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Miami

History

Rest assured: the Miami you visit today will be gone by the time you come back.

This is a city built on boom and bust, by dreamers who took advantage of nice weather and opportunists who took advantage of natural disasters. Every chapter of this town’s saga is closed by a hurricane, building boom or riot, and when the dust settles a new Miami is left sizzling on the beach. That’s an ironically jerky rate of growth, considering it took about 400 years for Miami to turn into a city (since Ponce de León missed the fountain of youth). But when this town decided to go large, it played catch-up with a vengeance.

In some ways, the story of Greater Miami is a classic American tale of displacement, entrepreneurship, refugee hopes and desperate innovation. But don’t forget the footnotes: corruption, neglect, and fraught – and occasionally bloody – community divisions. The end product is hardly perfect. But it’s also continuously resurrecting itself, as new immigrants push into low-rise tenements, and the nouveau riche reinvent the glittering Miami skyline.

The recent past

10,000 BC

Tequesta Indians arrive in South Florida. They live as hunter-gatherers in the area that includes modern Miami, the Ever­glades and the Keys, but leave little trace of their existence for archaeologists.

1513

Juan Ponce de León is the first European to land in Florida, supposedly seeking out the fountain of youth. He misses the fountain, but does find the Gulf Stream current, an extremely important current for navigators.

1565

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés lands in Florida and founds the city of St Augustine, the first permanent (European) settlement in what is now the continental United States.

1783

The British grant America independence at the Treaty of Paris. They also vacate Florida and give it back to the Spanish, who now have to contend with American territorial ambitions.

1821

The USA acquires Florida from Spain. Settlers arrive in great numbers, and tensions between mainly white migrants and Native American communities, many of which have taken in runaway black slaves, run high.

1835–42

Second Seminole War. Seminoles and black allies fight a guerilla war against the US Army, which ends with much of the tribe exiled west, although elements remain in South Florida to this day.

1845

Florida becomes the 27th state in the Union. Almost half of the state’s population is slaves, which partially accounts for Florida joining the Confederacy during the Civil War.

1896

Henry Flagler finishes construction of his railroad; Miami is incorporated. Miami, a small city quite literally at the edge of America, is accessible to the rest of the country by overland travel.

1898

Army camps are set up in Miami during the Spanish–American War, beginning a trend of migration; soldiers who are barracked in Miami decide they like the area and move their families there.

1914

Miami Beach’s first hotel, the WJ Brown Hotel, opens for business. The initial boom of hotel development, often spurred by Jewish investors, starts turning the beach into the ‘American Riviera’.

1915

Carl Fischer dredges Biscayne Bay to build Miami. To this day the Bay divides the city of Miami Beach and the island of Key Biscayne from Miami proper.

1926

A hurricane demolishes much of the city. At least 373 people are killed, but Miami rebuilds herself in the hurricane’s aftermath. To a much lesser degree, the cycle of storm and rebuild continues to this day.

1935

Miami Beach population hits 13, 350 –doubling from just five years earlier. Art Deco architecture is prevalent and the ‘tropical deco’ style is in vogue, giving Greater Miami’s buildings a distinctive global cachet.

1959

Fidel Castro takes over Cuba and the influx of Cuban exiles begins. The new Cuban-American population will define Miami demographics, culture and politics to the present day.

1961–2

The failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis deepen the already fraught tensions between America –particularly South Florida, home of many Cuban exiles – and Castro’s Cuba.

1973

The Miami Dolphins win Super Bowl VII, capping off their 17–0 1972 season, which remains, to date, the only perfect season in National Football League history.

1979

The Miami Beach Architectural District gets historic-landmark status with the National Register. Miami Beach begins preserving its deco hotels, which will become the foundation of the tourism boom that later transforms South Beach.

1980

Race riots tear up Miami while the Mariel Boatlift, the largest nonmilitary naval fleet in history brings in 125, 000 Cubans. Tensions between blacks, whites and Latinos remain high for some time.

1984

Miami Vice hits the air, giving Miami and Miami Beach a distinctive brand name associated with convertibles, palm trees and pastel suits. Models, fashion designers and photo shoots soon follow.

