiffon and tulle. Three very different artists expressing modern, relevant ideas using very traditional mediums and techniques so very different from the chrome and glass and led lights that come to mind when I hear the word contemporary. In the constantly changing landscape of Miami, these traditional mediums almost juxtapose the past and present, to say nothing of the incredible stories they tell beyond a surface level perusal. Donkor’s works particularly are callbacks to the brutality of bare-knuckle slave boxing in the British colonies where a slave could fight his way to freedom, not unlike the often-disdained brutal ways of the Roman Coliseum. We think we have come so far and learned so much, that the past is so far behind us. We always do. Sometimes I think there are yet things we could stand to learn from the past. With all our modernity and advancements, we are so set in our ways. Our planet is dying around us and people refuse to change, to act. Its time for a new Renaissance of an entirely different kind, to learn from the past and change, to attempt to save our future. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and try to do better now.
Everglades as Text
“What are we conserving?” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Everglades National Park
The Everglades is the widest river in the world, nearly 60 miles from shore to shore at its widest point. The River of Grass is vast and unfathomable, with so much left untouched deep at its center. With over 1.5 million acres it is easy to see how a person could wander in and never come out. The morning of our visit dawned crisp and clear, colder still when compared to the unseasonably hot January it had been. As we stepped into the crystalline freezing water, it became clouded by our footsteps. Everywhere we walked we stirred up the settled silt, broke up the spongy periphyton that grew everywhere you looked. Our guide for the day, Ranger Dylan and several of her colleagues guided us expertly over the deceptive prairie-like marsh, towards what many might confuse for a round island out on the water. This particular “island”, she tells us, gets its name because it used to be two that eventually met in the middle. The Double Dome, however, is not an island. At the center of the trees, right where they are tallest, is actually where the water is deepest, a gator hole. As we walk, Ranger Dylan tells us about the park and the species found hidden in the sun-dappled waters and cool shade where the Bromeliads bloom. Conservation of nature is something very recent in the grand scheme of things. Everglades national park was only established in 1947, but people have lived on the Florida Peninsula for thousands of years, and our presence has had a not insignificant influence in the changes to the landscape. The question then is what exactly are we preserving? Do we preserve the everglades as they are now, or as they were in 1947? Have we missed our chance entirely? We kill the snakes and the lizards because they are invasive, they ruin the natural landscape and are creepy-crawling-cold but what of the feral cats who eat our native birds? What about coyotes who wandered into the everglades naturally, filling an existing niche left behind by the extinct wolves and diminishing panthers? There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. Everyone has an opinion and how can we determine what the right answer is?
South Beach as Text
“Façade” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at South Beach
Miami is a city of affectations and façades, and no part of Miami embodies this more perfectly than its most famous neighborhood: South Beach. South Beach has long been the iconic face of Miami, with its long stretch of beach and small brightly colored buildings. The characteristic style of the area is called Art Deco, a movement which debuted in Paris in the early 1920’s before making its way to Miami. At the time Miami was barely a city, having only been incorporated in 1896. The style it took in Miami of pastel buildings and water motifs is evident all along Ocean Drive. The Art Deco Historic District is composed of over 900 buildings built between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. In the 1980’s colorful South Beach was all but abandoned, and its unique buildings almost demolished. Now, the entire area is on the National Register of Historic Places and any new buildings built must comply with very strict restrictions, imitating the style of the older buildings to blend in with the skyline.
South Beach has been host to a people as varied and colorful as its appearance. In the early days of South Beaches glory, Black jazz musicians would come fill the bars at South Beach, drawing all kinds of crowds, but they were not permitted to stay in the hotels at which they played. Later South Beach became a haven for the colorful LGBTQ+ community of Miami, hosting the first pride parade in Miami in 1972. Now, though the street signs bear pride flags much of what made South Beach a refuge for the community has changed, geared more towards tourism than anything else.
