Letizia D’Avenia: Miami as Text 2021-2022

Photo Taken by Jena Nassar (CC BY 4.0)

Hi! My name is Letizia D’Avenia. I am a junior attending the Honors College at Florida International University majoring in Psychology. I was born in Milan, Italy, and I lived there for the first 17 years of my life. At FIU, I am part of an organization called Roarthon, I am a proud member of Phi Mu Fraternity, I am a Learning Assistant in the Psychology department and I am a research assistant for the Power Women & Relationships lab. One of my favorite hobbies is singing and playing the guitar. I took pottery classes for about 4 years and I love painting. I enjoy reading and writing songs. I am very extroverted and one of my goals in life is to travel the world and make friends with people from different countries. I am also very passionate about the environment. I am excited to take this class for a full year and learn more in detail about Miami.

Downtown as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at HistoryMiami Museum (CC BY 4.0)

“Unheard voices” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Downtown Miami

The first time I participated in this class my attention was taken by many different more superficial aspects. It was the first class that I was taking in person since the pandemic had started, and I had never explored downtown in such a way. For the whole day, I focused on absorbing all the information I possibly could, without truly envisioning what I was being told. This time instead, I was able to almost see the main characters of the stories that were being narrated, and I centered my attention to the auditory stimuli around me to try and immerse myself in the past. The crunchy sound our shoes made while walking in the concrete slightly covered in dead brown leaves, since fall is slowly overtaking the long summer days. While passing below the highway that caused many lower-income families to lose their homes to make space for it, the loud monotone noise produced by tires on concrete invades the environment around us, making it almost impossible to hear what my friend is saying right next to me. My imagination is able to truly express itself once we arrive at Lummus park in front of Fort Dallas and the William Wagner’s House. Although both of these buildings have been relocated, in between their walls they still have trapped stories, emotions and voices of those times. By touching the stones of Fort Dallas, I close my eyes and I can hear the grunts and groans of the slaves building their own slave quarters. I can hear the scared whispers and the noise produced by one stone being put on another. This almost resembles the sound of a bullet being fired, and after I turn my head to the side, I hear general Dade falling to the ground, victim of his own hubris by thinking that the Seminoles were weak enough to be easily defeated.

Photo Taken by Letizia D’Avenia at HistoryMiami Museum (CC BY 4.0)

However, although Miami’s history is filled with saddening and angry noises as the ones I mentioned above, it is also filled with many joyful sounds. The soft voice of Julia Tuddle and Mary Brickell eco around downtown. The claps of excitement once the railroad was being inaugurated. As we walk to the Freedom Tower, I imagine the relieved and tired cries from Cuban immigrants, which after surviving a long and exhausting journey are finally being welcomed in the United States. All these sounds are what makes Miami unique, with the good and the bad. It is important to understand both the joyful memories and the unfair saddening memories, because only through knowledge and having an understanding of history can we ensure that certain mistakes are never repeated again. Miami is considered the city of sounds, of adventure and of hope, but not many know about the decades of slavery and unjust treatment of people. And although overall Miami produces a beautiful symphony of exciting sounds, by listening closely to every single instrument, out of tune notes will always be heard, no matter how hard the other instruments try to cover them.

Overtown as Text

“Knowledge is Power” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Overtown Miami

The metrorail is a moving melting pot, where everyday hundreds of people come together for completely unrelated reasons other than being transported from a part of the city to another. As I sat next to the window on my way to class, I observed individuals going in and out of the sliding doors. The metrorail passes many different stops, which all have different stories from the past that still affect entire neighborhoods today; however, these stories are not usually told and are slowly beginning to vanish. Our role as students and learners is to remember these stories and this class helps us in doing so, by exploring different realities and engaging with local communities. The focus of the day was exploring Overtown, and each one of us was able to learn many of the struggles that the black community in that neighborhood had to go through. First they were segregated to Overtown during the Jim Crow era, then I-95 was built right next to two important churches (Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church), essentially forcing the people living in the area to move out and disrupting local businesses.

We were able to speak to representatives of these churches, such as Linda Rodgers and Alberta Godfrey, who explained how much the building of this highway drastically damaged the neighborhood’s equilibrium and how racism still affects the community everyday. Standing in the majestic building that is Mount Zion, we learned that on the pulpit that was right in front of us, Martin Luther King delivered one of his most important speeches.

By hearing these stories from people of the community who are still hurt and suffering from all these unjust treatments, it is clear how society is focused on the single profit and not its impact on entire communities. In contrast to our serious and formal visit to Overtown, while walking in the neighborhood of Hialeah, we explored the majestic and rich Hialeah Park, which was used as a horse racing field and it is now a casino. As I sit next to the window on my way back, I think of how Miami has such deep discrepancies, where the people living in Overtown are not even sure how long they will be able to live in their homes and attend their churches, while in Hialeah, people come together to gamble their money away. It is our duty to always dig deeper and become knowledgeable about all of Miami’s stories, even the ones that hurt, even the ones that make people’s blood burn.