1985

First Winter Music Conference (WMC) solidifies Miami’s hip reputation. The WMC continues to bring DJs, the gay community and a large crowd of Europeans to Miami every year.

1992

Hurricane Andrew slams nearby Homestead, but leaves Miami relatively unscathed. The devastation forces Homestead and nearby towns to almost completely rebuild themselves from the ground up. Damages are estimated at $20 billion.

1996

The city of Miami turns 100, the same year it is named the fourth-poorest city in the USA. Economic issues continue until Manny Diaz is elected mayor in 2001.

1997

Gianni Versace is murdered on the steps of his Ocean Dr home. Ironically, this murder of a European fashionista in turn encourages more European tourism to South Beach.

1998

Mayor Xavier Suarez is ousted from office for absentee-ballot fraud (dead people voting). Suarez is, to date, the last vestige of Miami’s notoriously colorful and corrupt mayors.

1999

Elián Gonzalez is rescued at sea and brought to the USA. A prolonged custody battle ensues between his maternal American family and his father in Cuba, ending with Gonzalez being repatriated to Cuba.

2002

The first Art Basel Miami Beach brings the art world to South Beach, adding the cachets of ‘art city’ and ‘design city’ to Miami’s global tourism brand and pulling, yet again, more European tourists.

2003

Nip/Tuck, a series about Miami plastic surgeons, premieres. The show shifts Miami’s depiction in popular culture from a city of crime and hot weather to a city of shallow, beautiful people and hot weather.

2005

Hurricane Wilma wrecks the Keys and ex­acerbates the pre-existing affordable housing crisis in those islands. Employees of Keys hotels, bars and restaurants commute for hours from Homestead to their jobs.

2006

The Arsht Center (then called the Carnival Center) opens, the second-biggest performing arts venue in America. The much-delayed, much over-budgeted project is nonetheless warmly embraced, and kicks off a series of Downtown revitalization projects.

2008

Plans are approved for a new Miami Marlins stadium to replace the Orange Bowl. The 37, 000 seat, retractable-roof stadium has an estimated $525 million price tag, mainly covered by the City of Miami.

Let’s be clear: Miamians still don’t like Castro, so this isn’t the best place to flash your Che T-shirt. In the past, street carnivals in Little Havana have been set off by rumors of Fidel’s ill health. When Rafael Del Pino, a former Cuban general and defector, suggested some détente with his motherland in 2008, a caller to Radio Mambi suggested that the highest-ranking Castro official to ever reach American shores be lynched. Del Pino subsequently filed a lawsuit, which was promptly thrown out of a federal court.

In 2008 Castro finally announced his intent to step down from power. Surely a retirement announcement warranted a party, at least a handover-of-power mojito? Nope. The reaction among Cuban exiles never topped cautious optimism. Will Fidel’s brother and successor Raul be a reformer? Delfin Gonzalez, uncle of the famous Elian, told us, ‘Fidel, Raul –they have the same mother.’

In 2008, the newer wave of Cuban immigrants – the working class who’ve been coming to America since 1980 – defined the public face of the community response. They have little love of Castro, but are more concerned with making a better life for themselves then settling political scores.

One Cuban waitress tersely reacted to the latest chapter of the Fidel chronicles with these words: ‘I don’t have time for the news.’ Then she went back to work.

The issue of legalizing slot machines consistently appears on voters’ ballots, but whether or not they’ll ever appear at local race tracks remains anyone’s guess – for years the fight has been shot down, resurrected and debated again and again, ad nauseum. And as Miamians debate the ins and outs of gambling, their city fathers are pushing for complete incorporation of Miami-Dade county by 2010. This would cause huge swathes of unincorporated county – including the area around Everglades National Park – to fall under city control. At issue: who would do a better job of managing Miami-Dade? County commissioners? City council members? Local governments? The logic behind incorporation runs like so: divide Miami-Dade into dozens of small cities governed by local councils, and those councils will have a better idea of their constituents’ needs, particularly in poorer areas. But there are plenty of examples of local councils using local connections to make a cut off real estate development, as opposed to funding infrastructure for the underclass.

