Por; Gloria Shanahan
Fotos: Edgar Cadena
Although it wasn’t love at first sight for us, today I can say that I love her. I like the wonderful beach at Cape Florida lighthouse park (officially Bill Baggs), the graffiti at Wynwood, visiting the Palacio de los Jugos with the intention of getting a healthy drink but invariably ending up with chicharrón, and knowing where the secrets of the city, the ones not visible to tourists, are kept.
I originally planned to be just one more of the transient crowd of visitors who temporarily adopt Miami. This ephemeral idea helped me bear the absolute absence of any hill that could even remotely compare to my majestic Andes, the intolerable existence of preposterously large palmetto cockroaches, the humidity, the lack of good public transportation, and the city’s hypersensitive politics.
This city, which can be so dysfunctional for locals, is the world’s playground and a conference center for entrepreneurs; this compels it to grow, mature, and become more and more attractive, expanding its hotel capacity, and looking for innovative modes of transportation. Among the latter is the recently adopted “car2go” car rental service which allows users to pick up and return cars on almost any street. The mini-cars fit two people with jewelry-sized shopping bags. There are also buses decorated like trolleys that offer free rides, and golf carts that take tourists and shoppers to various points in the city.
If you’re touring the traditional city, certain things are to be assumed, such as the incredible restaurant choices and the ritual of eating out midweek. There are also the must-see spots, such as the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in Miami Beach, where locals mix with tourists to see and be seen or walk their dogs, which can be just as eccentric as their owners. This is also where people wait for the night, with its parallel dimension of nightclubs and discos. Here, you’re hit head on with an inexplicable social code: the non-initiated will never understand why, if you could get in last night, you can’t tonight.
Today the other Miami inspires me. The one that no one used to talk about, the one that wasn’t supposed to be seen because of its poverty, neglect, and segregation. That Miami has now gained its own voice. Its dialogue begins north of downtown, in the urban zone of Buena Vista where the two historic neighborhoods of Little San Juan and Little Haiti meet up. It stretches fifteen blocks from north to south and less than ten from east to west. This area includes three independent lifestyle microcosms, separated by income-level, that share a common objective of having fun which allows them to mingle amongst mojitos, art, and music during happy hour, the most democratic hour of all.
Those who scarcely have enough time to get in their business meetings and a few hours of golf, beach, shopping, and the obligatory visit to the bank mixed it, are missing out on the true flavor of the city. Wynwood, Midtown, and the Design District have given a new urban look to Miami.
The designer district, between 36th street and 41st, has been here for decades, but it was traditionally a refuge for interior designers and a gallery owner or two. In the past three years it has grown and become better organized. The international fashion brands here began attracting an affluent public. Walking along 40th Street (between NE 1st and 2nd Avenue), you can see stores belonging to Prada, Dior, Cartier, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Christian Louboutin all on the same block…In this small fashion section the stores close at seven, leaving you time to have dinner at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink or MC Kitchen. Then comes the nightlife at the clubs Gavanna or Stage.
A couple of streets south is Midtown, the vertical section that shot up with the condo construction boom in 2005. Buildings for middle-class professionals appeared in the middle of an area in need of revitalization; during the recession one or two windows were lighted, as just a few adventurous souls became the first residents of the vast, desolate buildings. Now others have arrived en masse and there is now nearly permanent heavy traffic passing before the satisfied smiles of the area’s storeowners. The massive launch of the Art Basel show was a great stimulus for this area. When the international art dealers saw that the capacity (and prices) of the main site in Miami Beach were absurd in the face of incredible demand, they opened another site in Midtown, which is also completely full. Now a bus connects the two exhibition areas and everyone’s happy. This year Art Basel takes place from December 5 through 8 and its open air exhibits and cultural legacy will last for weeks and months.
In this area of Midtown, there is strong competition between restaurants and bars, but Sugar Cane, Mercadito, Cheese Course, and 100 Montaditos continue to win over the locals’ hearts and appetites. The variety of stores in the Shops of Midtown mall includes the practical, like Target, Ross, and Marshall’s; the charming, like West Elm and Living Art for home décor; famous name-brand clothing hidden in Loehmann’s; and pet supply stores. With the little central square and fountain decorated with works by the artist Romero Britto, the Midtown environment is family-oriented.
Continuing south, Wynwood is probably the most interesting area. It was once a humble, segregated area made up of houses timidly built behind warehouses and workshops, separated by untended lots and wire fences. Less than six years ago, it was a “wrong turn” for passers-by unfamiliar with the area. Known as “El Barrio” among the Puerto Ricans who prospered here in the 1950s and 60s, little by little it sunk into neglect. But for artists who needed spacious areas, the warehouses were there and Miami Beach was becoming too expensive.
The New York developer and visionary Tony Goldman, who had a lot to do with the resurgence of SoHo in New York and 13th Street in Philadelphia, found a solution that would entice artists to bring their creativity and pioneering spirit, transforming these empty warehouses. Goldman believed in outdoor museums. In 2009, he bought some of those buildings, proposed a restaurant, created a park, and invited graffiti artists from around the world, who salivated before the potential murals, cement canvasses ready to be discovered by thirsty walls of paint. Since 2010, it has become a bohemian secret. The style is fedoras, tattoos, and combat boots and street art dominates.
The area attracted the public when the shops began staying open for an “Art Walk” every second Saturday of the month starting at 7:00 pm. Now it’s not only on weekends. University students await Tuesdays to descend upon Wood Tavern, a colorful pub which offers free tacos with drink orders on Tuesdays, and on the last Tuesday of each month, a group of friends in ballet tutus appears, exhibiting a different theme on every occasion. A car that is now a bar counter and grill, a buffalo head with an adjuster for glasses, and a relaxed environment, make this corner (26 Street and NW 2nd Avenue) a magnet for activity.
Directly in front are two delicious restaurants: Joey, which serves Italian food, and Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, serving southern-Latin cuisine. Both are open at lunchtime. Nearby, guys on bikes come to the Cafe Panther to exchange ideas. Other options for bars and lounges include Cafeína and Gramps. Those nostalgic for the past can sit in their cars and enjoy movies at Blue Starlite, or view experimental films at O Cinema. The new local brewery, Wynwood Brewing Company (WBC), is the first in the area; it seals this area’s reputation as an established nightlife zone.
Today, more than a hundred galleries and stores of all types are part of this eclectic area. In unpredictable pathways there are television production companies, sound and lighting engineers, and fashion design workshops. Nevertheless, it’s advisable to arrive with precise directions and a designated driver. Despite its rebirth, the surrounding area is somewhat disconcerting and desolate, so it’s best not to get lost.
Today, Miami has the texture of a city. With all its problems and disparities, it’s real. It shows the poetry of its innermost core, which extends beyond its stereotype of frivolity; the city is not startled by its shadow. It recognizes and flaunts its cultural mix and little by little it’s settling into its new skin, while remaining a flirtatious teenager, curious about new adventures and always open to having fun.