Waves of History

Fabric Quarterly

Miami and Miami Beach are confusing places, not least because they're often conflated as one city (but are actually two separate cities). People balked when I told them I was going to Miami, or, after my return, they asked me with a scrunched-up nose how it was. The best answer I've come up with to date is that the place is, objectively, misunderstood. It's not all bad, but it's definitely not all good. It has a kind of raw, vibrant energy, yet somehow at the same time, it's soul-destroying in its shallowness. Regardless, it left me thinking, so I wrote this piece for Issue 6 of Fabric Quarterly. Shoutout to James, who you'll read about below, and who taught me basically everything I know about the history of these twin cities.

The first thing any resident of Miami or Miami Beach will tell you is that the two are, in fact, entirely separate cities. Separate municipalities, with separate mayors, separate commissioners and separate laws. Yet their histories are inextricably linked; their futures bound by the same challenges. Both cities came into existence around the turn of the 19th century; hoteliers bought up land and northerners started making their annual migrations south. While both cities prospered during the 1920’s, becoming places of escape for the wealthy and the wayward, they suffered the same fate as much of the country when the real estate bubble burst in 1925. This was the first wave in what is a dizzying history – boom, depression, abandonment, each time bouncing back in a series of strange reincarnations. All the while, both sitting only some 1.3metres above sea level.

I visited Miami in April – typically the month that sees dry season become monsoon season.Temperatures start to increase, but what constitutes a holidaymakers idea of “good weather” starts to decrease. It’s muggy, rainy and inconsistent. The shores along South Beach become the overrun host of a season’s worth of pent-up seaweed, which flows in with strong onshore winds. The glitz of Ocean Drive, albeit even at the best of times more garish than glamorous, struggles to maintain the guise of being a sun-seeker’s paradise. Slightly overweight and grossly sunburnt tourists peruse the streets in bikinis, fishnet dresses and tiny board shorts, linen button-downs worn open. My hotel room is so air-conditioned, I leave it to go for lunch in jeans and a knitted t-shirt. Huge mistake. As I wait for my Frenchie “Cuban” sandwich at the packed-out, 24-hour La Sandwicherie, the sweat beads forming underneath my denim aren’t the only irony I observe.

Fifty metres up the street, an African American woman who appears homeless sits bolt upright in her shady nook. She raises her hands to the sky and, tilting her head back, closes her eyes, and starts singing.

It’s a hymn of sorts, but nothing I recognise. A few metres beyond her, two Asian American women, trailed by their male counterparts, approach.They’re wearing stars-and-stripes-print bikinis – the kind you’d buy from a souvenir store in a place precisely like this one – paired with embroidered kaftans and platform thongs made of foam with translucent jelly straps. As they pass the singing woman, they start clapping melodramatically, arms extended, like you would for a child who’d just figured out how to go potty. “Good singing!”, they exclaim as they pass her by, probably in some way sincerely though it didn’t come across as such. The singing woman is unfazed, perhaps incognisant. The other two look at each other and laugh as they continue down the street. These kinds of bizarre interactions prove commonplace in Miami Beach, a haven for the mobile wealthy seeking lavish resorts and swim-up bars, yet an ironic last resort for the southern-confined, predominantly immigrant status, un-or-underemployed seeking opportunity. Tired-looking people of colour wait for buses while the tourists around them hire vintage sports cars. Smiling Cubans open doors for linen-wearing white people at fancy hotels. However, there’s a prevailing sense of solidarity, or at least of Miami’s own slightly hotchpotch brand of solidarity, braided throughout the chequered pasts of these two cities and into their social fabric. This is a place full of contradictions.

In 1926, the Miami area was hit by The Miami Hurricane (as it was called, as if such an event would never occur again). It brought the area’s growth to a halt. But in the 1930’s, despite The Great Depression, Miami Beach still attracted tourists, and investors began redeveloping the city’s damaged properties into mostly small, boutique hotels in the style of the day: Art Deco. During this time, hundreds of iconic Art Deco buildings were constructed – many of which now comprise the island city’s 800-building strong Art Deco Historic District.