Besides, who has time to care about the poor when the South Florida Sun Sentinel estimates that one in 10 Floridians in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties is a millionaire (when you include the value of their homes, cars and stocks)? Just drive from the condo coast of A1A, through a valley of poor and middle-income homes, and re-emerge at the eastern edge of the Everglades, where the newly wealthy are carving wetlands into personal palaces of the ego. To top it all off, the region’s original inhabitants, the Seminoles, are busily preparing to turn their ancient tribal homeland into a Las Vegas–style casino block. This could be bad news for endangered species like the Florida panther, but hold on, there are free drinks at the craps tables!

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Tequesta Indians

In 1998, 24 holes, inscribed in bedrock and arranged in the shape of a perfect circle, were found in downtown Miami. The ‘Miami Circle, ’ as it was dubbed, is thought to be the foundations of a permanent structure and, at some 2000 years old, it’s the oldest contender for that title on the US East Coast.

Archaeologists think the Circle was built by Miami’s earliest known inhabitants, the Tequesta (Tekesta) Indians, who are otherwise a mystery. The usual depressing scenario of European (in this case Spanish) first contact, violence and disease wiped out the tribe, whose survivors likely melted into the local Miccosukee and Seminole nations.

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Spain, Britain, & Spain again

Juan Ponce de León was the first European to get lost here back in 1513, on a fruitless quest for the mythical fountain of youth. But the man widely credited for leading Florida’s colonization is the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. In 1565 – several decades before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and English aristocrats starved in Jamestown, Virginia – Menéndez de Avilés landed in what he soon dubbed St Augustine. From here he headed north and massacred many an encroaching French fleet, and Florida became to North America what Poland is to Europe: the flattest piece of land between battling superpowers. Before Florida was officially ceded to the US by Spain in 1821, the entire northeast section of the state was sacked, looted, burned and occupied by Spanish, then English, and finally US forces.

Although the Spanish could claim to be king of the castle after weathering repeated British attacks in 1586, 1668 and 1702, they screwed up during the French and Indian War by entering late and on the losing side – against the British and their (at the time) American colonial allies. The blunder cost the Spanish Florida, which they traded for Britain’s Havana in 1763. Then came the American Revolution, upsetting the whole status quo all over again. When the British granted America independence at the Treaty of Paris, they also handed Florida back to Spain.

So Spain had Florida all to itself again – and a big, land-hungry new nation lying just to the north. Relations chilled when escaped American slaves made for Spanish Florida, where slavery was illegal and freed black slaves were employed as standing militia members. White American Southerners saw all those armed black militia and started sweating the notion of slave revolts in their back plantation yard.

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The unconquered people

Plenty of said slaves passed up the Spanish and ran for the southern swamps – the modern Everglades – where they were taken in by the Seminole Nation, itself a collection of refugees and exiles from several Southern American Indian tribes. Black newcomers were also occasionally kept as slaves among the Seminole, although this slavery was more akin to indentured servitude (slaves, for example, had their own homes that they inhabited with their families).

When the huge Creek Indian tribe of Georgia and Alabama was forced west across the Mississippi River in 1817, Americans figured everything east of that body of water was now theirs for the settling. But the Seminoles and their black allies had no intention of leaving their homes. As American squatters filtered into Spanish Florida, they found that their imagined open frontier was actually cultivated and grazed by Seminole farmers and ranchers. The presence of black Seminoles (integrated slaves) particularly put off the slave-owning Southerners.

Bad blood and sporadic violence between the Americans and Seminoles eventually gave the US the excuse it needed to make a bid for Florida, which was finally bought from Spain in 1821. Before and after that date, the US military embarked on several campaigns against the Seminoles and their allies, who took to the swamps, fought three guerilla wars, and scored a respectable amount of victories against an enemy several times their size. In fact, the Second Seminole War (1835–42) was the longest in American history between the American Revolution and the Vietnam War.

