With this unusually-named Miami-Dade County city at the center of a corruption probe and in the midst of a fiscal crisis and potential shut-down, it’s interesting to look at how Opa-locka came to be and where it stands now.
Opa-locka’s distinct architectural design is based on the story ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ more commonly known as ‘Arabian Nights,’ a collection of Middle Eastern Folk Tales. The city holds the distinction of having the largest collection of Moorish Revival architecture in the Western hemisphere—twenty buildings are landmarked on the National Register of Historic Places. Its streets have names such as Ali Baba Avenue, Aladdin Street, Sesame Street and Sultan Avenue.
But it’s in the news recently for other reasons after it was revealed that Opa-locka, a city of 16,000 residents, is close to financial collapse, after administrators and the mayor couldn’t cover basic costs such as payroll, insurance, and face a curtailment of other municipal services such as fire and police.
Miami-Dade County leaders have asked Gov. Rick Scott to declare a financial emergency and take over the distressed city operations, according to the Miami Herald. The mayor and top city leaders are the subject of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe after a local business leader allegedly said he was paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. Years and years of financial problems have snowballed into rampant debt, as the city has more than an $8 million shortfall, overshadowing Opa-locka’s entire $13 million budget.
Located about 10 miles north of Miami, the area was originally named ‘Opa-tisha-wocka-locka’ by the Seminole Indians meaning “a big island covered with many trees and swamps but the name was eventually shortened to Opa-locka.
The city itself was founded in 1926 by Glenn Hammond Curtiss, an aviation enthusiast and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. Under Curtiss’s guidance architect Bernhardt Muller built over a 100 buildings with a wide variety of domes, miniarets and outside staircases. By the time Curtiss had completed his vision, a self-contained city with a hotel, zoo, golf course, archery club, swimming pool, airport and train station was constructed. Shortly thereafter, Opa-locka was chartered as a town on May 14, 1926 with twenty-eight registered voters.
The city was nearly wiped out in 1926 by the Great Miami hurricane but its historic buildings managed to survive.
Flights of Fancy
The U.S. Navy opened a base at the Opa-locka airport after the hurricane which allowed the city to thrive while nearby areas were feelings the pinch of The Great Depression. On the morning of June 1, 1937 Amelia Earhart took off from the nearby Miami Municipal Airport beginning her second attempt to fly around the world. She landed in Puerto Rico later that afternoon but would not complete her circumnavigation.
Curtiss, the original owner of the airport, where he operated a flying school, gave the airfield to the city of Miami in 1928. The Navy purchased the airfield from the city in 1942 and used it as one of six satellite airfields for the Miami Naval Air Station (later to become Opa-locka airport) The airfields conducted training for Avengers, Dauntlesses and PB-4Y Privateers. By 1954, the field was no longer in use.
The city through the years, has had its periods of stability and struggles, and is trying to dig itself out of a major crisis right now.
Attractions and Amenities
In 2009, Opa-locka became the first city in the United States to commemorate the first African-American U.S. President by renaming a mile-long section of Perviz Avenue from Oriental Boulevard to Barak Obama Avenue. In addition to its striking Moorish Revival architecture, Opa-locka has a large number of parks, two lakes, a recreational facility, and a transportation center and rail station. The most common language spoken is English but Spanish and French Creole are also heavily heard in the area. The feature films Texas Justice, Bad Boyz II and 2 Fast 2 Furious, were filmed there. San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Thad Lewis and rapper Brisco both hail from Opa-locka.
Debra A, Estock is managing editor of The Florida Cooperator. Freelance writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.