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.

Untitled Art Fair as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Untitled Art Fair (CC by 4.0)

“Worldwide” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at Untitled Art Fair

Untitled Art’s environment is one of a kind. The diversity of both people and artworks attracts thousands of visitors every year, and there is no better place than Miami Beach to host this type of event. Facing the beautiful and unique Art Deco buildings, the heart of the Fair is located under a white extensive tent that occupies a significant space on the sandy beach. After walking in, someone can easily sense that the atmosphere is ecstatic. The loud noise coming from hundreds of people talking is overwhelmingly refreshing, after months of quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic where the only noise many were exposed to was the sound of their own house’s air conditioning. The white walls that surround us allow me to clearly see the different artwork presented upon us. An aspect of the Fair I admired was the commitment to have as many international artists and galleries as possible; each booth had a tag with the name of the gallery and where it was from, which aided the visitors to see the variety of locations in a singular place. The range of artists was impressive.

Specifically, two particular booths left a strong mark on my memory. Gallery Kò, which brought four Nigerian artists’ work to show internationally, giving them a visibility that is rare to obtain. Their artwork definitely challenged different cultural narratives and social practices, and it left the viewer with a sense of dividing unity. Due to the originality of such works, I was not surprised to learn that all five works that were hung on the wall had been purchased. The second artist I was impacted by was Arleene Correa Valencia, a young Mexican artist that in her art expressed the pain and the suffering immigrants go through while trying to cross the border to help their children to have more opportunities in life. The way she used technology to portray such a significant struggle was astonishing, and hearing Arleene share her story of how she got to the United States gave even a more emotional connection to the artwork.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Untitled Art Fair (CC by 4.0)

Untitled definitely gave me a broader perspective of what contemporary art truly stands for; a way in which people can express their stories, their beliefs and they can challenge our own perception of how we see reality. The best way to understand this type of art is to completely immerse yourself in it and to demolish your preconceived schemas of what your belief of an “artwork” is. Only by doing this, one can grasp what each artist wants to project from their work, and by visiting Untitled, my own perception of reality has now slightly shifted and I feel more open to less ordinary experiences.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Untitled Art Fair (CC by 4.0)

Everglades as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Anhinga Trail (CC by 4.0)

Another dimension” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in the Everglades

It was a sunny day in the Everglades, and the soft wind delightfully welcomed us to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, our meeting point. Having done slough slogging last year, the nervousness of the first time was completely substituted by overwhelming excitement. Shortly after everyone arrived, we were introduced to our knowledgeable park rangers who guided and educated us on the history and uniqueness of this environment. In fact, the Everglades used to occupy a drastically more extensive area of South Florida, and then human development damaged it to the point where a restoration plan had to be created to avoid this environment from almost completely disappearing. This place is so unique that it has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Additionally, understanding the flora and the fauna of this ecosystem is extremely interesting; we encountered curious crows investigating whether or not there was food being left behind, different species of fish living in one singular water hole, an owl, and even a gator resting in its water hole! The first few seconds of the slough are always the roughest part: as soon as I placed my feet in the water, the gelid grip paralyzed my feet and shivers ran down my spine. It is January after all, and this is the price to pay to avoid mosquitoes and the wet season. I got used to the cold feeling fairly quickly, and I started looking around.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at the Everglades (CC by 4.0)

I had missed the white trees surrounding me on the way to the cypress dome. The quietness of the place was loud in my ears, and for the first time in a couple months, I was able to reconnect with nature, which is one of my favorite core aspects of this class. I touched the trees around me and heard the noise the water made every step I took. Entering the cypress dune felt like entering another dimension, full of unknown and green. We saw a bard owl, who was curious of us just as much as we were of it, and it stared at us with wide black eyes. Lastly, we visited the sleepy gator in the gator hole, which concluded this out-of-the-ordinary excursion with an extraordinary touch. Seeing the gator in its natural habitat was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and made me realize how grateful I was to have taken this class again. We continued our afternoon in the Anhinga Trail, where we spotted other birds and three more gators, who were enjoying the hot sun calmly. The day ended at Robert is Here, with a strawberry coconut smoothie in my hand and a heart full of memories that will last a lifetime.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at the Everglades (CC by 4.0)

Coral Gables as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Coral Gables (CC by 4.0)

The Unchangeable Stories” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Coral Gables