Lotus House as Text
“Community” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Lotus House Shelter
The Lotus House Shelter, located in the heart of the historic district of Overtown Miami, opened its doors in 2006. It is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to help women and mothers with small children who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. The facility has grown from house to village in the 14 years since its doors opened, helping countless of women with counseling programs, job training, and even a thrift shop where the guests of the village can work. In fact, the thrift shop is managed and operated exclusively by Lotus House guests and alumni. In the midst of the Covid-19 world health crisis, sanitation is a vital part of our everyday lives. At the Lotus House this is doubly true, with dozens of women and children coming and going every day, using the same rooms, and eating in the same places. Operation of the shelter in this difficult time is essential and the job of keeping it clean is constant. It’s a very large facility, with community rooms, yoga, acupuncture, a hair and nail salon, and even play and art areas for the children. To be able to come here and help was a privilege and an inspiration for all of us who participated. Every part of the running of the Lotus Village is important, from the storage rooms to the kitchen. It truly helps the people who come through those doors, seeing as most of the people who we met working there are alumni of the Lotus Village who were able to use their experiences there to help them build a better life.
On this occasion, where the Miami in Miami class took the time to give back to the community, I was on the sanitation team, cleaning the handles of doors, chairs and sofas, and even the trashcans. Everywhere that anyone could possibly put their hands on has to be sanitized to avoid the spread of any illnesses in a place with so many women, and especially children. Others from the class volunteered in the kitchen, helping to serve and pack lunch for over 200 guests. The entire day was an eye-opening experience. We have done community service before in this class, but this one was unique. Where the Chicken Key cleanups are helping the world in general, here at the Lotus House we had direct contact with the people we were helping. We got to see firsthand the impact of our actions, and it was an extremely rewarding experience.
The Deering Estate as Text
The Midden and Pine Rockland Habitat (Left) and the Tequesta Burial Mound (Right) (Photos by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0)
« Secrets » by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at The Deering Estate
The Deering Estate is Miami’s jewel, perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay. It is around 450 acres of beautiful Miami nature, Miami as it was before the Europeans came and devastated everything in their path. There are signs of people living on the Estate lands for 10,000 continuous years, long before the Europeans set foot in this part of the world. The Estate has a million secrets hidden along its trails, including the midden where signs of Tequesta habitation lay scattered in shell tools all along the ground and the Tequesta Burial, where Miami’s true natives buried their dead. The Tequesta people were the original residents of the Deering Estate, but today there are only faint traces of them left. The Estate owes its name to Charles Deering, a wealthy industrialist from Chicago who purchased the local inn, the Richmond Cottage, and the surrounding lands in 1916, and built his Stone House to house his extensive art collection. Deering was a conservationist as well as an art collector, and it is thanks to him that we have this preserved area with several Miami habitats found over the land, including pine Rocklands, tropical hardwood hammocks, and mangrove swamps. The Estate also runs along the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, known locally as the Miami Rock Ridge, a natural elevated rock formation that runs from South Dade and the Everglades all the way to New York.
The Deering Estate preserves both the natural landscape and the man-made structures of 1920’s Miami. A walk through its shady trails reveals the incredible diversity found in South Florida, so much of it lost now to human habitation. Places like the Deering Estate are precious and rare, containing thousands of years of history from the Cutler Fossil Cite to the wreck of a Cocaine Cowboys plane being slowly reclaimed by nature. The Estate is a link to our past; a historical, environmental, and cultural treasure. So much of Florida’s natural habitats have been destroyed and its species lost, but it is never to late to do your part for preservation.
Quarantine as Text
« Living History » by Gabriela Lastra of FIU in Quarantine
There is a curse which seems appropriate in these times, which I am sure we have all heard often enough recently: May you live in interesting times.
Today is my 47th day in quarantine since the COVID-19 global pandemic forced Miami-Dade County to shut down. On March 11th of 2019 FIU announced that in addition to the canceling of all summer study abroad programs, it would be moving to remote learning, effective immediately, until April 4th. As April 4th got nearer, the pandemic only got worse. The university announced that remote learning would extend until the end of the Spring semester, and graduation would be cancelled. This is the part that affected me the most, as I am a senior this year and was meant to have graduated yesterday, April 25th.
COVID-19 which is commonly known as the Corona Virus first appeared in Wuhan, China around November. In just a few short months it had spread to every corner of the world, killing thousands. It has changed the world we live in, with paranoia and suspicion on the faces of everyone you see. The grocery store shelfs are empty of essentials more often than not, and the crops rot in the fields with no one to harvest or deliver them. The whole country has been paralyzed. It feels like a surreal nightmare, like something out of a movie and not something that can really be happening in real life. Because I suffer from severe asthma, my family has been extra paranoid and I have not left my house, even to go to the grocery store, more than two or three times in the almost two months since the quarantine began.
