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New Heritage Trail Explores Opa-locka’s Rich Culture and History

Written By Josie Gulliksen
June 4, 2024 at 12:07 PM

Alex Van Mecl, Senior Project Manager of Ten North Group leads a tour of the Opa-locka Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy of Ten North Group.

The aviation industry and Moorish architecture are among the most recognizable features of the City of Opa-locka. However, there is much more to this city’s rich history. That’s where Ten North Group comes in with their creation of the Opa-locka Heritage Trail, aiming to uncover and celebrate the hidden stories and cultural heritage of Opa-locka.

That trail encompasses 15 strategically placed markers with a mission to highlight the experience of arriving in the City of Opa-locka, a very special place.

“It is a thematic resource comprising 16 to 17 buildings throughout this historic area,” said Alex Van Mecl, senior project manager of Ten North Group who pitched the idea to the City of Opa-locka with the full support of Willie Logan, founder, president and CEO of Ten North Group (formerly the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation).

Van Mecl, who frequently conducts walking tours of the historic downtown, wanted something accessible that would create a point of reference and express the area’s interpretive history. Van Mecl calls creating the Heritage Trail the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Heritage Trail begins with Chapter 1, featuring Opa-locka’s First Town Council, the oldest photo of the firehall as well as the Certificate of Intent to Incorporate. Van Mecl explains this “is intended to address Opa-locka’s 97-year history and rightfully acknowledge and celebrate the start of the city and also its Indigenous people.”

(L to R) Opa-locka Mayor John H. Taylor, Jr, Opa-locka Commissioner Veronica J. Williams, Dr. Willie Logan, Alex Van Mecl, unveiling the Heritage Trail at MENA Fest Opa-locka 2024. Photo courtesy of Ten North Group.

The entire Heritage Trail project is built upon residents and visitors alike understanding Opa-locka and its foundation. Van Mecl points out that the Opa-locka train station is Miami-Dade County’s northernmost station and what cemented Glenn Curtiss establishing Opa-locka.

“Curtiss’ Arabian Nights influence can be felt throughout the city in both the business and residential architecture and this influenced the design of the markers,” said Van Mecl. “The graphic design and lettering of each marker was very intentional to showcase the Far East.”

The Chapter 6 marker pays homage to the city’s Sports Center, while the Chapter 7 marker addresses the Far East connection with its coloration matching the original coloration of the city’s architecture and the Chapter 8 marker addresses Black history.

Not wanting to give it all away, those examples give an idea of what Van Mecl’s walking tour attendees will experience.

It took a large collaborative team to create every aspect of the trail. Van Mecl collaborated with Florida Historian and Author Seth Bramson with the most extensive collection of Florida transportation and Florida East Coast Railway as well as Miami memorabilia. Also instrumental in aiding Van Mecl with research were staff at HistoryMiami and the University of Miami Library Special Collections Department. Jeff Ransom, chief archaeologist at the Miami-Dade County Office of Historic Preservation was also instrumental in the trail’s creation, lending his expertise to ensure accuracy of information.

Logan was supportive when Van Mecl made the pitch in 2023 because he feels the trail is the foundation to begin attracting tourists to Opa-locka and begin changing people’s minds about the city.

(L to R) Dr. Willie Logan, president & CEO of Ten North Group, and Alex Van Mecl, senior project manager of Ten North Group. Photo courtesy of Ten North Group.

“To know that the first zoo, one of the better golf courses, the first landing strip, the second train station and the historical significance of Opa-locka in this past century and what it meant to the development of Miami-Dade County is the significance of this trail,” said Logan. “It takes people from the city’s founding in the 1920s to the Civil Rights Movement and finally to the city as it is today.”

The city’s architecture, from City Hall and the houses behind it to the streets and canals, are the same design as Amsterdam “but no one thinks of Opa-locka this way. That was the footprint for the creation of the city and bringing this to light could make us the next great city. That, and knowing its glorious as well as challenging past,” said Logan.

Alex Van Mecl, senior project manager of Ten North Group accepting a generous landscape donation from Lowe’s Home Improvement North Miami. Photo credit of Alex Van Mecl.

Aesthetics and landscaping around the markers were also important to Van Mecl, who worked tirelessly to ensure native plants and trees were added throughout the trail. “The Heritage Trail captures native and adoptive native plants,” said Van Mecl, donated by Fairchild’s Native Plant Network, Lowe’s Home Improvement in North Miami, and Community Greening in Boca. In total there are more than 100 plantings next to the markers along the trail.

“We incorporated the city’s history of Native Americans, African Americans, and Cubans to make it inclusive, bringing in relevant topics to ensure folks would be interested. We also felt the Mariel boat lift deserved recognition because it affected the city,” said Logan. The western part of Opa-locka, he says, is predominantly Cuban.

Future enhancements are planned for Phase II of the project including a print and digital map as well as self-guided tours through audio and video that the public can access remotely. Also, the addition of photos and other interesting facts will make the website richer in resources.

At the heart of it, the trail helps the residents and the general public know the founders’ vision and the hope that it still has. “When you know where you come from it gives you a foundation of your past, like knowing your grandparents and great grandparents,” said Logan.

Visit https://www.discoveropalocka.org to learn more about the Opa-locka Heritage Trail, learn about updates to the Trail and to sign up for upcoming walking and biking tours.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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