The history of Miami has definitely many aspects of it that might not be as bright and colorful as this city seems to be. Certain events feel uncomfortable to people, and many try to change the story to make it not as terrible, not as devastating. Truth is, the stories that have happened over the past years are unchangeable; and no matter how much it looks hidden, the truth always reveals itself eventually. It is important to remember the real facts of what truly happened and not a romanticized version of them, by thoroughly researching and studying the history of this place. Individuals such as George Merrick, founder, and mastermind behind Coral Gables, was a creative man with a very sophisticated and distinct mindset about how he wanted the neighborhood to be; however, he was an unscrupulous individual, who to obtain what he wanted was willing to do anything. He “hired” Bohemians to do the majority of the construction work, and mistreated them to the point that once the project was completed and the city was built, they were not able to live there.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Coral Gables (CC by 4.0)

Walking through the streets of Coral Gables always feels like a luxurious experience: fancy restaurants and shops are prevalent in the area and the different smells enhance the feeling of richness that is in the area. The buildings are unique to the neighborhood, majestic houses and Mediterranean revival style are prevalent throughout the city. My favorite part of this excursion was exploring the Biltmore. The decorations completely captured my eyes, and the green roof of the cortile is still very vivid in my memory and the extensive pool brought back childhood memories of summers in Italy swimming in similar crystal clear waters. Although my senses were captured by all the stimuli around me, the mysterious history surrounding this hotel is still prevalent today, making it an even more intriguing place than it already is.

Overall, Coral Gables is an outstanding city and one of the most popular neighborhoods of South Florida, and being able to dig deeper into its history was extremely educational and enlightening.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Coral Gables (CC by 4.0)

River of Grass as Text

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

The Clouds’ Reflection” by Letizia D’Avenia from FIU at Everglades

The clouds are staring at me while I slowly make my way through the water of the Everglades. Today’s excursion is a self-reflective one, where I am able to shut off the chaotic and fast-paced Miami life and observe what is around me. Specifically, I am thinking about the thousands of adorable tadpoles, who were mindlessly swimming in dirty puddles on the road leading to the river of grass, and about the story my professor just narrated to us. “One day, a man who had his job and career in a crowded city, hears a loud noise and glasses shattering; he throws himself on the ground and survives the enormous explosion that had just happened. Everyone and everything around him just gets blown away. He decides to go back to his family, and after a train ride, he reunites with them. A couple of days later, he hears another explosion, that once again blows again everything and everyone; he miraculously survives, but his entire family dies. The two cities that were completely blown away were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The question is the following: is he the luckiest or unluckiest man alive”. After deeply reflecting on this question, I personally believe that he is the unluckiest man alive. This is because I enjoy sharing life with the people I love and I couldn’t imagine losing everything so suddenly; obviously, I survived, but at what cost? I will spend the rest of my life mourning my loved ones, I would probably experience severe PTSD from such traumatic events; additionally, I would have to find another job and career and basically build my life from zero, which is possible but will come with much suffering and resentment towards myself for being the only one who survived and could move on. I would also spend many years trying to get justice for what happened (probably without any success), and I would not be able to reproduce to avoid extreme deformations and diseases in my children. Overall, I would probably miserably survive for the rest of my life, until I’d finally pass away, after an existence filled with guilt and sorrow.

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

While analyzing and rationalizing this question, we walked up to an abandoned house in the middle of the river of grass; we were all stunned to find the walls still up and almost intact, and the window frame was resistant enough for us to be able to use it as a step to reach the top part of the wall, which was wide enough for us to sit on. While I was sitting there, I took a moment to observe the horizon surrounding us, and how life in the Everglades would have looked like. Endless sunsets and sunrise, just water and nature.

Overall, this was one of my favorite excursions, since I was able to reflect on different questions regarding life while exploring the natural world around me, which is full of unknown surprises and astonishing views.

