The Complexities of Miami

December 16, 2012 | Print Print |

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES — My previous article, concerning an excellent book written by Jan Nijman on Miami, had the effect of attracting the attention of many readers – some of whom gave their opinions about that city. There were those who did this with their heart in hand, because Miami is undoubtedly a highly emotional issue for Cubans: Some because they love it, others because they hate it and to quite a few who simply fear it.

I must confess that Miami isn’t the kind of city that attracts me, perhaps because I’m in that latter category. Though as a Cuban, and after having been there many times, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to set up my laptop there.

It would have been an opportunity to experience an intensity that one always suspects that city to possess. Plus, I would have been closer to friends and family. But its spatial layout and the political polarization that cuts across it on the issue of Cuba always suggested that it would be better for me to maintain a certain distance ever since those now distant days when the unforgettable Maria Cristina organized those well-attended and explosive gatherings at her home in Coral Gables.

I say this to alert the reader that I’m not an impartial analyst, though I admit that my disinclination to Miami was probably a mistake that I had to pay for later on, considering I now live in a city (Santo Domingo) that isn’t exactly a cultural mecca. But still, I think an issue such as Miami — like Havana — deserves a deliberate and composed reflection.

Miami is a city with an economic dynamic that is unparalleled in the US. Because of this, it’s a city that has a more intense demographic dynamic; unlike Havana, which is demographically dying of exsanguination.

Between 1995 and 2000, the Miami metropolitan area received 338,000 domestic migrants and lost 423,000 inhabitants to other parts of country. This emigration deficit was covered by the welcoming of 230,000 people from other countries, mainly from Latin America.

This coming and going of people — many of them from Latin America and the Caribbean — has produced a multicultural environment with few analogies in the world and that constitutes an urban asset of immense value. Some 65 percent of the residents of Miami-Dade (a conglomerate of 2.5 million people) are Hispanic and only 16 percent are non-Latino whites. Relatedly, 72 percent speak a language other than English at home.

Of the reported 403,000 commercial firms, 61 percent are Hispanic-owned. The city is a true cultural entrepôt in which (in the words of city historians Portes and Stepick) there has occurred a sort of “reverse acculturation,” distant from the traditional assimilationist paradigms of the melting pot.

Obviously this dynamic is accompanied by intense upward social mobility that has benefited thousands of families. Cubans in particular have built an important enclave that has always benefited both the high quality of education in their home country as well as the educational programs in which they take part in their new country.

Miami is progressing materially and the city is becoming more colorful and enjoyable for its millions of visitors. I was one of them — and I am whenever I can — and I’m not thinking about giving up my cappuccino in Coconut Grove or my super expensive daiquiri in South Beach. But staying on Ocean Drive isn’t to know exactly what Miami is, because this is a complex and contrasting city, one which allows no binary passion or judgments.

Miami-Dade (here I’m relying on data from the 2010 census) has 17 percent of its population living in poverty (less than $23,000 USD per year for a family of four). In the city itself, that figure rises to 27 percent, placing it fifth among the poorest big cities in the United States. The annual household income for the city was $43,605, significantly lower than in overall Florida, and much lower than national average, which is over $51,000.

The Gini coefficient [the traditional statistical measure for income inequality] for the metropolitan area was 49.4, similar to Brazil’s, and two points above the national average. It is the city with the second sharpest polarization of income in the United States, surpassed only by another southern city: New Orleans.

Obviously, one can say that its poverty is the result of the arrival of impoverished migrants, but it goes without saying that among the poorest residents of Miami are African-Americans. It’s only that when people travel through Miami, they never go through what remains of Overtown or Liberty City. And if they happen to pass by, they don’t look.

In second place is the problem of crime. Although the city is no longer the same as when Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone once paid their bills through bombings (The Specialist, 1998), Miami seems to be haunted by the tragic halo of crime. Drug dealers and gangsters have been the basis of everything, elevating their importance to that of the “Father of Miami,” industrialist and town booster Henry Flagger

The city stubbornly remains in the cohort of the most dangerous cities in the United States — with crime rates well above the national and even state averages — when it comes to offenses such as acts of violence, murders, thefts, robberies, etc. In addition, the city is famous for its continuous fraud in the areas of real estate and health care, while corruption permeates its public sector. In 2012, Forbes rated it the most “miserable” city in the United States.

Similarly, the city has lacked in long-term strategic planning. Instead, what have proliferated are developments that while highly profitable are located in such a way that they fragment the urban space. The city’s population explosion is moving at a blistering pace of expansion on land stolen from the Everglades swamp, with seemingly endless amounts of this becoming available to the real estate market.

Middle class Miamians, natives and immigrants alike, accept the idea of the “good life” as being tied to a house with a backyard and a 300 square meter swimming pool, with these located in rectangular residential blocks crisscrossed by highways. It is a city of cars, with all the unsustainable environmental and economic costs entailed.

The city thrives on non-residents rather than citizens, leading to a weak civil fabric and the devaluing of public spaces. It operates with a short horizon, as if everything is transient. This is reflected even in the urban architecture itself.

That architecture — except for a few memorable milestones — is unremarkable and flat, as if it didn’t aspire for any posterity at all. It is as if everything were built with a permanent sense of impermanence…as if the “creative destruction” alluded to by the economist Joseph Schumpeter could be found in this city in a particularly cruel fashion.

But even so, like I said before, I go their whenever I can and I intensely enjoy my walks along Biscayne Boulevard. And walking, I think back to what Cuban author and poet Perez Firmat said when he wrote that Miami “is a rocket loaded with the future /… it’s a harquebus loaded with the past /…it’s a nest, a maze /… It’s overwhelming, it’s anxiety, it’s joy, it’s rapture /… Miami: my new hometown, my paradise, my decay.”

I always hope that Miamians (many of whom are friends and family members) can remain happy in this magical city where — like a businessman of the last century said — fantasies at breakfast time can become realities by lunch, but dumbfounding failures when dinner comes around.
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(*) Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.com.


What's your opinion?

  • Hans Saurenmann

    Miami is rapidely changing and the hardcore former Cubeans wish to be buried in the Mainland Cuba, as soon as the Embargo is lifted you will see an stampy back to the Cuba Main Land. The young population has no axt to grind with the Revolution. We have a prosperous life style and money is pooring in from all over the world, next stop for them will be Havana, I bet on that!

  • Michael N. Landis

    Although I’m sure Haraldo has read his works, for otherr HT readers who are not familiar with his writings on the eco-disaster which is Miami, I recommend Alan Farago, who has been fighting the good fight in Florida for many years. His investigative reporting on how the Everglades are being gobbled up by ever metasticizing developments reminds me of Roberte Towne’s screenplay for the 1974 film, “Chinatown,” itself to story of the “water wars” of California during the first thirty years of the last century.
    Having grown up in Miami during the 1950′s, but now long since gone, when I return–which is seldom–I feel like a ghost existing in another dimension. During my most recent visit, for my 50th high school reunion in 2011, I was particularly saddened to see the famed Coconut Grove Playhouse shuttered and in an advanced state of deterioration. It was here that Tennessee Williams, then a resident of Key West, would open his plays to iron out the wrinkles before they opened in New York. Also, in 1974, it was the scene of a particularly powerful road company production of “Equis,” which was booked for only a few weeks, but reeived such an enthusiastic reception that it would up being held over for many months. Soon the darkened playhouse will be knocked down to make way for–another high rise, high rent condo! Miami may be dynamic–but it has become a cultural wasteland, a sort of Las Vegas East. If the environmental scientists can be believed, however, by the end of this century it will be largely underwater. No big loss.