Everyone agrees. Miami is America’s hottest metropolis, our current conurbation of cool, but it hasn’t always been that way. When I first checked out Miami, back in 1980, the city was universally denounced as a pariah destination—unfashionable as well as doomed.
Esquire magazine sent me down there because I was a war correspondent. My assignment: to figure out what the hell was going on in the erstwhile palm-fringed paradise that all of a sudden had become America’s most notorious dateline. The first thing I discovered, as you still discover today, is that Miami is full of surprises. It just isn’t what you expect.
True, Miami had been swept by civil disturbances—“race riots” they were called back then. Armadas of boat people had stormed its beaches. A study was done of hundred-dollar bills circulating in Miami. Every one of them, it was said, bore traces of cocaine. Then there were all those funny people speaking funny languages, eating funny food. Surely this couldn’t be America!
Behind the horror headlines, I encountered a city of grit, resiliency, imagination and charm. Miami, according to the conventional-wisdom purveyors, was so out of it that it wasn’t part of America anymore. “Will the last American to leave please bring the flag?” the saying went.
The more I immersed myself in Miami, the more evident it became that the opposite was true. All the things that made Miami seem so un-American were what made it America’s newest great city. After all, what could be more all-American than contraband, shootouts and all sorts of people seeking a new life on America’s shores whether we want them here or not?
Then, as now, when you got to Miami, you found there was a there there. Enticing rhythms grabbed me by the ear every time I turned on the rental-car radio. As remains true to this day, I found it’s impossible not to eat well in Miami. Creole, Cuban, kosher, soul food, old-South cafeteria cuisine, flambéed “continental” extravaganzas never seen on the continent of Europe, curried goat, chocolate soufflés: Miami was a feast.
Dynamic, inventive, scary and fun, Miami was a harbinger of America’s future, not an aberration. Yet when I coined the phrase “City of the Future” in my Esquire article to describe Miami’s meaning for America, and then turned it into the subtitle of an ensuing book, it was denounced as a perverse, absurd contention.
Since then Miami has never stopped proving the naysayers wrong. Not only has it gone on to become the celebrity-studded city it is today, the whole of America gets more Miami-like with each passing year. Today you find immigrants, drugs, globalization and service-sector economies in northern suburbs and midwestern farm towns. In every shopping mall and suburb you also find the country’s greatest untold story: a triumph of interethnic cooperation that seldom, if ever, makes headlines yet explains why America remains so inventive, so resourceful, so successful in spite of the negativity that dominates our public discourse.
The prevailing myth, still widespread, was that Miami was Paradise Lost. It was a multilayered falsehood, for Miami—built atop buggy swamps and infertile limestone—never had been a paradise. Another falsehood was that America, somehow, had been an essentially rural, and now had become an essentially suburban, nation. From the beginning America’s destiny was fused in cities.
Even during Miami’s darkest days, though, some of our savviest interpreters of popular culture recognized its importance. Andy Warhol, a cunning exploiter of emerging trends, visited Miami Beach’s crumbling, crime-ridden Deco District and pronounced himself enthralled. Denounced as an unsavory slum at the time, it since has emerged as fabled South Beach. No one paid much attention to Biscayne Bay until the visionary artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude and their throng of ecovolunteers cleaned up the garbage and surrounded its islets with acres of stunning pink acrylic. Then in 1984 Miami Vice burst into the national consciousness. Those snazzy fashions and low-slung sports cars documented a cultural transformation in which skin color no longer decided your status, nor did ethnicity decide whether you were cool or out of it.
Look around today on the new seaside boardwalk extending north from South Beach’s Ocean Drive. As with New York’s High Line, it’s the human heterodoxy that completes the delight. Exquisitely (and expensively) sculpted muscle, yarmulkes and beach thongs, designer sports bikes and wild-eyed old people pushing supermarket carts past $1,000-an-hour models posing for $5,000-an-hour fashion photographers: Miami’s underlying human unity emerges out of all that diversity once people let their flesh show.
Brazilians, Argentines, Venezuelans and Central Americans have followed the Cubans in remaking Miami. Russians have colonized Sunny Isles, though everywhere big money is spent in Miami you find Russians. The Design District and Brickell are now buzzing where once abandonment reigned. Miracle Mile in Coral Gables is now host to immense, friendly—and romance-charged—street parties.
The growth of Miami’s cultural infrastructure is especially meaningful to me. When Miami: City of the Future was first published in 1987, the Miami Book Fair was still in its infancy. By 2013, when my other book dealing with Miami (and lots of other stuff), Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, was published, Miami Book Fair International was long established as the hemisphere’s premier book fair. This hasn’t happened in isolation. The book fair, held in downtown Miami, has both propelled and profited from the central city’s resurgence. Meanwhile, the city’s bayfront has turned into a cultural as well as gastronomic center, with new museums, sports arenas and concert halls. The book fair itself is now just one highlight of a year-round festival cycle, including Art Basel, which has turned Miami into a global art-market capital.
Synergism, not sunshine, explains this success. The people moving their businesses, families and money to Miami could go on vacation anywhere. What causes them to put down roots is Miami’s fusion of multilingual, multicultural savoir faire with U.S. legal and political stability—plus location, location, location. My French neighbor’s rooftop pool is just hours away by private jet from Paris and Caracas and New York.
iami goes on revealing major truths about us, whether we admit it or not. First, America will be a nation of immigrants, no matter how many fences we build. Immigration never ceases to generate complaints that America is no longer America, yet it has always turned out to be a solution, a source of dynamism and wealth. As Miami triumphantly demonstrates, America is at its best, and does best for itself, when it welcomes its newcomers.
Miami is also prototypical in less flattering ways. Like the country as a whole, it isn’t doing all that much when it comes to dealing with the growing systemic and infrastructure problems we face. Inaction and denial won’t stop the salt water stealing into the freshwater aquifers. Thanks to governmental dysfunction, Miami may die of thirst before it drowns. This failure to respond effectively to societal imperatives is part of a larger American conundrum. Never have we as a people been more tolerant, industrious, resourceful and inventive, yet seldom have the great institutions that envelop us—corporate as well as civic—been less responsive to our needs.
When people ask what I like best about the place, I don’t name some beach, nightclub, tropical garden or restaurant. I tell them that what I admire most is Miami’s resiliency. As sure as people pretend it never gets chilly in Miami, once the sky finishes falling, the crazy-frenzy orgy of speculation and delusion starts over again.
The most important thing Miami has to teach us is that, when it comes to the future, you can’t pick and choose. You must make the best of all the changes overtaking you. Miami certainly continues to be a trendsetter in that regard. The macro-indicators tell us climate change and rising ocean levels may make Miami the whole world’s city of the future, but who cares what the barometers tell us so long as Miami remains the country’s best party town?
If you want to see what lies America tells itself, by all means head for the theme parks. If you want to see the truth about America, come to Miami. The reason Miami terrifies some people is the same reason it enthralls so many others. Miami does not deceive us as to the true nature of life. Life is tough. Life is unpredictable. Life is stranger than we can anticipate or even imagine, and there is no escaping it. Life never ends well, but what a ride toward that ultimate denouement! Faster, wilder, better, I’ll tell you, than any ride in any amusement park.
If you’re scared of Miami, you’re scared of life.