I suppose things have not been all bad. Despite the fear and uncertainty, the incalculable losses, and the economic difficulties that seem to loom ahead, I can’t remember ever spending so much time with my family before. We are closer than ever, and we have taken the time to stop and appreciate all the ways we have been blessed in our lives. The planet too has had unexpected benefits. The reduced human activity has allowed animals a chance to breath and recuperate.
It is difficult to know what lies ahead or how much longer this will last. Everyone is talking about the corona virus all the time, but the predictions keep constantly changing. There is one thing I know for sure and it is this: we are witnessing living history.
The Grand Tour is the traditional end of a young, wealthy gentleman’s
schooling. I never even dreamed it was something I could do. I am the absolute
furthest thing from a typical participant of the grand tour. Rather than wealthy
white men, my Grand Tour was a group of low to middle class Latin American women,
and a couple of boys for variety. And yet, because of this dichotomy I believe the
experience was so much more rewarding for us than it could possibly have been
for them. It has been a month of learning and surviving. I have cried and been
struck silent, in awe of the absolute beauty human hands have created.
When thinking about my project, it was difficult to structure. How could I choose only one aspect of such incredibly diverse cities to talk about? In the end, I chose one subject per city and still I feel there is too much to say.
What is a legacy? According to the dictionary, it is a gift or a bequest that is handed down, endowed, or conveyed from one person to another. It is something discernible one comes into possession of that is transmitted, inherited or received from a predecessor. A legacy is how you are remembered, the stories and memories left when you are gone. To the ancient Romans, a legacy was everything. Really, we are not so different. As I walked through the streets of Rome, I think of what I have done that matters. I know I am still young, and I have so much time. And yet, Michelangelo was only 24 when he finished the Pieta, widely regarded as one of his best works, and still proudly displayed in the Vatican today. It is intimidating to think how much he accomplished at such a young age. At the start of this trip I was only 18 years old and I am nowhere near accomplishing anything so grand as the Pieta.
What is Rome? Rome was an empire vast and unending and now, a city filled with people who have nothing but a passing resemblance to the Romans of old beyond geographic location. They walk in the ruins of the glistening marble city it was once. And yet Rome is very much alive in the hearts and lives of the people who so casually sit on the chunks of ancient marble and walk past the looming remnants of the great and terrible. There is a sense of connection between the Romans of today and the figures of the past. Julius Cesar, Marc Antony, Hadrian. As I stroll through the charming streets of Trastevere, where the young adults of the city congregate at its many bars and restaurants, I think about the things left of people when they are gone. As the sun neared setting, I followed the sounds of a church bell an came across a rather plain facade that led into a quaint little courtyard with what in Rome is a modest sized church at the end. This is Saint Cecilia in Trastevere. I remembered Saint Cecilia, from a brief mention when exploring the catacombs near the Apia Antica, a Roman martyr who they attempted to execute twice and failed both times before she died slowly of the wound in her neck from when they attempted to decapitate her. Though it is not immediately apparent, the church dates to around 820 A.D. It stands where, supposedly, the house of Saint Cecilia once was. Saint Cecilia stood for her beliefs in the face death and for that she is remembered. Her home has stood for over 1000 years, and that is her legacy. Throughout Rome there are many more examples of people like Saint Cecilia and Michelangelo, who could not have known that their actions would live on, far beyond them.
Feminism is a topic much discussed in our society but as a
woman, and particularly a Latin woman, I believe it bears repeating. When I think
of the great people in history, the first 10 names I think of are men. Why is that?
Were women not great? Or worthy of being remembered? When I think of the way
women are shown in history, I think of Eve and the apple, the Virgin Mary whose
great accomplishment was never having sex and yet thousands of temples, like Santa
Croce, are erected in her name everywhere we went. So far, in the only culture
we have seen where this was not so was in ancient Rome. After the fall of the Roman
Empire around 476 A.D. the portrayal and role of women changed dramatically.
