Too many people miss the layers of Miami. It seems, on its surface (and from the myriad, often highly inaccurate portrayals of it on television and film), to be a gorgeous and vapid place for gorgeous, vapid people. A place with little sense of history and no sense of taste. I’m not so different in that I got the city wrong for years, either by acquiring distorted perceptions or dismissing it entirely. I only found it growing on me in the last several years.
Some of that was shaped, I’m sure, by when and where I grew up. Throughout the 1980’s, Miami was regarded by many in the nation with a certain fascination and a palpable degree of fear—a fear that extended into the city itself. One of my first clear encounters with unvarnished racism came during my first visit to Miami with my mother. At a gas station, we asked an attendant for directions. He advised us that as we drove through one particular neighborhood not to stop for anything, unless we hit someone with the car, in which case he advised us not to stop, but to drive faster.
There was a kind of mania around the city in those days. In 1980, riots erupted in the Liberty City neighborhood over the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie to death after a high speed chase, then claimed he died when he fell off of his motorcycle. That same year, the Mariel Boatlift brought tens of thousands of Cuban refugees to the city. Some of them had been released from prisons or mental institutions, and once that information got out many people painted all the arrivals as criminals and derelicts. And as the cocaine trade picked up, fueling the free-market go-go eighties, violence erupted. In 1981, the Miami-Dade morgue was so overwhelmed by bodies it had to use a refrigerated truck for the extra cadavers. That same year, Time Magazine ran a cover story on the violence.
Time cover from November, 1981 (Time Magazine)
But that was adult stuff. We got the horror stories as kids, for sure. Scare tactics, advice to never go near the place. But for kids my age in the 80’s (definitely in Florida, but probably nationally), Miami was famous for three things: Miami Vice, The Miami Hurricanes football team, and 2 Live Crew.
I’m probably not the only person who had his perceptions of the city shaped early on by Miami Vice. It was the first “adult” show I could remember watching, though I can hardly recall any of the episodes today. All I knew was that it was a hot place where a man could drive his Ferrari and keep his pet alligator in peace, provided he didn’t have to go shoot some bad guys.
I was more interested in football, though, and in the 80’s, the Miami Hurricanes were a juggernaut of a football team—always in the mix for the national title, and easily the most hated team in the United States. Some of that was good old bad sportsmanship. Some of it was exhaustion that the same team was always at the top. A lot of it, however, was racism. The Miami Hurricanes built their teams off kids from inner city Miami, many of them black, which meant that anything they did wrong got magnified through prisms of class and race. The team was brash and cocky. They would hit you late and stand over you to gloat. They would score a touchdown and sneer at the camera. And most importantly, they would win. And they would win by playing fast, exciting football that drove a spike in the heart of the Big 10 style “three yards and a cloud of dust” model. They were the new thing. They would enter the stadium through that white cloud of smoke, symbolizing a hurricane, and all the adults would cluck their tongues and shake their heads. I didn’t really cheer for them (I was a Florida Gators fan), but they were always fun to watch. And at least they weren’t Florida State.
2 Live Crew, the rap group fronted by Miami legend Luther Campbell, was every bit as cocky and brash as the football team, and every bit as controversial. While the Hurricanes were vilified in the press for every misstep (and make no mistake, there was legitimate corruption in the football program, but people were definitely gunning for the team), 2 Live Crew was villfied for every raunchy lyric (of which there were plenty) in their songs. They quickly became the focal point of the Parents Resource Music Center, a morality-police group founded by Tipper Gore with the aim of stomping out obscenity once and for all, I guess. 2 Live Crew made a prime target with songs like “We Want Some Pussy” and “Me So Horny.” They even managed to get themselves arrested for obscenity in 1990 (hard to believe, today) for performing these songs on stage, which was probably the single best publicity boost I’ve seen for any band in my lifetime. Their records sold out faster than Madonna’s, faster than Prince’s. And even though I didn’t really like their music, there was still a palpable pre-teen thrill my friends and I felt as we listened to something so offensive to people older than us.
There was the sense that Miami was a secret that the adult world was keeping from us.
In a sense, Miami still does keep its secrets. They just aren’t the ones I always thought the city was keeping. I think my biggest disappointment on my first couple visits to Miami was that it seemed kind of dull. And that had a lot to do with my age and where I went. I only saw the downtown, a small sliver of Coconut Grove, and Miami Beach. I was too dumb to appreciate Art Deco architecture, too young to drink, and there were plenty of beaches in my hometown. Worst of all, it was in my home state, which I was in a big hurry to get away from. It didn’t occur to me that one of the most interesting cities in America was only a three hour drive from my dad’s house.
