Art + Culture

Rooms Available: Documenting Miami's MiMo District

Valeria Sarto

Most times when I tell people where I live — MiMo — I get blank stares. Even locals and natives have no idea what I’m talking about. I typically have to explain it is “where all the motels are on Biscayne Boulevard,” and then they have this “Ah-ha!” moment. 

As a kid, I would sit in the backseat of my Abuela’s car, running errands. We coasted through the neighborhood’s wide streets, at the time devoid of traffic, the large motel signs courting our attention.

As I got older, I’d drive up and down that same street, this time typically at night. The neon signs illuminated, the streets quiet and roads empty. I’d paint a picture in my head of the Boulevard back in the day, imagining prostitutes lined up at street corners near the motels. An easy drive-in, pleasure and out. At some point, I decided I should stop imagining stories and learn more.

Officially designated a historic district in 2006, MiMo encompasses the buildings alongside Biscayne Boulevard between NE 50th and NE 77th Street. And MiMo stands for Miami Modern — an architectural style that developed over a 30-year time period commencing in 1925. The automobile industry was booming. Biscayne Boulevard opened in 1926, offering south-bound tourists up north a more efficient route to Miami than the one previously offered by West Dixie Highway. They hit the road, bringing with them a new style of leisure. Motels, or Motor Hotels (as I so enthusiastically discovered) opened to welcome them along the way. Broader Miami’s architecture is shaped by movements which have little in common with each other, aesthetically, like Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival. Miami Modern developed to bridge the gap, to create a sense of place in the city that was still relatively new.  In true Miami fashion, it did so most memorably via buildings that housed the temporary, the visiting, the transient, and in response to a broader movement called The International Style. In MiMo, streamlined post-depression and post-war practicality met tourist-friendly features like maritime, space age and movie set motifs; mosaics; surprising angles; geometric patterns and screen blocks.

Urban decay set in, sometime around the 1980s. The motels dropped out of Miami’s cultural imagination for a while. But businesses are coming back to the area: El Bagel, Caracas Bakery, Fly Boutique. The classic Vagabond Motel opened Mr. Mandolin.

More than some retro collection of buildings, MiMo is an emblem of Miami’s constant desire for development, and its fickle attentions, too. As Miami continues to modernize, I can’t help but worry that one day, these motels might be lost to the past, or the distractions of the future.

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