An Essential Book on the Magic of Miami

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

HAVANA TIMES — Miami is undoubtedly a mysterious city. In probing it, valuable books have been written by various authors such as Arva Moore Parks (its historian par excellence), Melanie Shell Weiss (the author of the best book on the social history of the city), Alejandro Portes and Alex Steppick (who twenty years ago provided us with the first comprehensive attempt at its sociological interpretation), and now the book by Jan Nijman, an urban planner at the University of Miami, who with Miami: Mistress of the Americas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), his work has earned the right to be on the “must read” shelf.

In the preface to their groundbreaking 1993 book, Portes and Stepick laid out the particularity of Miami as a city and as a part of the American nation. They called it “a compendium of the weak points of the country.”

Miami, they said, is strange even in its origins since its foundation didn’t reflect the usual rules involving the emergence of a city. It was a conspiracy of strong wills, perhaps the last ones that animated that vocation for borders that, according to Turner, proved vital to modeling the American spirit.

Almost two decades later, Jan Nijman didn’t hesitate in dubbing it the “Mistress of the Americas” and presenting his arguments about this new global city, which has never been relevant on a national level, and which owes its importance to its ability to coordinate hemispheric flows of everything that moves (goods, services, capital, people and cocaine).

This is why it’s a mistress and not a wife. She inflates emotions, makes nights unforgettable, slaps one across the face with its mysteries, yet she’s incapable of imagining a home environment, for that reason the eminently postmodern city always has a touch of “non-place” (as explained by Auge) as well as transitional and contractual relationships.

In its nine easily readable and well-documented chapters, Nijman discusses issues such as the early origins (that mythical epoch when the “Mother of Miami,” Julia Turttle, would give out perfect oranges like business cards), the transition from the city/resort to financial and commercial center, the role of drug trafficking in this process, its specificities as a global city and the relevance of the consensus of the elite in producing this change beyond all formal public structures.

For Cubans, in particular — who always believe that life owes us something — the book is interesting because it critically and adeptly analyzes the role of Cuban immigration in the shaping of this global center.

Even when considering the crucial impact of this immigration — which he calls something like one of the most fabulous brain drains in history — he specifies its subordinate role in relation to other hemispheric processes and the hegemony of the WASP elite, which only little by little, with particular care, has been producing the functional cooptation of figures who were useful (such as in the cases of the early Cuban-American banker Luis J. Botifoll and self-made millionaire Armando Codina in relation to the “non-group”).

The Miami that Nijman describes to us is a city that is effectively global, and as such — at the same time as it’s being shaken by hallucinating economic and cultural dynamics — it tolerates levels of poverty and exclusion that are alarming by US standards.

Likewise, it is a city of transients, with a civil society that is disjointed and oriented around utilitarian issues, which inevitably mark its life and style. Miami, Nijman suggests, offers all the force of a global city but also the fissures. It’s like the clash between the cosmos and one’s home.

If there’s something especially valuable in this book, it’s that Nijman knows how to skillfully evade the binary focus that has affected us so much. Here there’s no good or bad city, simply a complex city, and a city that turns out to be vital for Cubans, not only because (I’m thinking now of the greater Miami metropolitan area) it contains over a million of them, but because the future life of the Cuban nation, and particularly Havana, is linked to the evolution of the “Magic City.”

“If cities,” he concludes, “are synonymous with civilization, Miami provides a vision of the fate of civilization.”

I recommend this work.

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