Miami’s biggest secret is its history. It is a fascinating town, a port city with a massive mix of cultures, stories, and histories. Like Los Angeles, it is a city sold as a dream, a balm, a cure-all for a dead-end life. And like Los Angeles, it is a town that shields its true self, and deep hurts, under a sheen of glitter and sunshine, alcohol and excess.
On my last visit—an 18-hour layover on my way to Mexico—I rented a car at the airport and drove straight to a local breakfast and lunch spot on the eastern edge of the Liberty City neighborhood. It’s run by a woman named Trudy Ellis, who opened up shop in 1988 when she saw there were no Bahamian restaurants in the city. The Bahamian Pot is a small slice of the community, and a meal there was perfect way to find my path into the city. Owner-chef Trudy Ellis recently moved the place a few blocks east of its original location, but the food, I am told, is the same as it ever was, with a few additions. The breakfast of boiled fish and grits is probably the most famous meal at the place, but as I was too late for breakfast, the waitress suggested I order the oxtail with mac and cheese. “I’m Jamaican,” she said. “So that’s what I like.”
It seems odd that there aren’t more restaurants like the Bahamian Pot, considering that Bahamians were so critical in the building of Miami. At the time of Miami’s founding, more than 40 percent of the city’s black population was Bahamian. Many of the new arrivals found work in construction, especially as stonemasons, working with the oolitic limestone common to both South Florida and the Bahamas. They also found work on Henry Flagler’s railroad, which would bring thousands more transplants from the north, and eventually establish Miami as one of the most important cities in the American South. The Bahamians also brought their music, including the street bands that form the Carnival-centered Junkanoo parades, and a local drum-heavy musical style called Goombay, both of which would influence the musical sound of Miami for decades, in everything from soul music to Miami Bass.
After the meal, Mizz Trudy came out and thanked me for coming in. I told her the food was incredible, and that I drove straight there from the airport. She encouraged me to come back, and to book an earlier flight so I could have breakfast next time.
* * *
I have my own history in Miami. Four generations of my family have lived there at one time or another. My great-grandparents lived there in their retirement years. My grandfather attended the University of Miami for a year, and helped pay his tuition by playing piano at the Tides Hotel in Miami Beach. My father moved there as a young man from North Carolina and worked as a radio DJ. And my first cousins live there now, on the very edge of Miami Beach in a small house on a hidden alleyway of a street that seems to exist only because developers haven’t figured out it’s there.
The Tides Hotel, where my grandfather played piano for tuition money.
Miami Beach is actually a separate city from Miami itself (LeBron James’s 2010 announcement that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” led to a lot of palms to the forehead among local residents). Much of Miami Beach is built on landfill, as are the nearby, ultra-exclusive Palm Island and Star Island. It’s a beautiful place with a lot of ugly history. For decades, the beach and all the hotels on it were segregated (though the all-white hotels still regularly booked black entertainers, who had to stay in other parts of the city). There’s a big Jewish community in Miami Beach, but for decades they were only allowed to live in a specific section of the city. Even the mayor who oversaw much of the city’s revitalization—Alex Daoud—was as corrupt as they come, eventually serving a federal term for 41 counts of bribery, corruption, and racketeering.
The criminality of the place is just as obvious today in the glittering high-rise buildings that continued to go up in the middle of the Great Recession. A massive sting operation by the FBI in 2012 rounded up a half-dozen city employees on the take, including the city’s lead code compliance officer. But an investigation by the Miami New Times showed that the arrests barely got under the surface of the city’s seemingly endemic corruption.
Miami Beach is also famous for good things, like its stunning art deco architecture, which seems to be everywhere, and its remarkably unpolluted beach. When you walk down the beach itself in the twilight, the crowds having thinned out and the evening breeze cooling the waterfront, you kind of understand why everyone from a northeastern pensioner to a billionaire Russian oligarch would want to make his home here. Although parking can be a nightmare, the beach itself is probably the most democratic institution in the city. Dip your toes in the water at sunset and look around. You could almost believe the city was built for all of us.
* * *
The coffee stand at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, around midnight.
