Miami is more than just the pulsating, neon-clad heart of South Florida hedonism. On a recent trip, travel writer Darcy Rhyno discovered behind the façade a fascinating multi-cultural history to this ever-evolving city.
Seated on the sidewalk in front of the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company, a small shop in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, Pedro Bello puffs at one of his own and greets the public with sage nods of his head. His leathery face is shaded by a Panama hat and darkened further by contrast with his rumpled, linen suit. Beside him, the obligatory life-size wooden Indian stands on guard. Once the very emblem of tobacco, in this anti-smoking age the sculptured stereotype is a throwback to a by-gone era, a parody of itself.
Almost a caricature himself, Pedro Bello doesn’t seem to mind. Said to have been a political prisoner in Cuba for refusing to sign over his land after the revolution, Pedro Bello is one of many exiles who landed in Little Havana and got into cigar making – there’s another manufacturer right across the street – by sourcing tobacco from the Dominican Republic where some fled with Cuban tobacco seed.
Inside, behind an old wooden desk, Alberto Gonzalez rolls torpedo cigar after torpedo cigar with deft movements of his hands, his only tool a crescent-shaped knife called a chavetas. Neither Pedro nor Alberto speak English. This is Little Havana – with over a third of the city’s population of Cuban origin, one of the most important neighbourhoods in Maimi – and the lingering, long-term plan for some is to return after Castro’s revolution finally fails.
First thing every morning, Pedro Bello takes his place in front of the shop owned by his son of the same name and greets the six to eight tour busses that unload here. Visitors squeeze inside the small shop lined with shelves full of cigars and stuffed with Cuban memorabilia, photographs and political posters to make their purchases of Miami cigars. The same busses return mid-afternoon with more tourists. Pedro Bello Jr. admits, “I can’t think of many Cubans who would give up their businesses to go back now.”
In a little over 100 years, Miami has grown from a sub-tropical outpost of 1,000 souls on the edge of a great wilderness to one of the top ten most populated urban areas in the United States of over 5.5 million. Refugees, exiles and sun seekers of various ethnic backgrounds are responsible for that growth. Driving through Miami’s neighbourhoods is like taking a history lesson in the making of a major city, one that happens to be ranked the richest in America, according to a UBS Bank study in 2009. Little Havana itself is no longer the refuge of Cubans in exile. Through hard work, many have made better lives for themselves and moved on to wealthier parts of the city, leaving the neighbourhood for refugees and other immigrants from more recently volatile countries in the region like Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and Columbia.
The 50 or so skyscrapers of downtown Miami look east over Biscayne Bay and its dozens of natural and manmade barrier islands collectively known as Miami Beach. Out there on the sandbars and artificial islands is the famous SoBe or South Beach neighbourhood. Snowbirds travelled from northern centres such as New York City and built a quiet retirement refuge there in the early 20th Century. The great hurricane of 1926 destroyed much of the area and discouraged many from building again. Those who did called on the Art Deco aesthetic of the period. Close to 1,000 buildings later, the South Beach Art Deco district became home to what’s considered the world’s largest collection of Streamline Moderne architecture.
Drawing inspiration from the sweeping lines of automobiles and luxury ocean liners, referencing the notion of travel and speed itself, the smooth lines of the pastel painted, stucco hotels now glow neon in the Miami night. For a time, South Beach was the quiet retreat of many Jewish retirees from the north, but now, walking Ocean Drive next to the beach is like a stroll through a larger-than-life, living art gallery. Today – thanks to the foresight of a feisty New Yorker — a Jewish woman named Barbara Capitman who was known to chain herself to buildings slated for demolition – South Beach is one of the most important protected historical districts in the United States and party central for the young and beautiful.
To the north, west and south the towers at the heart of the downtown financial district in and around Brickell Avenue look out over Miami’s many other distinct neighbourhoods. Residential areas like Coconut Grove and Coral Gables were established early in Miami’s history; the former is known as the oldest in the city’s history and the latter for being one of the first planned communities.
Coconut Grove is home to Miami City Hall where the “Strong Mayor” or county mayor presides. The building was once Miami’s airport, and the hanger-like design of the chambers reflects this history. It’s a truly mixed neighbourhood: shotgun houses – built so residents have to go through one room to get to another – are as endemic to Coconut Grove as the mansions of the rich and famous like current and former residents such as Madonna, LeBron James and Sylvester Stallone.
The joke about swamp land for sale in Florida has its source in Coral Gables where George Merrick laid out his little city in the land boom of the 1920s and built homes almost exclusively in the Mediterranean Revival style. Because Merrick wanted to build “a city without scars,” there are no street signs in Coral Gables. All the street names – most of them named for cities in Spain – are inscribed on discreetly placed concrete blocks at every corner.
At the heart of it all stands the Freedom Tower, now undergoing a much-needed facelift. Once the highest building in Miami and home to the Miami News, it was built in 1925, again in that familiar Mediterranean Revival style with elements modeled on a similar tower in Seville, Spain. As exiles fled Cuba through the 1960s, the federal government turned the building into a processing station. Miami Dade College now owns the building and uses it as space for major art exhibitions by the likes of Dali and DaVinci.
Like Pedro Bello stationed before his little cigar shop, the Freedom Tower is a constant reminder of the multi-cultural history and current cosmopolitan composition of this ever-evolving city. For well over a century, exiled nationals have been building homes away from home here. At every turn, Miami begs the visitor to look beyond the pulsating, neon-clad façade that is as much a refuge as it is the heart of South Florida pleasure-seeking.
Read more from Darcy Rhyno’s trip to Miami:
All photos © Darcy Rhyno. All Rights Reserved.