George Coba: Miami as Text 2022-2023

PHOTO DATE: 7/14/2022 LOCATION: Bldg. 8 Rm. 183. SUBJECT: Official NASA Portrait of George Coba. PHOTOGRAPHER: Norah Moran

George Coba has been a native Miamian all his life. He currently lives in Little Havana with his parents who are Cuban immigrants. He is currently an FIU student that is a part of the Honors College. He loves to rock climb, hike and go on new adventures. He finds the most fascination and peace in nature’s impossible and chaotic beauty.

“Paradise Destroyed” by George Coba at Downtown Miami

What an incredible history of humanity Miami holds. There is evidence of humanity in the Miami area as long as 10,000 years ago. The first civilization, the Tequesta, lived in the Miami area in 300 BCE. They lived in the area for approximately 2,000 years. New evidence of their villages has been found in the center of Downtown Miami as recently as 2005. The Tequesta lived in Miami’s now prime real estate, at the mouth of the Miami river into the beautiful Biscayne Bay. They had large and complex trade networks that reached as far as Mexico, ritual sites, and held relationships with the Spanish when they arrived in the 1500s.The Tequesta lived in paradise, the Miami river was a crystal-clear freshwater marvel, the open ocean held an abundance of seafood, and the nearby Everglades held many deer and wildlife to hunt. There are few locations in the world this perfect for civilization, but Miami was lucky enough to be one of them.

Taken by George Coba
Apple iPhone 13 Pro ƒ/1.8 1/1815 1.57mm ISO32

Nowadays, the Miami river is so polluted it would be unadvisable to swim in it and irresponsible to drink from it. What happened to this wonderful paradise? Given such a unique and beautiful location how could humanity have let such a place slip through its fingers? The destruction of the Miami river began long after the Tequesta’s enjoyed this paradise. Its modification began at the very end of the 19th century. As modern industrialists moved in with railroads the natural rapids of the river were destroyed to build a canal. This environmental destruction led to the water becoming undrinkable due to saltwater intrusion. To finish off whatever life the river still had Miami’s sewer began dumping raw sewage into the river making it far too polluted to ever become its beautiful self again. Learning about the destruction of this river breaks my heart and it’s sad to think that I am watching humanity continue to do the same thing still, so many years later. As close as the Everglades there are currently huge sections being destroyed to make suburban homes. Like the Miami river the Everglades is a world unique site and it is impossible to find something similar anywhere in the world. The redirecting and misuse of the Everglades resources has been killing it for as many years as the Miami river.

We have attempted to build against nature for a long time and have continuously destroyed things so badly that we must try and rebuild. Currently we spend billons of dollars attempting to repair the damage we have done to the Everglades as a whole. Humanity does not seem to learn the lesson that destroying these beautiful ecosystems always leads to us having to replace what it provided for us. The Miami River, once a pristine source of fresh drinking water is gone as fresh water becomes one of the world’s most scarce resources. Destruction like that of the Miami river around the world has led to what we now call climate change.

“Money for Culture” by George Coba at Overtown Miami

Miami’s Overtown has been the center of incredible change over the last few years. Great economic growth, buildings rising everywhere, people and businesses moving in. All this sounds like positive progress but that is a matter of perspective. I was shown a new perspective I had never seen before while exploring Overtown. These heaps of economic progress come at the cost of a cultural decline. Is the coliseum bulldozed to make space for high-rises? Is the globe theater replaced with a supermarket? No, these places are far too culturally valuable to be replaced with something so meaningless. Yet here in Overtown something similar has happened and continues to happen.

The first blow of “economic growth” that Overtown took was the building of I-95. This interstate highway ripped straight through the neighborhood. The building of I-95 didn’t only displace residents by physically demolishing homes and building right over them but also by its long-term effects of noise and pollution. An unfortunately perfect example of this is the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. The church is only 20 feet from the roar of the cars and trucks off the highway. Inside of the church you still hear each vehicle even from the nave. Although I-95 was Overtown’s first blow for the economic growth of others it wasn’t its last. Today, high-rises, supermarkets and an incredibly high cost of living continues to batter down the town. As Miami’s developers run out of space, they are beginning to move into Overtown. Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a victim of this second blow. Its congregation has been reduced from a church that was bursting open to barely filling its seats. Alberta Godfrey of Greater Bethel described the effect of the new cost of living tragically, speaking about her friends and fellow church members having to move away and it being completely unrealistic to come back to the church. Without its people a church is no longer a place of community or worship but just a building.

Taken by George Coba
Apple iPhone 13 Pro ƒ/1.5 1/11364 5.7mm ISO50

Although this all sounds terrible and it is, people still live in Overtown, what are they doing now? Well, adapting. The incredible and adaptive nature of Overtown’s population piqued my interest as I saw it at every turn. Greater Bethel was nearly shut down during the pandemic, but they began to have Zoom masses and gained members from all around the world. The Ward Rooming House lost its usefulness as a quarter and has been turned into an art gallery. The lyric theatre is still a theatre but has also become a museum to preserve its history. The historic home of Alex Lightburn is preserved by being rented out to groups. Through the most terrible of times these residents have found a way to continue surviving where they are. I hope to continue being able to visit these historic sites in the future even if the pressure of gentrification does not let up on the neighborhood.

I would like to say a special thank you to Alberta Godfrey for telling us her unbelievable stories of Overtown and the Greater Bethel church. There are few people in this world with the history that she holds so willing and able to share it. I hope to see great success for Mrs. Godfrey and the Greater Bethel church in the future.

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