Steve Wright was born over 1,000 miles away from Miami’s Little Havana, but the neighborhood’s history and culture made him never want to leave.
Since moving from Ohio to the Magic City over two decades ago, Wright has looked out for his chosen home and beyond through his dedication to urban activism and advocacy for people with disabilities.
“I hate it when some politicians, planners, or people push against disability because you’re basically violating basic human rights,” said Wright. “We all have the right to move about and find our way in the world.”
His commitment to urban architecture shows in his “Save My Little Havana” photography exhibit on display at the Art Deco Museum at 1001 Ocean Dr. until Nov. 15. The exhibit was honored with an official Miami-Dade County commendation presented by a county commissioner on Sunday. General admission to the museum is $7.
Wright’s activism is rooted in his childhood in the Northeast Ohio countryside, where he witnessed how mental illness affected his mother.
She suffered from chronic pain and an intense fear of death, which made her believe death could be transferred between people. Wright often saw her reading local news, keeping tabs on the deaths that happened in her area.
In one harrowing instance, Wright, then 8, witnessed his mother burst into his room after finding out his classmate’s grandfather had passed away, striking Wright with an unspecified kitchen tool enough times to leave a scar.
Wright saw firsthand how both mental and physical disabilities could impact someone he cared for, and wanted to combat the stigma surrounding them.
“It made me want to fight for the little guy,” Wright said. “I don’t want Mom to be taken away to some island for people with mental illness. I want it to be as mainstream as possible.”
Later in life, Wright worked at The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio’s state capital, serving as the paper’s first full-time music critic before finding a niche in covering urban affairs and development.
Wright first visited Miami in 1997 while on assignment covering a cruise with disability accommodations. He decided to move to the city three years later after he’d had enough of Ohio’s harsh winters.
Settling in a renovated Spanish mission-style house in Little Havana, Wright immediately fell in love. There was eye-catching architecture everywhere, and every resident had a story.
“I grew up in Northeast Ohio. Everybody was either a farmer or their dad worked in a factory. It was kind of boring. Here, you meet somebody that’s like, ‘oh, my mom is from Nicaragua and my grandfather is from Cuba,’” Wright said. “I was like, damn, this is really fascinating!”
He continued to work as a freelance writer but switched career paths after meeting then-County Commissioner Joe Sanchez during Viernes Culturales, a festival Little Havana hosts every third Friday of the month.
Instead of asking for a job, Wright walked up and shared a critique on building placement in the area. A week later, Sanchez offered him a position as the commission’s urban policy advisor.
“I got to do all kinds of writing. We created a home ownership advisory board, I got people into some affordable condo buildings. That Cuba Memorial Boulevard along 13th with all the monuments never had a sidewalk down the middle, and now it does. That was one of the things that I sort of saw through,” said Wright.
Wright served on the commission until 2010, when he transitioned into advising and marketing for private businesses and startups.
Wright’s online activity grew after moving into the private sector. He started a blog dedicated to advocacy for disabled individuals and opened an account on Twitter, which he regularly updates with pictures of his travels.
Earlier in 2023, the pictures Wright took while on walks through Little Havana caught the attention of Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League.
Wanting to see if his photographs could be featured in the museum Ciraldo managed, Wright sent him a direct message. Several DMs later, he secured the exhibit space that would become “Save My Little Havana.”
The exhibit was a passion project for Wright, who wanted to capture the essence of his historic neighborhood, showcase landmarks that were hiding in plain sight, and raise awareness for urban preservation.
He believes Little Havana needs saving from modern urban design trends which rob buildings of their architectural identity in favor of standardization.
“I see so many faceless buildings, and I think as a people, we are better off saving our heritage,” said Wright.
His commitment to urban preservation was recognized by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who awarded Wright with a Miami-Dade County commendation on Sunday after being given a tour of the exhibit.
Higgins represents a district including both Miami Beach and Little Havana, and believes smaller-scale communities like Little Havana deserve to retain their identities.
“I feel honored that someone cares enough to preserve in art the work that’s being done all around our community that makes sure we don’t lose our history,” said Higgins. “It’s inspiring.”
“Save My Little Havana” exposed Wright to a new world of artistic expression, making him want to put more of his work on display.
He hopes to open an exhibit with photographs of his travels along the Silk Road in the future, aiming to showcase how people the world over are not at all different from those in South Florida.
“I feel like now, along with just the joy of photography and the joy of getting exercise, I can tell some more stories,” Wright said. “Open some more minds.”