December 21st, 2003
The New York Times
A Century-Old City Still in the Process of Being Invented
by ABBY GOODNOUGH
Just past the shadows of a highway overpass, a curiosity rises from the sidewalk: two walls of a giant living room, papered in pink and open to the sky, with a beckoning couch and a window looking west, away from the beaches that have long been this region's wealth and pride.
The artists who created this unfinished room, in a neighborhood most visitors never glimpse, say the work is a metaphor for Miami, the so-called Magic City - just over 100 years old and still deciding what it wants to make of itself.
Miami, as ever, is yearning to be taken seriously. Not as a workaday annex of its hedonistic neighbor, Miami Beach, but as a cosmopolitan center in its own right.
Evidence of the city's ambitions is abundant these days. Along Biscayne Boulevard, whose 40's-era motels became ramshackle drug and prostitution dens after Interstate 95 drained it of tourist traffic, billboards trumpet planned luxury condominiums named Nirvana, Blue and Mist.
A Four Seasons just opened downtown, in a new building that Miami brags is the tallest in Florida. Two miles north, a $344 million performing arts center is going up, the largest built in this country since the Kennedy Center. Its vision statement proclaims that the center, designed by Cesar Pelli, "will transform Miami into the cultural capital of the Americas."
The city is also competing to be the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas - it bristled when one of it rivals, Atlanta, proclaimed itself the "Gateway to the Americas," a moniker Miami has long considered its own.
Pointing to the real-estate frenzy - not along the ocean, for once, but in the long-blighted downtown, which used to be as deserted as a suburban office park after 5 p.m. - some people say Miami is on the brink of attaining the status it has coveted for years.
"I can't think of any city that's had more development energy and ambition than Miami has at the moment," said Michael Hardy, president of the Performing Arts Center Trust, which will run the center after it opens in 2006. "The city and county leadership finally believe it's important to develop everything and not just be a beach community if they're going to have a future beyond tourist dollars."
With 362,500 residents, Miami proper ranks nowhere near the nation's largest cities - according to the 2000 census, it is less populous than Albuquerque, Fresno, even Tulsa.
Yet its social problems are those of a megalopolis. It has a history of racial tensions, drug-fueled violence and corrupt political leaders giving developers free rein. It has a higher percentage of people in poverty than any other American city of 250,000 or more, census figures show.
This is a city with few common memories, since most residents come from somewhere else. And since it is just a way station for many, Miami, which was incorporated in 1896, has historically lacked a collective civic soul.
Though dizzyingly diverse, it is not a melting pot: Miami's many communities - Cuban, Haitian and Colombian, New York Jewish, African-American, gay and European - often clash and many are still focused on the places they left behind, pledging their money and sympathies there.
But that may be changing: a recent poll found that Cuban-Americans 45 and younger are more focused on improving their quality of life here than on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Younger residents have the potential to make Miami a world-class city, some longtime residents say.
To those people, Miami is the kind of mecca that New York has been to so many. But unlike immigrants in New York and Los Angeles, who are often stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder for at least a generation, many Latin Americans here move quickly into the middle class, and even into wealth.
They are contributing to Miami's evolving identity on every level: in low-paying service jobs, as artists and musicians, as political leaders and banking executives, even as developers helping to revitalize downtown.
"In L.A., if you're Latin you're in the restaurant kitchen," said Roberto Behar, half of a husband-wife artistic team that created the model living room on North Miami Avenue in 2001. "Here, the mixing of cultures occurs in the banks, at the art openings, on every level. And Miami is such a baby - whatever you do, you feel you can be part of the history of the place."
Mr. Behar and his wife, Rosario Marquardt, have made their mark with toylike art projects, which they say befit a young city playing with ideas for its future. In addition to "The Living Room," they include a giant red M at a downtown commuter-train station and a house of cards surrounded by scaffolding, a symbol of Miami's state of precariousness.
Mr. Behar, who moved here in the mid-1980's from Argentina by way of New York City, compared Miami to New York in the early 1900's, when that city's cultural institutions, landmark buildings and neighborhood characteristics were still being created. Mr. Behar and Ms. Marquardt are among a small but vocal group calling for more careful, creative urban planning here. One bright example they point to is the so-called Design District, a gritty neighborhood just north of downtown that one developer is trying to transform into the city's creative laboratory.
The developer, Craig Robins, started buying up buildings in the neighborhood in 1994 and now owns 35. He is replacing neglected, nondescript structures with provocative designs, each by a different architect.
Mr. Robins is picky not just about who designs his buildings, but about whom they attract as tenants. He wants artists, furniture and clothing designers, architects and music executives.
Is this place on its way to becoming something big? The answer, people like Mr. Behar say, lies in what Miami can teach other cities about the future. Miami may be the prototype for what American cities will look like a century from now, with residents from other countries bringing new languages, interests and values to transform the culture, economy and landscape.
Approaching this city from the air, the view is often of ocean, then the island that is Miami Beach, then islands scattered in the bay, the city sprawling just beyond. Mr. Behar and Ms. Marquardt have a vision for one of the islands, a tiny patch named for Henry Flagler, the oil baron who built a railroad to Miami, opening it to the world.
Their idea is to carve Flagler Island into a star, so that the myriad people who arrive by plane can latch onto a landmark.
"In every culture, stars stand for destiny, for finding your future," Ms. Marquardt said. "It seems right to have such a thing be part of the invention of this place."