As the vibrant colors of 1920s-era, arabesque buildings begin to match the evening sky, Femi Folami-Browne leans on a tree in front of the Historic City Hall building in Opa-locka. She thinks about a poem she wrote that’s now projected, with light, at the sidewalk below her.
Folami-Browne, 68, recalls the summer of 1972, when she spent time writing love poems to her boyfriend — now her ex-husband, and the father of her children — at the Historic Opa-locka Train Station, a short walk from where her poem is seen today. After the Nigerian student pilot arrived, the two collected mangoes from grand Opa-locka trees, clutching them as they headed to the salty beach in her Aunt Edna’s old Cutlass Supreme. It’s a sweet memory.
“Poems have flavor and smell like salt air and mangos,” her displayed poem reads.
Says Folami-Browne, laughing: “This is a peace offering to my ex-husband.”
Her poem is now illuminated for all to see, and it has company. Anyone walking or driving near Opa-locka City Hall in the evening may see other short, shining verses projected from green lamp posts and displayed on sidewalks and buildings.
“I asked light to be mine,” reads one by Rishona, a ninth-grader.
“Justice is a force you use to knock on the door,” says another written by fourth-grader Zephaniah.
Opa-locka Light District, a new public art installation, is brightening summer nights in the city’s downtown; nine poems are near city hall.
O, Miami, which oversees a poetry festival each April, and the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation jointly created the project. The art showcases local residents’ poetry, using as a canvas night-darkened buildings such as the Hurt Building, the City of Opa-locka municipal building and La Granja Grocery Store.
TELLING THE STORIES OF MIAMI
Melody Santiago, director of development and communications at O, Miami, told the Miami Herald that the organization was looking for new ideas to use poetry to “elevate and celebrate and tell the stories of Miami.”
Ashley Cover, data analyst for family services at OLCDC and former acting arts manager there in 2018, came up with the idea for the illuminated poems after seeing projected protest art in 2016. In high school, she was a “drama kid,” and as she thought back to how stage lighting works, she figured there’d be a way to cut out words to project. The poems had to be short so that the words would fit on the glass to be etched for the lamp projectors, she said.
Developing the project took place in 2018, but the COVID-19 pandemic, funding and logistics put a damper on their plans, Cover said.
As the idea developed, O, Miami and OLCDC collaborated with schools like Nathan B. Young Elementary School and The SEED School of Miami, and the two organizations hosted community workshops to find adult poets like Folami-Browne as well as younger student writers.
A Public Space Challenge grant of $18,000 from the Miami Foundation enabled the creators to add projectors to about 10 city street lamps lining Opa-locka Boulevard, using devices created by Maker Faire Miami and Moonlighter Maker Lab.
After months of prototyping and a global health crisis, the project’s collaborators unveiled the project this spring during the 10th anniversary of the O, Miami poetry festival in April. An electrician for the city attached the lights, and cords encircle the street lamps and plug into the city’s power.
About 100 people participated in workshops within community centers and schools to write poems, said Adrienne Chadwick, arts manager at OLCDC. For the project, nine were selected, including six Opa-locka students and three adults, including Folami-Browne.
The mother of one young poet, Latoya Mcintosh, 37, said she is excited to see her 13-year-old daughter Chozen’s art be public and recognized.
“She has such a brilliant mind, so I’m always excited to see when her stuff gets recognized because she’s pretty like calm and very reserved, so I’m the one who has to get excited,” Mcintosh said.
She added that an unconventional project like this is important because it gives children an opportunity to have their voices be heard and taken seriously: “I think that is huge. I think that it boosts the kids’ confidence and encourages them...they’re being seen, they’re being heard,” she said. “Kids don’t often get that kind of recognition because I guess people see them as kids so their voice is not important.”
Chozen herself said she is glad to see her art be so public on the street. “It was pretty exciting, I was very surprised that they were putting it on the streets,” she said.
Chozen, who attends The SEED School of Miami, said that one day, her literature class held a poetry workshop where students were asked to mix up nouns and their meanings to redefine concepts, some of which involved topics of social justice, love, democracy, public safety, transportation and infrastructure.
“So I just took the word “curiosity” and I rearranged them and the meaning for clock, which was a way to tell time, and I put it together and got ‘Curiosity was a way to tell time,’” she said.
“I really like art, whether it be literature, literary art or visual art,” she added “I do want to be an artist in the future. I would write poems and novels and such.”
CREATING A ‘DREAMSCAPE’
Cover, of the OLCDC, said she had been eager to see the project come to fruition soon because people “see the narrative that Opa-locka is a dangerous place at night.” She hopes that people can see that the city is a safe and creative “dreamscape” instead of a place to avoid.
Opa-locka is widely regarded as a downtrodden city, she said, “so I think it’s important to really give spaces like that something to be proud of.
“And then that was also the purpose of it being light as well, because you can’t say, ‘oh don’t go there after dark’ when now it’s illuminated.”
Chadwick, too, hopes the poetry will encourage people to visit at night as well as bringing civic pride. And she hopes the bright poetry will help discourage violence in the area.
Also, the poems may provide passersby with a “daily dose of joy,” said OLCDC chief operating officer Nikisha Williams.
“Poetry illuminates the heart and mind, and now we’re using it to illuminate the center of downtown Opa-locka,” Williams said. “As soon as the poems went up, residents and visitors began to spontaneously interact with them.”
Cover said she’d love to see her idea expand within the city and other places in Miami. She hopes that other students can contribute every year because those who’ve been selected “probably feel like superstars.”
“So it’s literally and figuratively, we need to shed light in many spaces, especially Opa-locka,” she said.
Asta Hemenway: @astahemenway