Indeed, operationally the Seminole wars were a 19th-century version of Vietnam, a never-ending parade of long, pointless patrols into impenetrable swamps, always searching for an ever-invisible enemy. By 1830 Congress came up with a shockingly Nazi-like scheme: the Removal Act, a law that told Native Americans to pack up their things and move across the country to the barren plains that would later become Oklahoma. Some went, enticed by sacks of bribe money, but chief Osceola and his band (never exceeding more than 100 warriors) refused to sign the treaty and fled into the Everglades. After keeping thousands of soldiers jumping at the barest hint of his presence for years, in 1837 Osceola was finally captured under a false flag of truce. Yet resistance continued, and eventually, while the Seminoles gave up on fighting, the government also gave up on moving them west.

By 1842 the warring had ended, but no peace treaty was ever signed, which is why the Seminoles remain to this day the unconquered people. Those Seminoles who remained in Florida still live in and around the Everglades, and are now organized under a tribal government and run the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and, um, the Hard Rock Café. Not one Hard Rock Café: we mean the entire Hard Rock chain, bought for $965 million in 2007 with money made from gambling revenue. The Seminoles were the first Native American tribe to cash in on gambling, starting with a bingo hall in 1979 that has since expanded to a multi-billion-dollar empire. That’s not bad for a Seminole population of a little over 3000, but questions remain as to how evenly all that money is spread around by the tribal council.

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Freezes, Flagler & Tuttle too

Sunny Miami? Bet you didn’t know it’s the baby of an ice storm.

But we’re jumping ahead. First, let’s address John S Collins, the original beachfront buyer on Miami Beach, who purchased the 5-mile strip between the Atlantic and Biscayne Bay (what is now 14th to 67th Sts). Collins began selling parcels of beachfront property in 1896, but it was Julia Tuttle and Henry Morrison Flagler who really deserve the credit for carving Greater Miami out of the sand.

Tuttle arrived in 1875 with a tubercular husband, and after his death she returned to the land she had inherited as a widow. Proving her worth as a true Floridian, over the next 20 years she proceeded to buy up property like crazy.

In the meantime, Flagler, a business partner of John D Rockefeller, had realized Florida’s tourism potential and been busy developing the northern Florida coast in St Augustine and Palm Beach. He also built the Florida East Coast Railroad, which extended down as far as Palm Beach. Tuttle saw a business opportunity and contacted Flagler with a proposition: if he would extend his railroad to Miami, Tuttle would split her property with him.

Miami? Way down at the end of nowhere? Flagler wasn’t interested.

Then, in 1895, a record freeze enveloped most of Florida (but not Miami), wiping out citrus crops and sending vacationers scurrying. Legend has it that Tuttle – who is said to have been rather quick both on the uptake and with an ‘I told you so’ – went into her garden at Fort Dallas on the Miami River, snipped off some orange blossoms and sent them to Flagler, who hightailed it down to Miami to see for himself.

Well, like Will Smith, Gianni Versace and millions of others, Flagler was hooked. He and Tuttle came to terms, and all those Floridians whose lives had been wiped out by the freeze followed Flagler south. Passenger-train service to Miami began on April 22, 1896, the year the city of Miami became incorporated.

Tuttle, a woman, had essentially founded an American city at a time when women’s rights were…wha? Women’s rights? But that’s about the only blow for equal opportunity to be found in this story. Of Miami’s 502 original inhabitants, 100 of them were black, conscripted for hard labor and regulated to the northwest neighborhood of Colored Town (no, really).

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Depression, Deco & another world war

Last call on this party was announced by two events: the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which left perhaps 300 people dead and some 50,000 homeless; and the Great Depression. But it’s in Miami’s nature to weather every disaster with an even better resurgence, and in the interwar period Miami’s phoenix rose in two stages. First, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought the Civilian Conservation Corps, jobs and a spurt of rise-from-the-ashes building projects. Then, in the early 1930s, a group of mostly Jewish developers began erecting small, stylish hotels along Collins Ave and Ocean Dr, jump-starting a miniboom that resulted in the creation and development of Miami Beach’s famous Art Deco district. This, of course, led to a brief rise in anti-Semitism, as the Beach became segregated and ‘Gentiles Only’ signs began popping up in the north. The election of a Jewish governor of Florida in 1933 led to improvement in this area, as did the rise in airplane travel, which brought plenty of Jewish visitors and settlers from the north.

