In Miami, you will find a world where reality and fantasy are not so far apart.
… perhaps that explains why tourists feel so relaxed here. In Africa, my birthplace as the archetypal birthplace of mankind, visiting that continent creates in a stranger a sense of homecoming. But Miami screams “Important Human Activity Here – Come Play!” It’s like it is an inside joke that everyone – tourist and resident – is in on. The name of the game is fun, fun, and more fun.
How Miami came to be
Miami is a product of the dream of America’s Midwestern millionaires to have a tropical leisure destination that they could call their own. The city was little more than a mangrove swamp until the 1920’s. And it still feels like a new city – like a runaway adolescent bent on creating its own identity.
Go West, Young Man
Travel a distance west of downtown Miami and Miami Beach to ogle a horizon dotted with great cranes which, like hungry dragons, devour the mangroves and the sawgrass of pristine wetlands. Here, cutting-edge contemporary art and famous-name architecture are a world away. This is the edge of the Everglades. This urban sprawl that is west Miami is one of cookie-cutter gated complexes with faux Tuscan, Tudor, or Georgian facades. Vegetation lush and gorgeous competes with vast lawns boasting hot pink plastic pink flamingo ornaments and elaborate tropical water features.
A visitor need only chance upon the world’s biggest art exhibition that is called Art Basel-Miami as it spreads itself across the city to understand that in Miami it’s not just about world-class art – this is a world-class party town. After an exhausting day limo-hopping or uber-ing from satellite galleries in shipping containers, exhibitions in South Beach penthouses, former warehouses in the city’s derelict downtown neighborhoods and, yes, private and public gallery spaces, one can choose from a plethora of seriously fabulous after-parties throughout the city.
It only takes a few days to realize that there are no limits to the inventiveness of Miami. At a pace and panache unlike any other American city, spend a week here and watch history unfold before your eyes. One day you could be sunbathing next to models and Hollywood names.
The Latin American Capital
When I moved here in the 80’s there was this surreal disconnect, when, and on that very same beach – you are a witness to or a dozen or so weather-beaten, dehydrated Cuban or Haitian refugees, clinging onto rafts made from rubber tyres that wash up on the beach after days of nightmare at sea. This face of frivolity belies the real miracle that is Miami – an opportunity for re-birth for millions of political and economic refugees from mainly Latin America – but also from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
This is an invented city, its existence made possible with the invention air-conditioning. It was a Miami pharmacist who developed the first commercially marketed sunscreen product, Coppertone, surprise surprise. And Miami banks that pioneered – with roller-bladers in mind – ATM machines.
A City in a Hurry
In less than 100 years Miami has become the richest city in the USA with a population of nearly 6 million, whose first language is Spanish, a beach town which is also packed with serious art galleries, the most breathtakingly beautiful botanical gardens in the world and whose most famous and largely man-made resort area – South Beach – is a living historic preservation district boasting over 800 art deco buildings painted in coral, pinks, pastel blue and green and hibiscus yellow. South Beach, Fischer Island – Oprah Winfrey’s island of choice for residence – and many other livable sand-spits are man-made, created by dredging millions of tons of sand underlying the ocean.
Everyone is Welcome
Over on the mainland, the immigrants form their communities. The most famous of them is Little Havana, though it is not much more than a tourist attraction now, as those former inhabitants have long emerged from that safe refuge and supplanted the Anglo’s – English-speakers – coral-walled mansions which line the palm-fringed natural harbors of coastlines, islands and waterways. They are the politicians and businessmen who run the city and invite the upper echelons of Latin American society to play and participate in the opportunity that this Spanish speaking North American city represents.
Miami’s pulse comes not from the incessant partying, nor the edginess associated with the Mob and the Latin American drug gangs, but from the swathe of nations, histories and languages that form distinctive islands of refuge that recreate home – Little Haiti, little Nicaragua, Tel Aviv, Moscow. All these places tell a tale of upheaval, loss and re-invention, the familiar and the very new. Miami is, in glorious vibrant technicolor, the story of America. Oh – and the food. The food is the finest example of every national cuisine you can think of. Of course!