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- Story

By Terence Hilton-Clarke

©copyright 1997

BY 1981, Miami had become the second capital of Trinidad and Tobago. The vast amount of finance made available by the "oil boom" of the 1970's and early ‘80s, helped transform this Florida city into the pre-eminent shopping and recreational destination of my fellow countrymen. During this period, the local newspapers were inundated with airline advertisements, with BWIA, Pan Am and Eastern all offering special "Miami" deals. The stories of housewives going up to Miami for a day "just to shop", have become almost as celebrated as the myth of middle-class individuals having to park their third car on the front lawn due to a lack of space. Important people in society: politicians, entertainers, educators were always said to be in Miami, conducting some sort of business or the other. Inevitably, Dade County became a prime destination of relocation for thousands of locals.The diaspora that had involved the exodus of Cubans, Haitians and Jamaicans, now included Trinidadians. Even today, long after high spending had given way to recession and devaluation: ten years since Canada had replaced the United States as the destination for those who are still able to get out, Miami has still retained its attractive allure. This area of south Florida still attracts Trinidadians of varying persuasions - albeit in smaller numbers. The present adolescent generation, realizing the importance of academic qualifications, have enrolled in several universities in the city. Furthermore, Trinidadians in Miami have started their own October carnival celebrations. Businessmen frequently conduct transactions here while others, simply wanting to escape and start afresh, have continued to emigrate to this region. The Trini presence in Miami has become such that calls for the establishment of a Trinidadian consulate in the city, were hastily acceded to by the Trinidad and Tobago government in a matter of months.Yet, what is it about this place that has attracted peoples from all around the world? What has been responsible for the euphoria that has afflicted millions ? The answer, perhaps, can only be found through an examination of the history of the place where I seem destined to spend the next phase of my life.

After its discovery by the Spaniards - and initial exploration by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513- Florida spent much of the next 300 years wavering between Spanish, French and British control. By the beginning of the 19th Century, the young American republic also had designs on the region and laid claims on it through the Louisiana Purchase (1803). However, the Spanish resisted such claims and maintained their rights over the territory until the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819), forced them to hand over their prized possession to the Americans. Having gotten rid of the Europeans, the Americans now had to deal with the area's aboriginal inhabitants. During a period of 23 years, American forces engaged in two wars against the Seminoles. It was during the second of such battles that an outpost, Fort Dallas, was established at a point along the south Florida coastline in 1835. About 35 years later, permanent settlement began near this site. In 1891 Julia S. Tuttle, a native of Cleveland, purchased several hundred acres of land along the Miami River. Five years later, she persuaded magnate, Henry Flagler, to extend his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami and, together, the two promoted the area as a resort. Schools, churches, banks and stores were all erected at a rapid rate, and Miami was incorporated as a city. The early years of this century saw the formation of new communities such as Hialeah, Coconut Grove and Opa- Locka. The Florida land boom of the 1920's encouraged further settlement as thousands of people rushed into town to purchase property.These events were further enhanced by the developments across Biscayne Bay. It was on a narrow strip of land that Henry Lum and his son Charles started a coconut plantation in 1882. Three decades later, John S. Collins - using the tropical climate and lush scenery as his allies - instigated the development of hotels and resorts along the beach front. When his funds became exhausted, the venture was superseded by Carl S. Fisher, an Indianapolis automobile manufacturer. He dredged the coastline, filled in mangrove swamps and launched a nation-wide advertising campaign. Tourists flocked in and elderly couples decided to spend their last years together in the area that officially became known as Miami Beach. Then, disaster struck. In 1926 the four-year old boom collapsed and the subsequent depression, three years later, brought nation-wide doom and gloom. In the South Beach section of Miami Beach, the colourful Art Deco hotels marked the American's stubborn resistance during this period of economic darkness.

By mid Century things had pretty much returned to normal. Hotels began springing up and the city acquired a reputation - one that survived for some 30 odd years - as a place for retirees. But the sociological make-up of the city was to change forever in 1960 when, in response to Fidel Castro's increasingly socialist policies, thousands of Cubans fled the island. The majority of them settled in the Miami area. Others dispersed acrossFlorida and a good number even went to New Jersey. The newcomers quickly made a name for themselves. Aided by sympathetic United States policy, the Cuban immigrants were able to form their own community - Little Havana- to the west of Downtown Miami. Soon enough, those who had belonged to the upper echelons of Cuban society established themselves and became very powerful and influential. Cuban owned businesses grew throughout the city; some of the younger immigrants became lawyers and politicians and the community soon exerted considerable influence on U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.It was this "success" which, unfortunately, paved the way for many of the city's social problems. The African American community of Miami has a rich heritage. In the early 1900's, many blacks had come to the area, either as labourers on Flagler's railroad: or as workers in the coconut plantations. As elsewhere during the first segment of the twentieth - century, African-Americans in Dade County were segregated and faced many obstacles in their attempts to better their lives. Then, just as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's began opening up opportunities for blacks, the sudden arrival - and swift social advancement - of the Cuban immigrants served as a new barrier to progress. For example, in 1960 African Americans owned 25% of Miami's gas stations: by 1979 that number had waned to 9%, while Hispanic ownership rose from 12 to 18 % over the same period. Another interesting factor pertains to the amount of funds allocated to the new arrivals by the federal government. Between 1968 and 1979, $100.5 million was loaned out by the Small Business Administration in Dade County. Of that amount $47.3 million was allocated to Hispanic owned firms, $46.8 million went to whites while only $6.4 million went to blacks. Such monumental events created understandable resentment towards the Cuban Americans.