After resting at my cousin’s place, I made my way back across the bridge to Little Havana, the largest Cuban neighborhood in the United States. Running like a main artery through the neighborhood is Calle Ocho (8th Street), where you can find a variety of shops, clubs, markets, coffee stands and parks where old men play dominoes and sip highly-caffeinated, syrupy Cuban coffee. And if you keep going down Calle Ocho, you will eventually reach the famous Versailles Restaurant, known to many, and with much justification, as the capital of Cuba outside Havana.
Hang around here long enough and you see everybody. Tourists and locals. Young and old. A neighborhood drunk and a state senator. There’s 44 years worth of history here, along with a heavy reputation for anti-Castro politics (owner Felipe Valls once boasted, “In that corner, they have killed that sucker at least a hundred times every day”).
To get into the history of the Cuban community in Miami is to dive into some very deep, very turbulent waters. Perhaps the first thing you should know is that Miami was never supposed to be a permanent stop for many of the people who came over from Cuba. It was supposed to be a convenient outpost to stay in until Fidel Castro was overthrown and they could return to their homeland. But 57 years and countless assassination attempts later, Castro is still around, and those people—those who are still alive, anyway—are still waiting to go home. The reaction to Obama’s move to open up dialogue with the Cuban government has been met with very mixed reactions, often split along generational lines. Many of the original exiles swear they will not return until Fidel and his brother Raul are dead. Many of the younger generation want to see the island they’ve always heard their parents and grandparents speak of as soon as possible. Nobody is certain what the next decade is going to look like—for Cuba, or for Miami.
It is a massive understatement to say that many Cuban exiles relationship to their adopted home is a complicated one. But if you come to Miami and you want to at least get a toehold in that mix, Versailles might be the best place to start.
It helps that Versailles, in addition to being a center of local culture, is also a damn fine restaurant. It’s also convenient if you have an extremely early flight and have decided to power through the night. The restaurant stays open until one in the morning most night, and later on the weekends. Even if you arrive on the later side, there will still be a crowd, and there will still be a line at the coffee stand next door.
The Medianoche, slightly different than a Cubano. Roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard on sweet bread. A staple of any South Floridian diet.
At the coffee stand, you order pastries and Cafe Cubano, which is essentially an espresso with the sugar added during the brewing process. It is incredibly sweet—too sweet for many coffee drinkers—and can leave you jangly for hours if you’re not used to it. It’s also depressing, after having a bad reaction to it, to see old men at the counters throwing it back like water, seemingly to no effect.
For me, the effect is powerful. And since I’m not 18 anymore, I need all the help I can get for an all-nighter.
* * *
There is still that part of me that wants the Miami I dreamt of as a boy. And although it’s not something I should be doing (financially speaking), and although it smacks of an early attempt at a mid-life crisis, I decided to indulge that part of myself by renting a convertible. It was a silly thing to do in many respects, but I have to admit that it satisfied that desire to be a character in the Miami movie that always existed in my mind.
As cliche as it is, there might be no better city in America to drive a convertible than Miami. Especially at night, with the countless lights of the overgrown city reflecting off the low clouds, the palm trees waving slowly as you go by, and the smell of the ocean around you. You cross the bridge, and ships coming into port tower above you. It’s a dream, a montage sequence from a TV show. And although everything is telling you how cheesy it is, how hopelessly you are reaching for the romantic, it is beautiful. You can’t pretend for a moment you’re not having a good time.
But it is a dream. It’s the part of Miami that fades as soon as the credits roll. If you do fall for this city, it’s not the dream that holds you. It’s those deeper layers. The neighborhoods. The endless stories that spring up from a place where the whole world has crashed together in a pool of greed and phony appeal, and managed to build communities in spite of it. On the plane out of the city, I could look down and see the shiny towers of the new developments. You couldn’t miss them. But there was no way to see the little neighborhood stores, the restaurants, the playgrounds, the schools, and everything else that makes up the spine of the city.
It’s a tough place to know for that reason. For all of the glitter, it’s in all the parts you don’t see that Miami really reveals itself. I didn’t understand that. I got it wrong for so long. I keep going back now in the hope that, eventually, I’ll get it right.
The Bahamian Pot is located at 6301 NW 6th Avenue. Their phone number is 305-759-3408.
Versailles Restaurant is located at 3555 SW 8th St. They have a website here, and are open Sunday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. On Friday, they stay open until 2:30 a.m. On Saturday, they stay open until 3:30 a.m.