But ironically, while Jews helped Miami rise from the Depression, it was (indirectly) the Nazis who truly revitalized Miami in the mid-20th century. After a German U-Boat sank a tanker near here during WWII, South Florida was converted into what was, for all intents, a massive military base. The Army’s central Anti-U-boat Warfare School was based in Miami, while Miami Beach’s hotels were full of soldiers, who marched up and down the beach in full combat gear. More than a few of them decided it was nice enough here and didn’t bother to go home when the war ended.

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Cuba comes over

During the 1950s Miami solidified its star in America’s tourism firmament as a great destination in its own right, and stepping stone to the floating Las Vegas that was Batista’s Cuba. Progress also seemed inexorable; in 1954 Leroy Collins became the first Southern governor to publicly declare racial segregation ‘morally wrong, ’ while an entire ‘Space Coast’ was created around Cape Canaveral (between Daytona and Miami on the east coast) to support the development of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA).

Then, in 1959, Fidel Castro marched onto the 20th-century stage and forever changed the destiny of Cuba and Miami.

As communists swept into Havana, huge portions of the upper and middle classes of Cuba fled north and established a fiercely anti-Castro Cuban community, now 50 years old and, in some ways, as angry as ever about the big hairy dictator to the south. At the time, counterrevolutionary politics were discussed, and a group of exiles formed the 2506th Brigade, sanctioned by the US government, which provided weapons and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) training for the purpose of launching an attack on Cuba.

The resulting badly executed attack was little more than an ambush, remembered today as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The first wave of counterrevolutionaries, left on the beach without reinforcements or supplies, were all captured or killed (though all prisoners were released by Cuba about three months later).

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Kennedy versus Khrushchev

Kennedy and the CIA both looked rather silly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which is probably why JFK stood his ground so firmly when the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war.

Smelling blood after the Bay of Pigs, the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev began secretly installing missile bases in Cuba, but the CIA managed to take photographs of the unarmed warheads, which were shown to Kennedy in October 1962. The result: the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most knuckle-biting, we’re-all-gonna-die standoffs of the 20th century. Kennedy went on national TV and said that Soviet missiles located 90 miles south of Florida constituted a direct threat to the safety and security of the country. A naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba (a nice euphemism for ‘blockade, ’ which would have been an act of war) was announced, as well as this doozy: any attack on the USA from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the USSR.

A series of high-school notes were passed between the most powerful men on Earth: ‘Well, okay, we do have missiles, but they’re just a deterrent, cool? C’mon, let’s not annihilate civilization.’ The Soviets broke the stalemate and on October 26 agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a promise by the USA not to attack Cuba and to pull up similar American missile sites in Turkey.

In the meantime, if Castro could attract missiles to his country, he couldn’t keep his people there, and in 1965 alone some 100,000 Cubans hopped the ‘freedom flight’ from Havana to Miami.

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Racial tensions

The Cubans were greeted with fear by many black locals, who saw competition in the local cheap employment stakes. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan had been active in Florida since the 1920s, and bombings of black-owned housing were not unknown. Sensing the tension that was building between the black and Cuban populations, Dr Martin Luther King Jr pleaded with the two sides not to let animosity lead to bloodshed.

Riots and skirmishes broke out anyways, including acts of gang-style violence. But not all were caused by simmering Cuban/black tensions, as white folk got into the fray as well. In 1968 a riot broke out after it was discovered that two white police officers had arrested a 17-year-old black male, stripped him naked and hung him by his ankles from a bridge.

In 1970 the ‘rotten meat’ riot began when black locals picketed a white-owned shop they had accused of selling spoiled meat. After three days of picketing, white officers attempted to disperse the crowds and fired on them with tear gas. During the 1970s, there were 13 other race-related violent confrontations.

Racial tensions exploded on May 17, 1980, when four white police officers, being tried on charges that they beat a black suspect to death while he was in custody, were acquitted by an all-white jury. When the verdict was announced, race riots broke out all over Miami and lasted for three days. But beyond all these riots was a subtler, more insidious and more far-reaching legacy of Miami’s racial tension: a great white flight from inner-city Miami into suburbs, gated communities and gentrified neighborhoods.