Women were no longer powerful, and their nudity was no longer positive. It was
something shameful and sinful. A powerful, confident woman was something dangerous
and bad. Walking through Florence, I expected more of the same. I admit that I was
taken totally off guard to find that I was wrong. The Renaissance is a period
of rebirth, the rebirth of art and science and classical ideas. Like most of
the great names of the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli was Italian and, more
specifically, a Florentine. He lived and worked during the early Renaissance, in
the late 1400’s. Two of his most well-known pieces are displayed at the Uffizi
Gallery, which was once the center of power of the Medici family. The Birth of
Venus is a spectacular painting, both for its subject and its composition. I
will admit that I’m not much of an art person but seeing the Birth of Venus in
person is something I’ll never forget. I can’t imagine what the original
participants of the Grand Tour must have felt, seeing her in all her naked
glory. Here is a woman like none of them had ever seen, confident and beautiful
in her nudity, and more beautiful for it. She is a goddess and she is desirable
without it being something vulgar or shameful.
With Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, we saw a change in the representation
of women in art, portrayed as they had not been since the fall of Rome. The Renaissance
however brought another change which in my opinion is so much more significant,
at least to me. As we walked through the Uffizi, we came to a work of art
significant not only for its subject but also for its artist. It was Judith Beheading
Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. This is the only work of art we had seen
so far made by a woman. In the class lecture a question was asked which made me
stand there and think on the great tragedy no one thinks about. This incredible
work of art was made by a woman, despite being told by society that she could
not do it because she was born a woman. How many incredible works of art were
never made because women were told only men could be artists? How many millions
of David’s and Birth of Venus’s did we miss out on because men thought themselves
Women’s rights have come a long way from Artemisia’s time and yet we are still not done. I look around me and I see it. Why must I fight to be treated the same way the men of my family are? Why do I have to work twice as hard to receive the respect for my independence that is so thoughtlessly given to them?
Cinque Terre: Nature
We have seen so much in our time in Italy and learned so
much that it is hard to put into words without sounding repetitive. Everything took
my breath away. I kept thinking, “This. This is it. Nothing can top this.” And every
single time, I was wrong. The Cinque Terre was no exception, though for its
rich history or art. Cinque Terre was a pause, a moment to catch our breath an
absorb all that we have witnessed. By that point, I’m sure we all needed it. I
thought I was prepared but now I realize I had no idea what was coming. The Cinque
Terre hike is beyond a shadow of a doubt the hardest thing, physically and
mentally, that I have ever had to do. Despite that, I would do it again in a
heartbeat. It was an experience like nothing else. I’m asthmatic. I have been
since birth. The Cinque Terre hike pushed me like nothing else before. There
were moments, climbing up those never-ending stairs and feeling my lungs seizing
in my chest that I thought I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t sure I could even make
it back. But every single moment was worth it, for that one minute you are at
the very top and you can see the Mediterranean glimmering below you, bird song
in your ears and the colorful towns of the Cinque Terre nestled like jewels amongst
the green at the base of the hills lined with farming terraces.
Venice is a city like none I’ve ever seen. The twisting canals that run all through Venice have given rise to a city unique in its customs and way of life. It is a meeting point of cultures and customs. Being a city on the water, Venice had ongoing trade with all corners of the world, be they Christian or not. Venetian capitalism is famous for a reason. Venice of old was more interested in whether or not you had money than what land you came from or what you did in your spare time. It has made Venice not only unique for its gondolas and waterways, but also infamous for being a place of indulgence and relative freedoms. It’s hard to say if it is the diversity of people that led to the relative tolerance of difference or if the tolerance allowed the diversity.
Tivoli was like a dream I couldn’t believe I was having. From the moment we arrived in Hadrian’s Villa, built a little under 2000 years ago in the hills overlooking Rome, I knew it would be something I’d not soon forget. The Roman Empire has long been known to have mixed and appropriated cultures and beliefs as its vast reach expanded. Hadrian’s Villa was a display of this Roman practice, with its acres of land featuring buildings inspired by the different parts of the Roman Empire Emperor Hadrian visited during his reign. The area of the Villa that stunned me the most by far was the large reflection pool inspired by the Nile. It is neither the most elaborate nor is it the most outstanding feature, but the story connected to the inspiration of the pool is one that is deeply striking, at least to me. Hadrian was a man in love, devastated by the loss of his lover Antinous. He loved him to such an extent that he had statues of him built, and no one thought twice on the fact that they were both men. Now, 2000 years later the world has regressed and yet Hadrian’s love for the beautiful Antinous is famous worldwide. For people who have been oppressed and told that their love is not morally acceptable, people who have died and been imprisoned for their love, the story of Antinous who was so loved that after he died Hadrian made him a god in spite of how it would be seen negatively by the other Romana is heartening. Seeing the Villa Adriana in person and learning of their tragic story more in depth was profoundly affecting and I could not help but cry.
