I’ve only been to Miami once before in 1986 and I had a horrible time there though that wasn’t the city of Miami’s fault. Still, I hadn’t been all that anxious to come back. It was just that our older daughter got a job here and instead of her coming home, we decided to get together in a place where you can walk the beach three days before Christmas and have people greet you by saying “Feliz Navidad” between applications of sun screen. The metropolitan are of Miami is up to 5.4 million people and it seems as if three quarter of those people are not primary English speakers.
The shopping district near our daughter’s North Beach neighborhood appears to include a restaurant dedicated to each western hemisphere country south of Florida. I talked the family into trying Columbian food our second afternoon here. Last night I slipped out to get smoothies and salads from an Argentinian café that claimed to have the best hot dogs in Miami. While much of the food is Latin, a good percentage of the newcomers appear to be Eastern European. Miami has a large concentration of Russian Jews. A friend of mine here who came from Belarus via New Jersey talked about a giant Menorah lighting ceremony on one of the beaches a few days ago. In her words, “All these people lighting a Menorah and no police.”
In between, she managed to tell me how America is doomed because of political correctness that keeps the most competent individuals from rising to the top. Who knows?
Two generations ago, Los Angeles was the city of the future in American culture. At that time, it was the city built around the three institutions that shaped the second half of twentieth century America- the automobile, television, and the movies. Perhaps the most symbolic move came in the early sixties when Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to Hollywood. After all, the guests were then all in Los Angeles. Instead of Broadway stars, writers, and Washington politicians, the mix changed to movie stars, musicians, and most recently individuals best described as “party people” and other progeny of Paris Hilton.
Of the many American cities I’ve visited in the last decade, Miami is the one that looks and feels genuinely different. Based on the number of exotic cars roaming the always crowded streets and the endless number of personal palaces fronting the ocean, there’s clearly a huge amount of money coming into the city. In addition, the wide spectrum of languages and looks (Africa, Europe, the Caribbean) feels like a modern take on New York just before the twentieth century when something like a hundred thousand people a day were coming into what was then the city of America’s future.
Perhaps most symbolic of all, this is the city that determined the fate of the 2000 election. Although Dade County actually went to Gore, this is the place where the recount war happened. In 1900, New York City was the gateway to a country that had reached the tipping point between urban vs. rural, manufacturing and service vs. agricultural, and inward looking vs. world power. The artifacts of that time include the Statue of Liberty (1896), the beginnings of the Manhattan skyline, and the subway system (1904). Los Angeles celebrated the rise of America as a cultural power and the artifacts of that are Disneyland (1955), the freeway system both the city’s crowded system of interchanges and the completion of the Interstate to the west coast, and Dodger Stadium then known as the Chavez Ravine which symbolized both the nationalization of sports culture with the major leagues now on both coasts and the quiet elimination of an established Mexican neighborhood (the rise of an American monoculture of shopping malls, television, tract homes, and pop music).
If Miami is now the city of America’s future, I’m not sure what its artifacts will be. It appears that we have hit a critical juncture in our history. The era of American financial power ushered in by the New York City of 1900 appears to be waning. The post-war American culture of 1950’s Los Angeles is also being challenged by the mix represented in Miami. Instead of simply becoming “American”, whatever that is, the new generation of immigrants seems to demand that their new country meet them at least part way. There are certainly stores and restaurants here where no one attempts to speak English and the flat screen televisions thanks to satellite dishes play shows from the owners’ native countries. Rather than doing whatever is necessary to seem as “American” as possible (do you remember when Jewish immigrants routinely changed their names?), Miami appears to be a place where the wealthier immigrants at least pick and choose. Cars, fancy hotels, and elaborate shopping malls appear to be a “yes”. The Barnes and Nobles in one of the malls had whole counters of books in Spanish. It’s just harder to tell about the rest. We were in a kosher frozen yogurt shop near Bal Harbor shopping center and there were cards along the wall for a Jewish private school. In the meantime, Miami is a city with five million people and two four year colleges, the University of Miami and Florida International.
I really have no idea what the artifacts of Miami, the city, will be from the early twenty first century. We did spend two evenings wandering, shopping, and dining on the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in South Beach. It was crowded, filled with outdoor restaurants, exotic scents. Where else do you find deep fried yucca (more or less low carb French Fries), chicken churrasco, and plantains served next door to a place that offers avocado won ton, and sushi made from yellowtail tuna and mangoes? One of the signs of Miami’s emergence as a city of importance in America (it’s fourth by population) is that it’s rapidly becoming a food city.
More ominously, before we got her one of the networks ran a segment on how the foreclosure fest known as contemporary American finance has hit Miami especially hard. The city has more than its share of half-constructed towers and eerily empty hotels right now. One possibility is that Miami is going to be the template for America as colony rather than colonist. The wealthy of Miami are often those who don’t speak or care to speak English. The “Americans” in Miami may soon be the ones serving the whims of tourists rather than the other way around.
I am however thankful that the Miami of Crockett and Tubbs that I saw in the eighties is mostly gone. Whatever the underlying reality, my first thought here isn’t that I’m wandering the center of the North American cocaine trade. Instead, there’s a tremendous energy here still a sense of growth and change that has slipped away from say San Francisco or Washington D.C. (the two American cities I know best). At times modern Miami seems to be one of these places that's all future and no past. Even Elian Gonzales and Gore v. Bush seem like a long time ago. There’s something possible here, the hint of a second melting pot that may push America forward yet again economically and culturally. Only this time, this melting pot’s will probably have a few more spices in it.