I went back to Miami this past week for the first time in nearly a year and a half. That’s the longest I’ve been away since I arrived in Miami at the age of nine, bright-eyed and excited, expecting something out of a Ramona Quimby book (the extent of my knowledge of life beyond the backwoods of Tennessee). But Miami was about as far from the setting of those books (coincidentally Portland, Oregon) as you could get both culturally and geographically in the continental US. Then and now. Good and bad.
My first memory of Miami is of the swirling concrete overpasses of I-95. Specifically the two intersections of highway plopped down in the middle of Overtown in the 1960s, destroying what was then a thriving (albeit segregated) neighborhood. I didn’t know any of that at the time, although I soon learned that by the 1980s passing Overtown even from above could be dangerous—due to the riots that shut down that same highway right after we arrived in 1982, the occasional stray bullets, the carjackings.
These days Overtown is still poor, but it is also finally, maybe, a neighborhood in recovery. (Or from another perspective, a neighborhood being gentrified and the residents being forced out.) But this post isn’t about Overtown, it’s about greater Miami, a place I love to hate when I’m there and miss when I’m gone.
Overtown is just a symbol of the downside of Miami—100 plus years of poor governance, poor planning, and corrupt politicians at every level of government (I like to start with the swamp draining but I’m sure this point could be debated). And these days at the state level it just gets worse and worse. But that’s a downer, so let’s wander on to the good stuff, and that would be La Fiesta, which Miami does so well.
I arrived in Miami with a last-minute plan to surprise a friend for her birthday. The surprise, however, became complicated when my flight was delayed in Chicago (due to those pesky tornadoes that were tearing through the St. Louis airport around the same time). Then my brother picked me up at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale and despite our fifty plus combined years of living in the area we missed a turn on the highway and ended up in West Broward, a coma inducing land of strip malls that I hope never to return to again–if only Maria would get out.
It got worse as we then headed south and our highway somehow dead-ended in Opa-locka, a city run by scoundrels (I exclude only the newly elected Monestime from this category) with no redeeming qualities other than their Arabian nights themed city hall, which is one of the top cheesy architectural wonders of the world and a site you really must see before you die.
Finally we navigated our way back to I-95, the beckoning neon lights and cocktails of South Beach lighting our way. Only three hours late for the “surprise”, we dropped my bags at my brother’s apartment, threw on South Beach wear—as little clothing as you can indecently wear—and headed for the New World Symphony’s recently finished Frank Gehry designed performance hall.
Of course this was the symphony Miami Style, meaning it was fabulous–with a sexy young conductor in soccer wear holding up a yellow card at the end of each performance, flashing videos of soccer players above, electronic music and dancing with friends in between each performance, and always a full bar within arm reach.
The rest of my days went much like this: long, nerve-wracking drives on the forever under construction and congested highways of Miami-Dade County and gorgeous evenings drinking with friends near the water. It was a great visit, but for me Miami is best experienced in short spurts, preferably at Christmas or New Year’s when non-stop hedonism is more socially acceptable and I’m not supposed to be working. At least in my own mind.