As Miami's ethnic flavour enhanced, the underlying racial tensions rolled to a boil.In May 1980, four white Dade County policemen were acquitted in the beating death of a black, Miami businessman named Arthur McDuffie. This event sparked rioting in the mostly black ghetto area of Liberty City. There were many brutish scenes : a person's ears being cut off; a man having his body torn in two; other whites being attacked in their trailer park homes. The violence resulted in eighteen deaths and millions of dollars in damage. At the end of 1982 there was more trouble again. The fatal police shooting of Nevell Johnson, a 21 year old African American, in a video game arcade started two nights of looting and arson in the low income district of Overtown. When the Cuban American cop who shot Johnson was acquitted two years later, there were further outbreaks of violence. Alas, one more riot did occur in January 1989, when a black motorcyclist, and his passenger, died after being shot by a hispanic policeman.Miami's geographical position as the gateway of Latin America into the U.S. germinated its 1980's reputation as the drug capital of America. It was the period of the "Cocaine Cowboys"; the flourishing of gun running and Mafia style executions. The crime rate soon soared. Even when increased crackdowns landed the drug lords in jail, this last phenomenon remained as an inescapable legacy and was especially notable during a spate of tourist killings in 1993. Worse yet, evil deeds were not necessarily confined to badly lit urban streets, but also to the halls of city government as well. In September 1996, there was the revelation of corruption so entrenched, that it has landed the city in debt.Yet, Miami's glamour continues to outshine these problems. The tourists have continued to flood into Dade. The city's problems have at least reached the point of discussion. They have to. In the last twenty years, Miami has acquired an international population: the Cubans were soon joined by the Haitians, Nicaraguans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Bahamians and Colombians. According to a Time magazine spread of September 6, 1993: "...Miami is a social experiment, a potential model for other American cities learning to cope with multi-ethnic populations and new economic realities." In recent months, there has been the proposition by certain interest groups to have the city dissolved into Dade county. The main impetus; the destruction of an inept system of city government. The response to this drive has been a reassuringly chauvinistic rejection. The present crisis has served to unite most of the inhabitants against a potential loss of identity. It is a consensus which has been strengthened by the success of the city's sports teams; last season, the Florida Panthers went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals; the NBA's Miami Heat copped the Atlantic Division title for the first time and the Florida Marlins are one of the most exciting baseball teams around. Apart from its role as a resort, Miami has also acquired the accolade of being a prime centre for trade and commerce in the region. This has meant the erection of several international offices within its confines. The potential of this city is enormous. But it is a potential that can only be realized through the co-operation of its citizens. This is especially important as the twenty-first century approaches.

MIAMI BEACH is among the world's most attractive resorts. Glitzy hotels line the beach front along Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive. Included among the towers of steel and glass are some fantastic and renowned hotels such as the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort. My most poignant, early impressions of Miami revolved around this scenery: the long beach, the chain of hotels, the swimming pools. These were the very images which were being thrown at me, both on television and in the newspapers. The attraction also caught the fancy of thousands of Trinidadians up to the early part of the 1980's. At this time, Trinidad and Tobago was the most prosperous of the English-speaking Caribbean countries. Our 120 year old tradition as an oil producing country, allied with OPEC's commanding presence during the ‘70's put this country on list of others such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia who profited at the expense of the United States. The influx of money into my home country was to be the harbinger of some very noticeable social changes. The desire for material possessions grew. Many middle and upper class Trinidadians were purchasing and importing the most expensive cars, outfits, furniture etc. Many now sought the exclusivity, security and comfort seen all over the world.Across the country, trendy housing projects such as Westmoorings, to the west of Port of- Spain and Santa Rosa Heights in Arima , sprung up. There was also sort of Americanization of values which was witnessed in Cuba in the 1950's. The fast food industry experienced a meteoric rise and by 1981, there was the existence of several popular franchises, both local and foreign : Royal Castle, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Texas Style, Dairy Queen, Mario's Pizzeria and Famous Recipe were just some of the names which appeared in cities and towns across the country. The new mall culture in the United States was also quickly capitalized upon. Within a few years, places such as Long Circular Mall (Port of Spain), Gulf City - outside San Fernando - and Mid Centre Mall in Chaguanas, were serving as popular recreation spots for both adolescents and families in general.



Miami Story Part 1

Miami Story part 2