Vizcaya as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Vizcaya (CC By 4.0)

“The Superficial” by Letizia D’Avenia in Vizcaya

I look at my reflection in the water fountains that limit the road to reach the majestic villa. According to Arabic culture, fountains have a spiritual meaning and are supposed to be flat and clear enough to see the reflection of the sky. It enables faithful people to feel closer to their God, and they are seen almost as a sacred symbol. James Deering, the owner of Vizcaya and brother to Charles Deering, was an extravagant man. He was very superficial, too captivated by his obsession for his own self and his popularity to truly care about anything else. He wanted Vizcaya to be a villa with European details, not caring about their symbols and history. An example of this is the arch found in the garden in front of the house. Usually, arches were built to celebrate a military victory, and although he had never had one, he still demanded to have an arch built on his property. He did not have children, but insisted that in his studio paintings of kids were present. He wanted to have a painting covering the pipes of the organ, and decided to cut a famous original painting in half, so that he would be able to access the pipes if necessary. He wanted the most luxurious objects in his house, anything to impress his guests when they would come visit. He had one of the first phone booths, one of the first fridge and vacuum, expensive carpets and even an organ (which he did not even know how to play). He was one of the first “typical Miamians”, obsessed with superficial luxurious objects and not too concerned with what was going outside of his perimeter. Next to the Villa, a huge garden extends and basically covers the rest of the property. Walking between the bushes felt like being in a movie directed in France in the 1800’. The colorful flowers and the different fountains and ponds made the entire place even more magical. I believe that it is important to visit historical places in Miami, so we can all understand better where we come from and why certain aspects of our culture are the way they are. This visit was helpful to give me a better insight into why the culture in Miami is like this, and how people in the past helped to shape how our society is today.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Vizcaya (CC by 4.0)

South Beach as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at South Point Pier (CC by 4.0)

“A Jump in the Past” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Miami Beach

It was a windy day, and the clouds in the sky looked like cotton candy, as I was walking down the South Point Pier in South Beach. The ocean below us was crashing angrily on the gray rocks, and the noise of seagulls filled the air. The sun was reflecting on my skin, and I truly regretted not bringing sunglasses. It is definitely unimaginable to think that this entire area, many years ago, was completely populated by mangrove forests, infested by mosquitoes and almost impenetrable. After Fisher discovered this strip of land and decided to make it a getaway spot for himself and his rich friends, Miami Beach is now one of the most visited places in the world. Foreigners come from all over, just to bathe in the warm waters of Miami Beach, while staring at the skyscrapers that occupy the majority of the view. We started walking along the road that takes to Ocean Drive, while learning about the history of Fisher Island. In fact, Fisher bought the island from Dana Dorsey, South Florida’s first African American millionaire. We also learned about the extreme segregation that came after Fisher arrived, and how a place that was multiracial was completely disrupted. African-Americans could not access any beach, and could not even stay overnight in the South Beach area unless they had a valid “permit” to do so.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at South Beach (CC by 4.0)

Arriving at Ocean Drive created a change of scenery. The Art Deco buildings were now taking up all the space with their intense personalities. The pastel highlights and neon signs definitely made me momentarily forget that it is currently the year 2021, and I thought we had just entered a black and white movie in the early twentieth century. Since it was a Wednesday afternoon, there was almost no one walking the street, and we were able to fully immerse ourselves in the history these buildings have. Our excursion ended in the majestic Jewish Museum of Florida, where we were able to learn about Jewish history, which is a topic I knew almost nothing about. At the end of every class, I am always able to learn new aspects of Miami that I had no idea had such an impactful action into shaping how Miami looks like today. I am looking forward to being able to keep learning and growing my knowledge regarding important topics.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Jewish Meuseum (CC by 4.0)

Deering Estate as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Deering Estate (CC by 4.0)

“Skyscrapers and Trees” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at Deering Estate

I am always amazed at the contrast between urban and rural in Miami. One moment you are in the 8am rush hour on the US1, and a couple of minutes later you are immersed by nature, in the middle of different ecosystems exploring secret and sacred places. Our excursion on Wednesday morning started at Deering estate, walking through the thick vegetation to reach the Paleo-Indian archeological site. This is an extremely peculiar place since it is where they found many fossils, which some are believed to belong to Paleo-Indians themselves. Climbing inside the hole made me feel vulnerable since I was in a position of disadvantage and from the top, anyone could easily attack me, with no way for me to defend myself. I could only think of how saddening it would be for an animal to be stuck into a natural trap, and eventually dying of starvation or being attacked by another animal. After exploring this incredible place of history, we went back to the open area to visit Deering’s old house, where we discovered his extensive secret wine collection.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Deering Estate (CC by 4.0)

For the second part of the day, we reimmersed ourselves into the untouched vegetations and explored the same trails the Techestas had walked on hundreds of years ago. We were able to hold the same tools they used to survive and we saw the burial mountain site. This was a special place, the energy that was in the air was solemn and we all showed respect to their traditions and to this sacred location. It was an honor to learn about the Techests culture and costumes. Knowledge is power and ensuring that as many people know about the first individuals that lived on this land helps to not forget. Through this class, I became knowledgeable about the native individuals that populated this land, a topic that is usually not discussed and almost hidden as if hiding what has happened will cancel the mistakes of the past. These kinds of excursions help me to reconnect with our history and nature, which is a crucial part of becoming a rounded individual, who has general respect for rural and cultural aspects of the world we live in.

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