Miami has attracted its share of big dreamers bent on transforming this land of golden beaches and abundant sunshine into something quite grand. The ensuing projects have brought ambitious rail expansions, massive land developments modeled on old-world Europe, and a gorgeous art-deco district created to draw tourists (and their dollars) into a then fledgling city. More recent years have seen Miami’s fortunes (and its identity) deeply connected with Latin America, from Cuban exiles to South American investment firms.
A City in the Sun
It’s always been the weather that’s attracted Miami’s two most prominent species: developers and tourists. But it wasn’t the sun per se that got people moving here – it was an ice storm. The great Florida freeze of 1895 wiped out the state’s citrus industry; at the same time, widowed Julia Tuttle bought out parcels of land that would become modern Miami, and Henry Flagler was building his Florida East Coast Railroad. Tuttle offered to split her land with Flagler if he extended the railway to Miami, but the train man didn’t pay her any heed until north Florida froze over and Tuttle sent him an ‘I told you so’ message: an orange blossom clipped from her Miami garden.
The rest is a history of boom, bust, dreamers and opportunists. Generally, Miami has grown in leaps and bounds following major world events and natural disasters. Hurricanes (particularly the deadly Great Miami Hurricane of 1926) have wiped away the town, but it just keeps bouncing and building back better than before. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Miami earned a reputation for attracting design and city-planning mavericks such as George Merrick, who fashioned the artful Mediterranean village of Coral Gables, and James Deering, designer of the fairy-tale Vizcaya mansion.
Miami Beach blossomed in the early 20th century when Jewish developers recognized the potential American Riviera in their midst. Those hoteliers started building resorts that were branded with a distinctive art-deco facade by daring architects willing to buck the more staid aesthetics of the northeast. The world wars brought soldiers who were stationed at nearby naval facilities, many of whom liked the sun and decided to stay. Latin American and Caribbean revolutions introduced immigrants from the other direction, most famously from Cuba. Cuban immigrants arrived in two waves: first, the anti-Castro types of the '60s, and those looking for a better life since the late 1970s, such as the arrivals on the 1980 Mariel Boatlift during a Cuban economic crisis. The glam and overconsumption of the 1980s, as shown in movies like Scarface and Miami Beach, attracted a certain breed of the rich and beautiful, and their associated models, designers, hoteliers and socialites, all of whom transformed South Beach into the beautiful beast it is today.
On the Rise
Political changes in Latin America continue to have repercussions in this most Latin of cities. Ongoing crises in South America, for instance, have led to a huge influx of immigrants in recent year (from Venezuela in particular). And Miami's banking sector is deeply tied to investments in Latin America. In the last half of the 'aughts,' Miami embarked on a Manhattanization of its skyline that – barring a brief pause from 2008 to 2010 due to the financial crisis – hasn't really let up. Miami has, as of this writing, the third-biggest skyline in the USA (after New York and Chicago), most clearly evident in the area around Brickell.