March 10, 1996
THE '96 MIAMI CENTENNIAL
YEARS OF INEPTITUDE:
MIAMI'S INSPIRING TRANSFORMATION FROM A HUMBLE
VILLAGE DOMINATED BY WILDLIFE POOP TO A LARGE URBAN AREA FULL
OF INSANE, HEAVILY ARMED PEOPLE AND MAMMOTH COCKROACHES
BARRY Herald Columnist
we look around South Florida today, we see a modern, bustling
metropolitan area that is home to more than three million
people, an opera company, three symphony orchestras, five
ballet companies, eight major museums and an estimated 168
trillion squirrel-sized tropical cockroaches.
was very different 100 years ago, when the city that we now
call "Miami" was officially born. The year was 1896,
and many exciting things were happening elsewhere in the place
that we now call "the world":
-- In England, Marconi was establishing the first permanent
-- In New York, Austrian-American confectioner Leo Hirschfield
was introducing a new kind of candy, called "Tootsie
-- In Kansas, Bob Dole was winning his first term in Congress.
Here in Miami, however, life was pretty quiet. The area was
still essentially a wilderness: The population was tiny; there
were few permanent dwellings; and there actually were some
available parking spaces at the place we now call "Dadeland."
But even then, this area had a history, a history that dated
back another 4,000 years, to a time when the first native
Americans arrived in South Florida after making their way
across North America in search of a place where they could
fish and hunt and eventually set up some kind of bingo operation.
They arrived to find a natural paradise with no sign of previous
human habitation except Vizcaya. They named their new home
"Miami, " which means either "big water"
or "I can't see these little flies that are biting me."
These early inhabitants settled along the Miami River, over
which they built primitive, foot-powered drawbridges that
are still in use today. They lived off the land, trapping
wild game, catching fish, wrestling alligators and diving
for lobsters when they were in season. For in those days,
the area teemed with wildlife. There was wildlife poop everywhere.
But the people were happy because their life was simple, and
they had no concept of what we now call "lawns."
But things were not meant to remain the same forever. In 1513,
change came with the arrival of the Spanish explorer that
we now know as Juan Ponce de Leon (literally, "John Punched
the Lion"). De Leon was searching for the mythical Fountain
of Youth, of which it was said that if you took one drink,
you would have eternal youth, or at least acne. He did not
find the Fountain of Youth (which we now know is located in
Davenport, Iowa) but eventually he did stumble upon Parrot
Jungle, where he was pecked to death by hostile unicycle-riding
Despite this tragedy, De Leon was followed by a series of
famous conquistadors such as Francisco Hernando Cortez Diego
Balboa Luego; Vasco Guillermo Ricardo Caballero Fernando Orlando
Bernardo Geraldo Julio Marinaro Allegro Capitano "Pepe"
de Soto; Juan Valdez Cordoba Tenedor Guacamole de Burrito;
and Lewis and Clark. For almost two centuries, these men tried
to conquer South Florida, only to be thwarted time and again
by the crafty natives, who baffled the invaders by erecting
supposedly "helpful" signs, each marked with an
obscure "sunburst" symbol. The conquistadors --
easily identified by the fact that they were riding rental
horses -- would attempt to follow these signs, the result
being that they wound up lost and starving near the place
that we now call the "airport." Eventually they
gave up and went home, although the historical Spanish influence
upon Miami is still evident in the form of several streets
named after Celia Cruz.
This was followed in 1754 by the French and Indian War, which
continues to this day in the form of hostile French- Canadian
forces invading South Florida every winter and leaving very
small tips. After that came the War of the American Revolution,
in which South Floridians, faced with the difficult moral
dilemma of whether to remain loyal to the British crown, or
join the colonists fighting for independence, chose to stay
home and drink. After the war Florida found itself a colony
of Spain, which it remained until 1821, when Spain sold it
to the United States for $5 million, plus tickets to the Orange
At this point the federal government engaged in the long,
slow and difficult process of "settling" the region,
in the sense of getting rid of everybody who was not what
we now call a "white person." During this period
workers also built the first Cape Florida Lighthouse, although
as an aid to navigation it was not particularly effective
because it collapsed only moments after being approved by
a Dade County building inspector. Things remained pretty slow
right through the Civil War, which Miami did not pay any attention
to because the Dolphins weren't in it.
