The story of the Belle Glade region is a hidden history of Florida, a small community that played a huge role in the development of the Sunshine State. To really know this place one must live it, and award-winning photographer and storyteller Sofia Valiente has been living there for five years, getting to really know the people and the way of life in this hot, fertile wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee.
Originally settled in 1925, Belle Glade became a major center of agriculture, providing food for much of the region. Eventually, sugar became the main crop, with large corporations like Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals taking over much of the area and over the decades, changing the very land itself by blocking natural water flow into the sawgrass of the Everglades.
To tell her story, Sofia Valiente has set Foreverglades, a remarkable photography exhibit focused on life in The Glades housed in a replica of a 1920’s steamboat. The project is funded in part by the Knight Foundation, the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs, and the West Palm Beach Arts & Entertainment District.
The focus of Valiente’s photos though is the people, the largely African American community that work the fields, run the restaurants, barbershops, small grocery stores, pool hall bars and other places that make a townhome.
“I had to live there to really get the know the place and the people,” Valiente says as she leads a tour down a ramp and into the replica 1920’s steamboat docked in the Stub Canal Turning Basin in Howard Park, just next to the Palm Beach County Convention Center. “In 2015 I moved to Belle Glade into a former rooming house. I came across books by Lawrence E. Will and Zora Neale Hurston that painted a picture of the pioneers who developed the area and gave a voice to the workers who built the Glades with their bare hands.”
The boat is a remarkable place for an art show, with skylights and a fully open area inside for the artwork, photo mounted on boards exhibited salon-style and stacked up and down along the entire inside of the wooden boat. The name Foreverglades is painted on the outside.
Valiente points out a photo of a man holding a muck rabbit, the small brown bunnies that live in the sugar cane fields and must flee for their lives when the fields are set aflame during harvest season. Old men sit on porches in the midday sun, the weight of their years hangs heavy on their faces. Children play in small fields, women cut hair and serve beers in pool halls.
A series of vintage photos show a very different view of the place, as shapely white blondes and brunettes wearing shorts and crop tops pose almost seductively with vegetables in the fields. There are moody images of weather changes on the lake and railroad tracks that haul the sugar cane to the coasts.
“This is a contemporary story informed by history,” said Valiente. “The photographs explore the identity of the region and reflect on what that means to people who currently live there.”
The striking, 41-foot freight boat was built in Miami, hauled by truck, and then lifted by crane into a basin that also houses a fountain, assorted ducks, egrets, and even some alligators.
It is docked at the site of the Turning Basin where ships brought their agricultural goods from Belle Glade to West Palm Beach during the 1920s before roads connected the two communities. The canal that runs along Parker Avenue was part of this viaduct for the commercial activity that took place in the basin which was central to West Palm Beach’s own history and development, prompting it to grow faster than other established cities such as Lake Worth.
“I decided to house the exhibition inside an accurate replica of a steamboat so that the context, as well as the photographs, could transport the imagination back into time, and capture that enduring link between Belle Glade and West Palm Beach,” says Valiente.
Foreverglades is accessed by the walking path that runs around the basin, located at the north end of Howard Park. The exhibition is free and open to the public and runs until the end of February 2020.
Visit www.facebook.com/RootedintheMuck for event updates and information. To learn more about Sofia’s work, you can visit her website at www.sofiavaliente.com or follow her on Instagram at @valiente_sofia
If you visit, the Foreverglades is on display docked at the site of the Turning Basin next to Howard Park on 1302 Parker Ave, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. The exhibition emphasizes the pivotal role played by the fertile Belle Glade region in the development of South Florida. The exhibition is free but registration is required.