Roma as Text
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Rome
Rome is a city of ancient Kings and abundant legends. The founding of Rome is said to have been around 753 B.C.E. by fierce Romulus, who was in turn raised by the she-wolf Lupa. Over the ancient stones of the Via Appia Antica have walked millions of people on their way into Rome and along its beautiful, scenic pasture lands the dead are buried deep under the earth. Rome is packed and overflowing with history, dazzling in its splendor and importance. Some of the greatest artists that ever lived were inspired by and shaped it into the Rome we see today. So many people flock from the world over to marvel at the wonders of Rome, to stand in awe of the Flavian Amphitheater’s colossal shadow and gawk at its architectural brilliance. It is incredible but what is even more incredible is how people come here and fail to realize the very real tragedies behind these marvels. How could they have built something so massive with the limited technology they had? Slaves. How could the Colosseum be finished so quickly, in only 10 years? Slaves. It is easy to be grand and impressive when your success is built on the exploitation and enslavement of others. It is easy to build massive temples and blood sport arenas when the people whose blood, sweat, and tears being spilled for it have no choice but to keep working at the will of their oppressors. The part that truly amazes me most is how when people do think on this they fail to consider that it is not a phenomenon exclusive to the ancient world. 2,000 years apart and rich important men continue building their success on the backs of exploited workers while everyone carries on and think themselves better than the cruel, arrogant Romans who once ruled the known world. The oppression is no longer as blatant or easy to spot in this world of media coverage and constant entertainment, but as long as we have ostentatious displays of wealth, we must also have those exploited to maintain it.
Pompeii as Text
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Pompeii
Pompeii was shocking. It was coming face to face with something I have known most of my life but never truly understood. Walking through a city nearly frozen in time, seeing what remains of a once forgotten people was viscerally horrifying. Looking at the looming shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the distant skyline, it seems almost antithetic to me that something that looks so beautiful and harmless could be responsible for the death of 1,000 to 2,000 people. From that tragedy stem some of the most well-preserved remains of the Roman Empire. When Pompeii was buried under meters of volcanic ash in 79 A.D., it buried and preserved what was left standing of the city and the mosaics and frescos on the walls. To walk through Pompeii now is to walk through a living monument of the lives of all those who lived there so long ago. We see them as they truly were, from their fast food stands scattered around the city to their 30 brothels with their rather graphic image menus painted along the walls. Pompeii is unique and incredible. As you walk through you may even forget that although it is a remarkable archeological find, it is also a massive grave. People come from thousands of miles to gawk at the bodies of those who could not escape, preserved after 2,000 years in their final fear filled moments. As I look at a figured, curled up in terror, covering its face, I feel shivers crawl up my spine. A huge part of what draws people to Pompeii is not the fascinating history it illuminates, but morbid curiosity. They come to see the remains of the tragedy, to stand at the base of a volcano and feel that thrill of fear. People post smiling pictures and mock those who lived in Pompeii at the foot of an active volcano but all I feel now, after having seen it with my own eyes, is sadness and loss.
Siena as Text
Town out of Time
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Siena
Siena is a 13th century town, stuck in time. It is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, not only because the views from the top of the Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo were unbelievable. With its intense neighborhood rivalries, their seventeen distinct flags, and their twice annual brutal horse race between the neighborhoods, Siena is like something out of a Shakespearean play. After the decline of Siena in the 1300’s due to the outburst of the plague, Sienas spread and development was stopped. You can even see the Medici coat of arms displayed on the front of the palazzo. It was magical, spending the afternoon in this town out of it’s time with its medieval structures and customs, statues of the she-wolf and twins scattered around the city. The absolute best part is the fact that nearly everyone in the piazza was a local. Everyone in the town came out to sit in the square and enjoy the afternoon sun, little kids waving their flags and chased pigeons around. The traditions and history of the city are colorful and unique, with its pagan ancestry and symbolism. Sienna has claimed these symbols for themselves and incorporated them into all aspects of their society, so much so that statues and drawings of the she-wolf and twin sons of Remus, Senus and Aschius, are even in front and inside of their cathedral, etched into the floor. Truly, Siena is of all the places we have visited the easiest to imagine as it must have been during the Grand Tour all that time ago.
