The city of Opa-locka has had a very colorful existence, to put it mildly. Chartered on May 14, 1926, as part of the vision of aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss, the municipality started out with 28 registered voters in a 4.2-square-mile tract whose name is a shortened version of a Native American word that means “a big island covered with many trees and swamps.”
Down through the decades, the city’s fame originated from its unusual Moorish style of architecture and street names taken from The Arabian Nights tales that led to its nickname, “the Baghdad of the West.” That legacy has endured, with 20 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the Opa-locka of recent years has been a much different place. Economic decline plunged this historic and now predominantly black city into desperate poverty. Crime has run rampant in certain areas, overwhelming its overworked, and underpaid, police department. Many of the now 16,000 or so residents have at times lived in a state of siege by drug dealers and sundry gangsters living by the gun.
The so-called “Triangle” neighborhood of Magnolia North became ground zero for violent crime, to the point where city officials blockaded much of the neighborhood, using metal barriers. Houses deteriorated and people fled from a city proud of its heritage but so squeezed by a shortage of tax revenues that its finances were taken over by the state at one stage.
There is some evidence, though, of a turnaround – some of it due to nothing more than the power of positive thinking among elected officials, notably Mayor Myra Taylor. But there is also concrete change taking place in Opa-locka that could signal the start of a new era. This initiative is headed by the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, which was founded in November 1980, and its chief executive officer, Mr. Willie Logan, one of the city’s former mayors.
The CDC, especially in recent years, has been quietly working to transform the community, almost one house at a time. To date, it has built or renovated more than 1,400 apartment units and is now focusing on home building and renovation, in cooperation with the federal government, Habitat for Humanity and with some private sector support.
This is a good cause that Mr. Logan and his CDC have taken on. The contrast is stark between Opa-locka and its much bigger nearby sister municipality, Miami Gardens, the largest majority black city in Florida. But there can be no reason why the former “big island covered with many trees and swamps” and “Baghdad of the West” cannot lift itself into a new era of prosperity, which seems to be the path on which Mayor Taylor and Mr. Logan are determined to put it.
The effort, though, will need much greater support from Miami-Dade County, the state and the federal government, along with corporations and foundations. Aid should be provided generously to help a city seemingly determined to pull itself out of its problem-plagued past.