Miami Icons: Opa-locka City Hall, an Arabesque Dream in the Face of Urban Decay

Categories: Architecture

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Photos by Karli Evans
San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Abel Folgar argues that Opa-locka's City Hall is the perfect metaphor for Miami.

The idea of Opa-locka is not an easy sell under any circumstance. The city of roughly 15,000 citizens has been steadily plagued by crime, corruption, and the general indifference of local governments who only remember votes when an election nears. Plainly stated, Opa-locka is a ghetto. And if you think that is harsh, just a quick glean over the Wikipedia page for the city will reveal a handful of quotes describing the city as "mired in crime," "deeply troubled," and "steadily deteriorating."

But icons do not need the solvency of pretty words to justify their status.

Founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and fashioned by a bizarre penchant for the One Thousand and One Nights, Opa-locka is the largest architectural example of the Moorish Revival style in the west, with the city hall building being the flagship that arrows out to other structures in the city. The 1926 Great Miami Hurricane effectively destroyed South Florida, and the newly minted City of Opa-locka was not exempt. But a large majority of the buildings survived -- the mettle with which dreams are built.

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Because of its unique look, Opa-Locka has been the backdrop of a few Hollywood films like Bad Boys II and 2 Fast 2 Furious, as well as a featured snippet of the acclaimed 1969 documentary, Salesman. But if those productions generated any revenues for the area, their benefit is now as intangible as the dream the city hall building represents. Opa-locka's police department has been plagued by corruption and internal problems for many years now and the crime rate in the 4.5 square mile area has ranked highest at the national level for violent crimes.

And it is the crime, the blithe indifference, the seemingly insurmountable odds that face Opa-locka's citizenry daily that makes this building a Miami icon. Here is the Miami that tourists never see. Who here thinks that Miami is properly represented by an episode of Miami Vice? No one. Who thinks Miami is solely comprised of Miami Beach? Not a single local. Miamians have always had trouble explaining to outsiders what Miami truly is, and as this series has highlighted, Miami is a gestalt entity formed by wildly different parts.

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Like Scheherazade's fantastical tales, used to stave off her execution for a thousand and one nights, the flashy Miami stereotypes are mere distractions from the city's reality. The Opa-locka City Hall blends the two, presenting a beautiful mirage in a landscape otherwise cluttered with the signs displaying the "No 'Ifs, Ands or Butts'" law, the rapid state of decay of a once picturesque neighborhood, and the putrid local attitude of surrounding communities. It's almost as if though the city would fall apart and destroy itself if it weren't for this one beacon still emanating a glimmer of hope for those who cross its shadow daily, regardless of what dealings occur within its walls.

Opa-locka's city hall building is more than an icon; it is an ethereal dream that anchors its community -- one where stability is in short supply.

Previous Icons:
The Colony Hotel, Ocean Drive's Most Famous Art Deco Building
The Freedom Tower Welcomed Cubans to America
The Miami Tower, Colorful Chameleon of the Skyline
Vizcaya, Birthplace of Magic City Luxury
Stiltsville, Offshore Escape For Miami's Most Colorful Characters
American Airlines Arena, Home of the White Hot Heat
The Bacardi Complex (AKA YoungArts), Striking Beauty of Biscayne
The Biltmore, a Glitzy, Golden-Age Throwback
The Adrienne Arsht Center, Where Glossy Style Meets Cultural Substance

Send your story tips to Cultist at cultist@miaminewtimes.com.

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17 comments
Joaquin Jackse Pineda
Joaquin Jackse Pineda

opa locka was supposed to be like coral gables with an arab type of vibe and theme

Ernie Torres
Ernie Torres

Some people are just so ignorant. Bashing a city because it makes you sound cool to the other commentators. I've lived in all the "Hood" areas of Miami never having encountered a problem. Keep thinking that these places are hood & ghetto and I'll continue living in my huge 3 bedroom apartment for $950 while your living in your studio apartment in Brickell for $1800 \U0001f61c

Geo Calvo
Geo Calvo

I spent many days n nights right behind that building there at Sherbondy Park practicing with the Miami Knights semipro football team of the Florida Football Alliance (FFA) or simply playing basketball with the boys. Some people will never understand...

Jen Die
Jen Die

I would bet NONE of those who claimed Opa locka is a horrible place has never set foot nor even driven there, smh

Joveline Pettus
Joveline Pettus

Yes, please keep thinking Opa-locka is ghetto....meanwhile...rent is affordable and I've met some really nice, hardworking people who live there. Authentic. At least they don't have to worry about gentrification.

Aileen Leigh
Aileen Leigh

I've worked in Opa-locka for the past 3 years...down the street from the historic former city hall building. The city is no where near as bad as people make it out to be. It takes a long time for negative reputations to change despite all the plans and efforts underway to revitalize Opa-locka.

Tom James
Tom James

You have to dodge loads of muggers robbers dope dealers and gang bangers to see it. Its a one way ticket folks. You may get in but you wont get out! LOL!

SedonaSherpa
SedonaSherpa

This makes a great back-drop when Sean Hannity wants to up his "Cred" with some war reporting... Wolf Blitzer also with his oversized helmet and Kevlar vest...  They both can be home in 2 hours...no shots required...direct corporate jet to Opa Locka airport...head over to the hall...pretend it's Eyerack or Gaza...

Tony Prieto
Tony Prieto

What tourist would be stupid enough to visit Opa-Locka? The police don't even patrol some of the drug active areas.

Michael Anthony Taylor
Michael Anthony Taylor

Great article. I noticed that Arabian Nights theme in OPL a few years back. Than you for bringing it home.

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