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The Mariel Boatlift

In the late 1970s, Fidel suddenly declared that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba had open access to the docks at Mariel Harbor. Before the ink was dry on the proclamation, the largest flotilla ever launched for nonmilitary purposes set sail (or paddled) from Cuba in practically anything that would float the 90 miles between Cuba and the USA.

The Mariel Boatlift, as the largest of these would be called, brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida. This included an estimated 25,000 prisoners and mental patients that Fidel decided to foist off on the Cuban-American population, which raised suspicions he had always wanted to make Florida the penitentiary Australia to his Cuban England.

Mariel shattered the stereotype of the wealthy Batista-exiled Cuban. The old Caribbean aristocracy was replaced by thousands of jailed or hungry peasants and their families, often exiled with their prisoner relatives. The resulting strain on the economy, logistics and infrastructure of South Florida added to still-simmering racial tensions and provoked even more white flight; by 1990, it was estimated that 90% of Miami’s Caucasian populace was Hispanic.

And the tension carried over from Hispanic-Anglo divisions to rifts between older Cubans and the new marielitos. The middle- to upper-class white Cubans of the 1960s immigration waves, who had always vocally longed for ‘Old Cuba,’ were reintroduced to that nation in the form of thousands of Afro-Cubans and santeros, or worshippers of Santeria, Cuba’s version of vodou (voodoo). In a sense, Miami did not truly become a Cuban city until both elements of Cuban culture – white Catholic and black and mixed-race santero – found themselves sharing space in Little Havana and Hialeah.

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Miami not so nice

If Scarface is accused of being over the top, the exaggeration only reflects, to an inflated degree, the Roman Empire reality that was 1980s Miami. The decade’s soundtrack wasn’t just the new wave ambient synth of Miami Vice; the big backtrack of the day was ‘cha-ching.’ Corrupt dollars could be bled from corporations jilting retirees out of their pensions, or cocaine cowboys literally gutting their competition in the street.

Thanks to its proximity to South America, Miami became the major East Coast entry port for drug dealers, their product and unbelievable sums of money. It was during this period the town earned the nickname ‘Mi-Yay-Mi’, ‘yay’ being slang for cocaine. As if to keep up with the corruption, many savings and loans (S&Ls) opened in newly built Miami headquarters. While Newsweek magazine called Miami ‘America’s Casablanca, ’ locals dubbed it the ‘City with the S&L Skyline.’

A Latin love of grandiosity (perhaps egged on by the insecurity of traditional machismo) and a nouveau riche penchant for showing off equaled a ‘Caligula meets the corporate world’ era of interior design. CenTrust, a particularly wealthy S&L, used a helicopter to load a marble staircase into its IM Pei–designed Downtown headquarters (today the Bank of America Tower), installed gold-plated faucets in the bathrooms and hung several million dollars’ worth of art on the walls. A plethora of businesses – legitimate concerns as well as drug-financed fronts – and buildings sprang up all over Miami. Downtown was completely remodeled. But it was reborn in the grip of drug smugglers: shoot-outs were common, as were gangland slayings by cocaine cowboys. At one stage, up to three people per week were being gunned down (or carved up) in cocaine-related clashes.

The police, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Border Patrol and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were in a tizzy trying to keep track of it all. Roadblocks were set up along the Overseas Hwy to Key West (prompting the quirky and headstrong residents down there to call for a secession, which eventually sent the cops on their way). Police on I-95, the main East Coast north–south highway, were given extraordinary powers to stop vehicles that matched a ‘drug-runner profile.’ According to one public defender, this amounted to, well, anyone.

Then it happened: Miami Vice.

Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, long, panning shots of SoBe (South Beach) and a lot of pastel suits gave Miami something the local Chamber of Commerce could never really provide: a brand. Vice was single-handedly responsible for Miami Beach rising to international fabulousness in the mid-1980s, its slick soundtrack and music video–style montages glamorizing the rich South Florida lifestyle. Before long, people were coming down to check it out for themselves –especially photographer Bruce Weber, who began using South Beach as a grittily fashionable backdrop for modeling shoots in the early 1980s, leading to imitators and eventually the situation that exists today: model-jam.