Firenze as Text
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Firenze
The David, the Venus, the Dome, the Primavera. Firenze is dense with incredible works of art. Some of histories greatest masterpieces are tucked away in the bustling streets of Firenze. No picture in the world could have prepared me for how incredible seeing all of those works would be. The week we were in Firenze I spent in a near perpetual state of Stendhal Syndrome. In a single week we saw works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangiolo, Donatello, Botticelli, and more. It almost blows my mind just to think that I get to do what countless artists only dream they could, and before this trip I didn’t even like art very much. I will never be the same again. It is impossible to witness such greatness, the best of humanity, and ever be the same person you were at the outset. It has become obvious to me why young men did the grand tour to complete their education. It is impossible to describe the feeling that filled me when I stood in the presence of the David, who’s doubting marble stare felt almost alive. I can barely begin to comprehend that I stood in front of the Birth of Venus, a painting that embodies feminism and sexuality and which I have read about countless times. Standing at the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, a project which revolutionized architecture forever, I feel like a better version of myself, someone cultured and more observant of the sheer beauty we are always surrounded with but take for granted.
Cinque Terre as Text
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Cinque Terre
There is nowhere in the world like Cinque Terre, or nowhere I’ve ever seen. It is a world unto its own, with its mountainous coast and seemingly endless terraces, growing lemons and wine grapes. Every stop on the Grand Tour has seemed more breathtaking and wonderful than the last, each one feeling like stepping through time, years and years into the past. After all the incredible things we have witnessed on the tour, I finally understand why stopping to be surrounded by nature is important. It didn’t truly hit me how much we have seen and experienced until I took a moment to stop and enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean. The person that I am today is not the same person who began this trip. I have changed and learned and pushed myself beyond my limits, and it has all been worth it to stand on the terrace of il Santuario di Soviore and think of all the incredible, once in a lifetime experiences I have lived. Cinque Terre is itself one of the most beautiful places I have seen, with its quaint little towns spaced out along the coast. From Monterosso to Riomaggiore, all of Cinque Terre is amazing. The locals have preserved Cinque Terre exactly as it was, keeping mega corporations out and refusing to develop the area. For this reason, Cinque Terre remains the beautiful retreat into nature that it has been for hundreds of years, allowing those on the Grand Tour the time to rest and reflect on all we have seen.
Venice as Text
the sinking city
Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Venice
As the sun peeks over the edges of the buildings and
glitters on the murky waters of the Grand Canal, the city begins to rise. Along
the edges of the canals, deliveries and cargo are being dropped off and the
fish markets are already open, the choicest bits snatched up by the local
restaurants before anyone has a chance to rise. The Rialto, the city’s most
famous bridge, glows white in the morning light, for once empty of the
thousands of tourists that flock the sinking city every day, outnumbering even
the locals. Venice is a place like no other in the world, with its singing
Gondoliers and its twisting maze of canals. It is beautiful in its
eccentricity. At night and in the early morning the city empties of tourists
and the locals sit along the water and in their little boats to picnic and
enjoy a bottle of wine with their friends. Venice has long been central hub where
hundreds of different cultures meet. In the Basilica di San Marco, the city’s
most well-known landmark, people from an incredible number of places are
depicted, even people who were not Catholic. Today, Venice continues to attract
around 60,000 people from all sorts of places every single day though no longer
for the trade of goods. In contrast to the diversity of people before contributing
to the vast wealth and power of Venice, these new visitors are slowly sinking
the city while contributing very little to the economy as most of them come on cruises
where they eat before they get off and return to the ships before sunset. Venice
takes the wear and tear of the thousands of visitors with none of the economic
rewards while it slowly sinks back into the lagoon.