Then came WWII. According to the guide of my walking Art Deco tour, James, the military didn’t have much regard for modern architecture. Some of Miami’s most important architectural sites became offices and sleeping quarters for soldiers as the cities were transformed into a major strategic base. When the war ended, they faced a predicament; exponential population growth due to relocated military families and, later, an influx of middle class, anti-Castro Cubans who formed Miami’s “Little Havana”. Then, another hurricane hit – Cleo. Then Betsy. Then Inez. But Miami didn’t have the choice of becoming extinct. After each devastation, it had to find a way to continue to exist, or risk plunging into despair.

Sure enough, in came the developers, who, like the time before, added a new layer to Miami’s increasingly haphazard urban landscape. Miami Modern (MiMo) architecture proliferated, along with Mediterranean Revival – most famously manifested in the Versace mansion. Then in came cocaine. Followed by police brutality. Civil rights riots. Pride. Nationally-broadcasted immigration disputes. James, who spent the 80’s working as a gossip columnist, told stories of rubbing shoulders with Al Capone-inspired gangsters, Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. But despite the glamorous façade, Miami Beach was experiencing decay. Historic Art Deco buildings were left vacant and facing demolition. Crime and poverty took root.

Luckily, a few savvy developers and one very passionate preservationist, Barbara Baer Capitman, took action to preserve the city’s architectural beauty and promote it to the world.

The result? More tourists, and interest from TV and movie crews who were drawn to South Beach as a set – including the makers of Miami Vice. The hit show’s investment in the Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach powered the city’s revival, and its pastel facelift. More hurricanes – Andrew, Irene, Michelle. More architects – Gehry, Hadid, Faena. Both Miami and Miami Beach slowly became patchworks of the past, and their buildings bore the waves of history. Modern-day Miami Beach is a caricature of its deepest-running historical legends; Little Havana, though full of allure, an exaggerated ode to home; the cities’ architectural wonders flashy reminders of the have/have-not divide. And yet, somehow, these cities are ever modern. Somehow, the sense of an oncoming future persists.

Even James fits into this past-future dichotomy. A novelist of two self-published books about the trials and tribulations of a delinquent Miami gossip columnist, he’s not only struck revelling in the city’s past, but a walking caricature of his own. He’s just hustled a second floor apartment in his building in South Beach, after his previous ground-floor place was flooded, twice. But, a loyal Miamian, he wouldn’t live anywhere else. Not even after Hurricane Katrina (2005), Wilma (2005) and Irma (2017), the impacts of which caused evacuations, deaths, flooding and power outages in Miami and Miami Beach just two years ago. The way he talks about his future is not dissimilar to the way a captain might talk about going down with their ship.

Both cities are starting to engineer specifically for rising sea levels and the other potential effects of a changing climate. This includes a five-year, US$500million plan for the installation of water pumps, construction of taller sea walls, and the physical raising of road levels. Both cities are incredibly green, both visually (much of Miami’s newly developed areas feature garden-covered rooftops) and in policy. They’re forced to be. They’re not sharing in the majority’s knowledge-action deficit – to do so would be to drown.

In April of 2019, The Intercept – an online news publication dedicated to what it describes as “adversarial journalism” – published a video created with prolific young sitting democrat, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. It’s entitled “A Message From The Future”, and is set in a post-Green New Deal world.

It paints a picture of the utopia Cortez advocates could be made possible through her contentious legislation proposal, with one major casualty; “When Hurricane Sheldon hit Florida, parts of Miami went underwater for the last time,” goes Cortez’s narration. “But as we battled the floods, we knew how lucky we were to have started acting when we did.”

There remains concern as to whether the changes being made in Miami and Miami Beach are ambitious enough. Indeed, there's concern on the other side of the debate as to whether the changes are necessary at all. But the action being taken is nonetheless representative of that same sense of hope I noticed all throughout these two cities. They live, design, grow and evolve for the future, even though, as learnt through history, it is an uncertain one. Withstanding turmoil and devastation is in their DNA. People, whether rich or poor, remain, and more come. While the next wave that hits Miami could well be its last, hope prevails.