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

Design District

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Design District (CC by 4.0)

“Nowhere better than this place” or “Somewhere better than this place”? That is the question that has been haunting me since our excursion at the De la Cruz collection. This specific art piece was created by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and it genuinely was one of my favorite pieces of the collection. The more I explore modern and contemporary art in this class, the more I am starting to become passionate about it; this type of art always leaves me with questions, making me reevaluate my morals and beliefs just through a simple concept, such as this one. I deeply reflected on why picking between the two questions sent me in such a crisis. Based on the kind of person that I am, I have a hard time grounding myself throughout my day; I always think that if I just was “somewhere else” all my problems would magically disappear and I would instantly and constantly be happy. Thus, if I followed this thought process, I would lean more towards “Somewhere better than this place”. However, after many years of therapy, self-reflection and understanding, I know that picking “Nowhere better than this place” would be a wiser choice. If I am able to truly embody this mentality, I know that my life would become a little brighter. I would work to make my daily life a little better, ensuring that every day includes aspects that I am passionate about, instead of daydreaming about an imaginary place where everything and everyone is perfect. 

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Design District (CC by 4.0)

Throughout the visit at the De la Cruz collection, we were also able to meet Rosa De la Cruz, who welcomed us to her and her husband’s collection. I was honored to meet such an inspiring woman, and being able to walk through the art pieces made me realize how much passion and care there was in curating the collection. The detail-oriented atmosphere is a typical characteristic of the Design District, where every corner is accurately decorated. The colorful buildings welcome tourists and locals, with expensive stores and little cafes, and by strolling through the streets I felt like maybe, really, there was nowhere better than this place.

Coconut Grove as Text

“The failed coconut plantation” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Coconut Grove

The original name of this eccentric neighborhood comes from a gentleman who had first acquired this land and wanted to make it a coconut plantation. The project failed for a variety of reasons; however, the name stayed, giving the city a unique sense of mysteriousness. Coconut Grove is one of the oldest areas of Miami, and was originally populated by Bohemians, who gave it the Keys-like houses and colors. Unfortunately, today there are not many original historic sites, since the majority of them were demolished or abandoned, but throughout our excursion, we were lucky to see landmarks such as Maria Brown’s house and the Bohemians cemetery. Walking down the streets felt like strolling through the Keys; bright colors such as green and blue were prevalent, which creates a unique atmosphere. I was also astonished to think that not even 200 years ago this strip of land was inhabited by Bohemians, who were walking almost exactly through those roads.

One aspect of the neighborhood that I enjoyed was the many green areas, such as the Barnacle Historic Park. Ralph Middleton Munroe, one of Coconut Grove’s most interesting and influential pioneers, was the individual who built this house in honor of his second wife. It is impressive to think that this location was so well-built that it survived many hurricanes, even the most ferocious ones (it is probably due to its structure, which is boat-like and is able to sustain strong winds and water pressure). Despite the mysterious and distinctive history, this neighborhood is now popular amongst Miami citizens, and the streets are populated by expensive shops and boutiques, as well as bars and restaurants.

Key Biscayne as Text

“Where the Ocean Meets the Sky” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at Key Biscayne

Imagine being surrounded by pitch-black darkness, hungry and exhausted, and finally seeing the bright yellow light coming from a tall tower, the lighthouse. This is a sensation that many fugitive slaves experienced running away from a life as prisoners to finally find freedom. In fact, this specific location was utilized as a meeting point for fugitives to remain safe from slavery, and they usually lived among the indigenous tribes in the area, such as the Seminoles. This is just one of the unspoken layers of the history of Key Biscayne and Bill Baggs. Throughout the years, the island underwent many tragic events, such as hurricanes, invasion of exotic species (especially Australian Pines) and the Seminoles wars (which caused the lighthouse to be burned and damaged). It is important to know the history of this place to be aware of why this island is crucial in the course of the development of Miami, and to also respect it and develop appreciation for it; in fact, when someone becomes knowledgeable of the origins of a place, it becomes even more important for them. A concrete example of this is “The Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park restoration project”.

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia at Bill Baggs (CC by 4.0)

After hurricane Andrew, a group of workers and volunteers who deeply cared about the island, worked tirelessly to restore the native vegetation types present in Key Biscayne and it is thanks to them if today tourists can enjoy the sandy beaches and the nature trails. Doing service work for a couple of hours and being informed about the history of Key Biscayne made me appreciate this place in a deeper way, making me susceptible to honoring it to the best of my abilities. Walking the stairs of the lighthouse and admiring the view from the balcony at the top made me reflect on how, out of all the eras I could have been born in, I am here in 2022, and I need to ensure that wherever I am I do my part in keeping an open mind and always doing what is just, both in the social and natural environment, one clean up or service project at a time. I owe it to the past and future generations.

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