A crumbling Moorish dream is resurrected -- in Florida

Opa-locka (United States) (AFP) - The idea was to conjure up a slice of Middle Eastern splendor, in Florida. Up went minarets and pastel-colored domes, and streets got names like Ali Baba and Aladdin.

The result -- the town of Opa-locka -- came to house the largest concentration of Moorish revival architecture in the United States.

Now, however, it is just another poor, crumbling American community, albeit one fighting to resurrect itself with art.

Opa-locka -- the name comes from a Seminole Indian word meaning big island covered with trees and swamps -- was founded in 1926 as part of a construction boom in southeast Florida.

The surge saw other communities also arise with particular kinds of architecture such as Coral Gables, with Mediterranean-style buildings, or Miami Springs and its taste of the Spanish missions that dotted the US southwest.

"During the 1920s there is this real state-craze, a lot of people moving to Florida. They want to make a quick profit," said Jose Vazquez, a professor at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at Miami Dade College.

"One of the things that would make these different developments unique was architecture," he told AFP.

The exotic lure that the Middle East stirred in the United States inspired Glenn Curtiss, the millionaire entrepreneur who was the driving force behind Opa-locka.

"So Orient, or the idea of the Orient, 1920. We are talking about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, also we had big movie blockbusters like 'The Thief of Baghdad,'" Vazquez added.

While the town was under construction, however, the real estate bubble burst. A hurricane in 1926 also proved catastrophic for the project. Then Curtiss died in 1930, taking with him any hope of completing it.

Of 100 Islamic-style buildings that were projected, only 70 were built. These days only 50 or so remain, in varying degrees of conservation or decay, said Vazquez.

Twenty buildings here feature on the national registry of historic buildings, including town hall, which boasts towering minarets, six domes and ample gardens. It was the centerpiece of Curtiss's grand plan. Now it is being restored.

- Bars and churches -

Indeed, the oasis that Curtiss foresaw dried up, and Opa-locka slid into decline. The nadir came toward the end of the 20th century as crime spread and the city earned a reputation for violence. The image has stuck, even today.

Forty percent of its 16,000 residents -- 65 percent of them black and 30 percent Latino -- live under the poverty line.

"Here, all there is are bars and churches. Bars and churches," said Fernando Campos, age 65.

The Opa-locka Community Development Corporation has spearheaded efforts to give the town a facelift, especially with art projects but also through housing construction and restoration of public parks and other green areas -- all with public and private subsidies.

The goal is to turn Opa-locka into a tourist draw that will appeal to some of the millions of people who visit nearby Miami every year, said Willie Logan, president of the community development group.

"The city is very unique, in the sense that it has its own airport, its own train station, its Moorish architecture. It is a world-class city that has the potential to be a great city," said Logan.

- Color in the streets -

The community development group has invested $2.5 million in art projects and the results are becoming apparent: murals, spruced-up urban areas and a community center with a growing calendar of cultural events.

Islamic style is the underlying theme that holds all the projects together.

Dozens of volunteers recently refurbished and decorated several blocks along Ali Baba Avenue, applying fresh coats of paint and motifs based on the lines and geometrical patterns typical of Middle Eastern architecture.

Some artists, rather than settle in hip areas of Miami, are opting for Opa-locka.

"When I first moved here no one believed that we were here to try to actually make changes," said Germane Barnes, an architect and designer who hails from Los Angeles.

"No one believed me when I said that I was actually going to move into the neighborhood."

People are noticing color coming back to the streets.

"It is unique. You still go there and you are transported literally to a place that you never suspected you would ever see here," said Vazquez.

"For me that is what makes Opa-locka so unique and so worth preserving."