After the war, more settlers began arriving from the North,
lured to sunny South Florida by the promise of skin cancer.
One of these settlers was the wealthy widow whom we now call
the "Mother of Miami, " Julia Tuttle Causeway. In
1895, following a disastrous freeze in Northern and Central
Florida, Mrs. Causeway sent to oil millionaire and railroad
magnate Henry Flagler, as a symbol of the tropical climate
in Miami, a jar filled with humidity. Impressed, Flagler immediately
came down and, in one of the most ambitious construction projects
that had ever been attempted at that time, built Metrorail.
This hugely successful transit system carried tens of thousands
of passengers per year until the tragic hurricane of 1935
picked it up and left it stranded on top of giant concrete
pillars, where to this day nobody can get to it.
Thus by 1896 -- exactly 100 years ago -- Miami had finally
grown to the point where it was ready to legally incorporate
as a city. The residents, after carefully considering the
issue of which system of government they should have, decided
to go with the Corrupt Pandering Shouting Bozos System, which
has been in continuous operation ever since.
The new city immediately went on a frenetic growth spree,
constructing a city hall, a post office, a telegraph office,
a fire station, stores, warehouses, many new residences and
several fine hotels; all of these buildings sank into the
muck and disappeared without a trace. This is when the new
city decided it would be a good idea to drain the Everglades,
which we now realize is a priceless ecological treasure, but
which at the time was seen as basically a Walt Disney World
for mosquitoes. Miami also considered building roads, but
decided that it would be cheaper to just put out a bunch of
construction barricades, many of which can still be seen today.
Over the next several decades South Florida became a flourishing
resort with an ever-growing population. Several new municipalities
sprung up around Miami, including Coral Gables, a city founded
on the idealistic philosophy that every human activity, including
metabolism, should require a permit. Meanwhile, across Biscayne
Bay, the city of Miami Beach was being founded by Jackie Gleason,
who also invented "Art Deco, " an architectural
style in which streamlined geometric forms, inspired by modern
industrial design, are put on buildings with really old plumbing.
South Florida was also emerging as a center of learning and
culture with the foundation, in 1925, of the University of
Miami Hurricanes football team (this was followed, in 1958,
by the construction of actual classrooms, when Hurricane officials
discovered that the NCAA required football players to have
a grade-point average.
The "Roaring 20s" turned Miami into a boom town,
as real- estate speculators flocked to the area in droves.
Sometimes they even drove to the area in flocks; that is how
eager they were to get here. And with good reason: land values
were going right through the roof. The boom continued until
the tragic Hurricane of 1926 destroyed the city. But the plucky
residents came right back and rebuilt everything as good as
new just in time for the tragic Hurricane of 1927. This was
followed by the hurricanes of 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, etc.,
all of which were tragic, but the plucky citizens of Miami
kept right on rebuilding, just as we do today, no matter how
many times Mother Nature tries to tell us that we are complete
morons for living at sea level smack dab in the middle of
the Hurricane Turnpike, because that is the type of pluck
we Miamians possess. We are plucky to the point of brain damage.
When the polar ice caps melt and the sea level rises and there
are jellyfish floating through the Biltmore Hotel, we'll still
be here, pluckily bailing out our living rooms as we watch
Bob Soper give us the tide forecast .
But getting back to history: During World War II, Miami was
used as a training area for thousands of U.S. troops, who
prepared for the rigors of war by engaging in hand-to-hand
combat with local residents seeking restaurant tables for
the Early Bird Special.
The postwar years brought a major building boom to Miami,
with the construction of a skyline and many major new roadways
such as the Palmetto Expressway, Interstate 95, the Don Shula
Expressway, the Larry Csonka Parkway, the Garo Yepremian Overpass
and the Bryan Cox Digital Extension, as well as streets named
after everybody, including convicted felons, who has ever
contributed at least $50 to any member of the Dade County
Commission. To the south, Miami was finally connected to Key
West via the scenic Overseas Highway, which replaced the even
more scenic, but tragically nonfunctional, Underseas Highway.
With all these new roads, there were soon hundreds of thousands
of new motorists driving around, a fact that led certain misguided
elements of the community to propose that South Florida should
have some kind of traffic laws. Opponents, however, pointed
out that once you let a government start enforcing traffic
laws, the next thing you know it will require that motorists
obtain driver's licenses and even -- yes -- insurance. So
the proposal was rejected, thereby establishing the hallowed
Miami tradition, still observed today, under which every motorist
drives according to the laws of his or her individual country
or planet of origin.