Celebrities were wintering in Miami, international photographers were shooting here, and the Art Deco District, having been granted federal protection, was going through renovation and renaissance. Gay men, always on the cutting edge of trends, discovered South Beach’s gritty glamour and began holding the annual White Party, an A-list AIDS fund-raiser party, at Vizcaya, and partied along South Beach’s oceanfront before and after. The city was fast becoming a showpiece of fashion and trendiness (and party drugs, natch).

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The 1990s

A combination of Hurricane Andrew and a crime wave against tourists, particularly carjackings, equaled a drop in visitors, until tourist-oriented community policing and other visible programs reversed the curse. Miami went from being the US city with the most violent crime to one with average crime statistics for a city its size. From 1992 to 1998, tourist-related crimes decreased a whopping 80%. Probably the most famous murder of this decade was the 1997 slaying of fashion designer Gianni Versace.

Immigration policy came in for an overhaul under Bill Clinton. The USA stopped instantly accepting Cuban refugees in an effort to keep the hotheads with Fidel rather than on Miami streets. But the US was still open to admitting 20,000 Cubans a year (not counting immediate family members of existing Cuban-Americans). In addition, the Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot policy meant any Cuban who made landfall could expect to stay in America, although those intercepted at sea were sent back south.

The Cuban-American population dominated headlines again during the Elián Gonzalez nightmare, an international custody fight that ended with federal agents storming the Little Havana house where the seven-year-old was staying to have him shipped back to Cuba and, as per normal, anti-Castro Cubans protesting in Miami streets.

In 1998 sweeping trade embargoes were slightly loosened for the first time since commercial transactions ceased in 1963. Medical supplies were allowed, then came agricultural products, as long as Cuba paid in cash. Although Cuba was struck hard by a hurricane, Fidel’s pronouncement in 2000 that he’d not take ‘one grain of rice’ from the USA was tempered by his cash acquisition in 2002 of $17 million worth of US grain. President Bush, with the support of his brother Jeb, didn’t waste much time tightening the embargo again.

On the bright side, corruption was slightly cleaned out after the removal of Mayor Xavier Suarez in 1998, whose election was overturned following the discovery of many illegal votes. The successive mayor Manuel Diaz hasn’t been universally loved, but he’s been relatively scandal free (with the exception of a Coconut Grove real estate conflict of interest), which is more than most of his predecessors can claim. As a mayor he’s pushed for cementing ties between Miami and the Latin American world – he’s fond of saying, ‘When Venezuela or Argentina sneezes, Miami catches a cold.’

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The 21st century

The 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas talks shone the international spotlight on Miami, and more specifically the thousands of anti-globalization protestors who descended on the summit. And yet another shooting – this one a suicide – put Miami’s vice on the map again in 2005 when ex-city commissioner Arthur Teele killed himself in the lobby of the Miami Herald following an investigation by the alternative Miami New Times into the popular politician’s history of drug use, prostitutes and money laundering.

The 2005 Hurricane Season, the worst on modern record, generally spared Miami, although it did flatten a substantial part of the Keys and other parts of South Florida. But what the disaster truly left behind, besides a lot of debris, was the raw issue of a looming affordable housing crisis. With disaster insurance premiums through the roof and the housing boom already catering to the upper class, the backbone of South Florida’s communities – firefighters, teachers, policemen and postal workers – are being priced out of home owning. Already, the trailer parks that once housed the middle class of the Keys are fast becoming a kitschy tropical memory.

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Miami history books

Miami (1987, Vintage), by Joan Didion. How Cuban politics shape US policy.

The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (1987, Simon & Schuster), by Edna Buchanan. Written by a former Miami Herald reporter, this is an addictive read on real-life Miami murders.

Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (1997, University Press of Florida), by Marvin Dunn. This was the first book devoted to the issue of race in Miami.

This Land Is Our Land: Immigrants and Power in Miami (2003, University of California Press), by Alex Stepick. Stepick and other authors break it down.

Miami, USA (2000, University Press of Florida), by Helen Muir. A recently expanded 1950s title that’s full of anecdotes.

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