Saturday, April 6, 2013

Miami Blocks

Everyone needs a Spring Break, no matter how old you are. Last week I made my way down to South Florida, seeing Fort Lauderdale Beach, Miami, and Key West. In addition to swimming in a crystal blue ocean in March, I was pleasantly surprised by the cities. I'd never been that far south. While it's true much of the region is made up of strip malls and highways, I was pleased to find a lot of history, eclectic architecture, and, particularly in Miami, a whole lot of grit.

Seybold Jewelry Building

Of course asking to see downtown Miami is a lot like asking to see downtown Los Angeles. After scratching their heads wondering where exactly "downtown" is, most locals say, "you want to see that?"

Well, yeah, I do.

Miami-Dade County Courthouse

After some great Cuban food at Latin CafĂ©, I spent the afternoon walking the city's Jewelry District. While the area is full of hidden architectural gems, these forgotten relics shadowed by the Brickell condos nearby prove just how lucky Philadelphians are to have so many vested in our historic integrity.

Burdine's Department Store Building, now Macy's

With an economy highly dependent on tourism and leisure, it's easy to forget that Miami proper is a real, working city with a diverse economy. A sprawling suburban landscape full of mansions, yachts, and beachfront condos overshadow the urban core. Unfortunately, like many southern cities, the Miami region is subdivided into smaller cities, allowing the tax revenue generated by wealthy enclaves like Miami Beach to stay in Miami Beach. While the region's population rivals Philadelphia's, the city's population is barely above 400,000 and the contrast between the suburbs and the city is evident its neglected city center.

Old US Post Office and Courthouse

What's also clear is the city's overzealous investment in the early 2000's building boom. Every conversation with a local inevitably turns to "the crash," and it's impossible not to see evidence of the fallout everywhere. The construction surge obviously Manhattanized the wealthier beach communities and suburbs, but it's also apparent that the city itself attempted to capitalize on the boom. Downtown often looks like a construction site a developer walked away from. Gravel lots and construction skeletons are everywhere.

Miami Metromover

The Italianate Old US Post Office and Courthouse sits vacant, the Art Deco Miami-Dade County Courthouse is behind a chain link fence awaiting restoration, and the city's Federal building is surrounded by concrete barriers and cracked sidewalks filled with weeds. It becomes very apparent why newer, car dependent cities like Houston and Phoenix routinely annex their suburbs to consolidate and retain tax revenue in their poorer city centers.

Freedom Tower, Miami's Cuban Immigration Monument, originally the headquarters for The Miami News

Still, with all of its neglect, downtown Miami is a bustling core. The Metromover, a small, elevated train frequently passes overhead carrying riders throughout the city's core. The larger heavy rail Metrorail commuter train shares platforms carrying people from the suburbs and airport and continues to expand due to all time high ridership, a tough feat in red states notoriously opposed to any investment in railroads.

The Bacardi Building, former headquarters of Bacardi

On my last day I decided to drive to Key West. After driving nineteen hours, what's four more?

Key West is another world and full of surprises. I expected a small, island village and resort community with a few historic Victorian and Stick Style bed and breakfasts. Surprisingly it's a real city. Hell, it even has a Home Depot and a Five Guys.

Southernmost House in the Continental US, now the Southernmost Inn Key West

The city's wild nightlife along the island's Duvall Street strip feels a lot like a holiday on South Street, with the Fat Tuesday Spring Break crowd on the street's north end and it's Gayborhood to the south. The island is no stranger to great shopping and even better seafood.

The friend who booked the hotel room declined to mention that we'd be staying at an all male clothing optional hotel across the street from a drag club. Putting my Pennsylvanian modesty aside, I decided, "when in the Keys," and embraced by hippy upbringing...with my clothes on.

The New Orleans House, Key West's all male clothing optional hotel

The drag show at 801 Bourbon Bar across the street was like nothing I'd ever seen at Bob and Barbara's. With all due respect to the Gurls of Philadelphia, lip syncing to a Whitney Houston ballad in a cocktail dress from Contempo Casuals is not drag. These queens were funny, campy, and raunchy, and encompassed everything a drag show should be.

Twenty four hours in Key West is hardly reality. But even back on the mainland, with its abandoned construction sites, strip malls, and grit, one thing I took away was just how happy everyone was to live there. People are polite, even at gas stations, drivers let you merge when you signal, and no one assumes the worst. It is the opposite of the northeast.

No road trip to Florida is complete without a stop at South of the Border.

As much as I love my city, my biggest grief with the Jerseyvania Triangle is our pissed off pessimism. We seek things to complain about, and when we can't find something, we form neighborhood organizations to help.

Between the winters that don't end and our toxic summers, few of us take the time to enjoy ourselves. I've often said that you have to be a bit of a masochist to live in the Northeast, and it's true. It's no stretch to say that 365 days of summer can make one a very, very happy person.

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