Tourism also flourished in the postwar years, as millions
of visitors fled the Northern winters to enjoy South Florida's
beaches, as well as its endless parade of entertaining attractions,
including the Seaquarium, the Planetarium, the zoo, Parrot
Jungle, Orchid Jungle, Monkey Jungle, the Seaquarium, the
zoo, Parrot Jungle, the zoo, Orchid Jungle and the Seaquarium,
to name just a few.
But the crucial postwar development was the arrival in South
Florida of a new element -- an element that was to transform
Miami from an essentially Southern city into the vibrant,
multicultural, international center that it is today. That
element, of course, was Arthur Godfrey. Not long after that
began the arrival of what would eventually be a flood of nearly
200,000 refugees who were fleeing from Fidel Castro's Cuba,
bringing with them a tremendous Latin vitality, caused in
part by the fact that they routinely ingested coffee strong
enough to strip furniture. These new arrivals quickly established
themselves as major players in the political arena, which
is why today Miami is the only U.S. city that has its own
locally produced foreign policy, which is implemented by its
own locally produced armies, air forces and navies.
The 1980s and '90s saw the continued emergence of Miami as
a truly international city. Its reputation for glitz and glamour
was boosted by the hugely popular Miami Vice, a compelling
TV series about two detectives who wear designer clothing
and encounter a succession of eccentric and offbeat South
Florida characters, then kill them. Miami Beach's South Beach
area (known to locals as "TriBeCa") became a world-renowned
"hot scene, " with its exclusive nightclubs that
don't allow anybody in below the celebrity rank of Bee Gee,
and its dozens of high- fashion supermodels walking around
and making everybody they pass, including women, feel like
Danny DeVito. This is not to say that Miami is perfect. As
with any large urban area full of insane, heavily armed people,
Miami has its problems: drugs, crime, tourist attacks, racial
discord, urban unrest, Madonna. But today, as the city observes
its centennial, it truly has much to celebrate. The evolution
of Greater Miami continues apace, thanks to a number of major
projects, both public and private:
-- Bayfront Park has been transformed, after years of planning
and expenditure, from a downtown waterfront property occupied
by vagrants into a downtown waterfront property occupied by
vagrants and a fountain that never seems to be working.
-- Downtown Miami now has a computerized, totally automated,
state-of-the art "People Mover, " which provides
convenient, efficient transportation for a total of 17 people,
who have been trapped inside the cars since 1994.
-- Downtown Miami is also the site of the Miami Arena, which
was completed by the city in 1988 at a cost to taxpayers of
$52.5 million; thanks to the foresight and planning that went
into this facility, it is expected to continue to meet Miami's
arena needs until well into next week.
-- The confused and congested traffic situation has been vastly
improved by the completion of the Golden Glades flyover, which
cost $40 million and took 2 1/2 years to build, and which
now makes it possible for traffic jams to occur 200 feet in
-- Billionaire visionary entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga has
promised to build a gigantic, world-class . . . Whoops. Never
And there is much, much more to come as Miami prepares to
enter its second century. Plans are well under way to build
a major downtown Cultural Center, which should go a long way
toward satisfying the massive pent-up demand for culture in
Miami, which has on occasion resulted in angry, culture- obsessed
mobs breaking down doors to get into sold-out operas. Miami
International Airport is nearing completion of a major construction
project, begun in 1952, which will ultimately double the number
of available parking spaces, to four.
Yes, it is truly an exciting time here in what we call "The
Magic City" if we write travel brochures. All of us who
live and work in Miami have reason to be proud of what our
city has been able to accomplish, and to look forward with
eager anticipation to the future. We cannot, of course, know
what lies ahead for our city; we cannot predict what life
will be like for the people who live here 100 years from now.
We can only hope that they will be good caretakers of our
legacy; that they will learn from our mistakes; and above
all that they will have the wisdom, the courage and -- yes
-- the humanity, to drop a nuclear bomb on the Golden Glades
© 1996 Dave Barry. The information you
receive on-line from
this site is protected by the copyright laws of the United
The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting,
or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.
happy to have you link to this page on your web site, or send
the link to your friends in email. But please don't copy the
columns and put them on your site, or send them out in email.
back to Dave's Columns