The narrative of Miami’s ongoing transformation comprises various story lines, including, most prominently, the burgeoning of its artist community and cultural offerings (as chronicled in the recently released documentary Rising Tide). There’s also the less prominent stories of its increasingly vibrant music scene — attested to by our list of the Top 50 South Florida Songs of 2012 — and its surprisingly rich bike culture (surprising because our sprawled-out, car-centric city would seem utterly inhospitable to bike travel — and, in fact, it can be.)
In his latest Baffler piece, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, journalist and author Thomas Frank focuses on a word Miamians should know well.
A recent edition of NPR’s Friday afternoon South Florida Arts Beat program featured John Richard, president of Miami’s mainstream art temple, the Adrienne Arsht Center. He was on to discuss free theater events for public schools, and in the course of the interview the term “world-class” was used more than once to describe the Center and the significance it holds for the city. In his intro to the segment, host Ed Bell called the complex “a convener and a host in a powerful way” and a key tool in “building a South Florida arts audience for the future.”
With its prime real-estate and robust resources set aside for the arts, the Arsht Center casts a symbolic shadow — as immense as the regal structure’s actual shadow — on Miami’s alternative arts scene. Whether Miami is currently experiencing an “Alternative Renaissance” — as local blogger Liz Tracy recently declared in The Atlantic’s entertainment blog, inciting much debate in the article’s comment section — the city is nonetheless lacking in an essential type of venue that is as integral to vibrant underground scenes nationwide as a megahall like the Arsht is to mainstream urban culture. (Full disclosure: In my capacity as co-head of “experimental” music label and show-book agency Roofless Records, I was one of many sources quoted in Tracy’s article.)
As I use it, a “DIY venue” refers to an art (in this case, music) space that provides an alternative to the commercial, alcohol-driven world of nightclubs and bars. These warehouses, galleries, and homes all vary, but they find commonality in a pervasive sense of freedom both social and artistic. Whereas big-rooms like the Fillmore Miami Beach, dance clubs like the Vagabond, and even otherworldly dives like Churchill’s Pub strive to give their customers what they want so they will show up and spend money on drinks, DIY venues, in their infinite iterations, are spaces for free expression, true experimentation, and direct connection between fans and artists. These spaces are also more fun, it should be said, precisely because of their unadulterated intimacy.
It may be too early to tell whether Miami is truly amid an “Alternative Renaissance”. But a few camps are working hard, often in the face of great deterrence, to provide the homegrown DIY spaces that could be their respective micro-scene’s own Arsht Center and have catalyzed other cities’ underground growth spurts. This article, the first of a four-part series, will focus on one such space.