Digital Storytelling
A Portrait of Miami as a Bookfair

A Portrait of Miami as a Bookfair

The 2019 Miami Book Fair International

Jose Garcia Pedrosa appeared weighed down by two overstuffed briefcases as he entered the room, and looked overstuffed himself, in a mid-priced suit that you would associate with the status of a middle-manager. Pedrosa sported a moderately sized gin-blossom. Who better to write about Miami’s ethos in the 90s than a former Miami city manager and city attorney.

It was the 2019 Miami Book Fair International, the world’s largest. The book fair is one of Miami’s hidden treasures. You got to dig a bit between the covers and probe the depths of books with the authors in intimate settings and discussion groups where they pitched their ideas. The expertise of the authors provided an expert round-up on the state of the City of Miami. The books are like chapters about the city.

Chapter One: Corruption and Reputation

Harvard educated lawyer, and Cuban born Pedrosa took to the microphone to read excerpts from his new book: “America’s CasablancaA True Novel About Miami’s Emergence from Bankruptcy and Corruption.” The film-noir classic, Casablanca relies on literary techniques, and his book Pedrosa said, “reads like a novel but is real.” To avoid lawsuits, Pedrosa answered “maybe” to questions about specifics. When asked the naive question: How much of Miami’s development was due to narco-bucks? It elicited laughter from his mostly local audience.

Jose Rocha, a colleague and friend of Pedrosa, was a Miami cop for 17 years. Rocha sometimes worked off-duty at a bank and watched as duffle bags full of money came into the bank at night but was frustrated. “There were no laws against how much foreign money could be brought into the banks,” Rocha said. It was still the frontier, the wild west. Now all the money is in the bank.

A local newspaperman Jim Dafitti summed it up for Pedrosa. “Miami was the only city where a man could arrive in shackles accused of smuggling military equipment to Africa and end up being hailed as a civic giant. Miami likes to think of itself as a big, international, cosmopolitan city.” But it doesn’t behave that way.

Chapter Two: Gentrification and Identity

Pedrosa’s references to Casablanca; a World War II frontier of an empire where the geography shifts with its’ characters, set the scene for an exposition of the city. A Miami, where a mid-century real estate advertisement read, “The rules are different here,” was traceable to an earlier era when Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas wrote “River of Grass” to advertise Miamis’ booming pre-hurricane and pre-depression real-estate boom of the 1920s. Early examples of what Pedrosa described as a “Miami moment -a temporary lapse of reality and an unexpected turn of events.”

In 2013, at the book fair, former Tampa Bay Times journalist and Miami resident T.D. Allman chronicled much of Miami’s uniqueness and presented it in his pathbreaking book, “Finding Florida.” The author asked the reader to imagine a unique place spoiled by development.

Painting the broader canvas of Miami reads like an origin myth. First, a comet smashed into the earth and created the Gulf of Mexico. The heat from the impact killed off the dinosaurs leaving their ancestors; the abundant birds and alligators in the Everglades -one of the world’s natural wonders. The rim of the crater became a porous limestone peninsula formed from the deposits of dead sea organisms with a ridge in the middle extending into the marshland in the bottom third. Finally, over time, seasonal winds originating in North Africa deposited fine white sand creating sandy beaches, and a paradise was born. Later, the natural paradise would give way to human habitation.

Like story beats the city as origin myth continued beyond Allman’s rite of initiation and Pedrosas’ sermonizing. Miami was renamed “Magic City” as it grew by leaps and bounds despite consensus claims, (google it) that there was no reason for its existence. People arrived first by rail, then the car, air, sail, and even washed up on the beaches in inner tubes. Everyone wanted to live there the way its former inhabitants had. It also had a “barefoot postman” who walked the beach from end to end to deliver the mail.

The city filled up with people, and it was dubbed a “City of Exiles.” Once they arrived and settled in neighborhoods, through a process called gentrification, almost as quickly as they came, they disappeared without a trace.

Chapter Three: Knowledge on the Frontier

Almost America” is another nickname for the city for its steady and chaotic intake of Latin American migrants along the frontier and for a lack of closure to our understanding of what went on there. Artists, musicians, and writers drove the cities’ growth as a tourist mecca through a process of hedonistic mythmaking. They believed that if you could imagine all that went before, it would have given you a more complete, if not an accurate description of Miami, Florida. More often than not, the artist got that myth wrong. In the 1980s, known as the era of the “Cocaine Cowboys,” science was brought to bear on the knowledge problem when a medical expert conducted scientific experiments that proved that due to smuggling, every dollar in that city had traces of cocaine on it.

Chapter Four: Multiculturalism versus the Melting Pot.

Pattia Creelman is a book fair volunteer who has taught languages for about 20 years at Miami-Dade College, which is the fairs’ host institution and where the book fair was tucked away under the elevated Metrorail. Creelman grew up in Wyndwood Park later renamed Wynwood, which she described as a popular place for teachers, carpenters, and policemen to live. “Good Lord. They cut us off from Seventh Avenue. I sat on my front porch and watched them destroy half the neighborhood homes to build Interstate-95. There was nothing in Miami in 1970. So, there was no need for an expressway. Just people living their lives. But they did it anyway. That is when everybody left. Then the neighborhood became very bad, full of dangerous people and drugs. Today it is edgy, not sure what is legal.” Creelman said.

The I-95 extension sliced away a third of the neighborhood and all of the neighboring historic Black community of Overtown, leaving the warehouses and about half the houses to the north, an area that is now known as Little Haiti. “That is when everybody left. That is what life is; it changes it becomes something else. The reason it changes is that there is a need for it to change. But now we are integrated; Haitians, Nicaraguans, and so on, we are one. NE Second Avenue and 36th Street, look at it now. The homes are worth a fortune. Overtown’s’ glory days are over. It isn’t right, but that is what they do. Hurricane Andrew only affected Homestead; life went on as usual here.” Creelman said. Many experts believe that a long-forgotten 1920s style hurricane is overdue, and Miamians will leave when it comes.

In the introduction to “Finding Florida,” Allman explained that the unexpected has always been the narrative in Florida. Nowhere more so than in Miami. Perhaps, Allman summed it up best when he said, “Florida is the Play-Doh State. Take the goo; mold it to your dream. Then watch the dream ooze back into goo. People are constantly ruining Florida; Florida is constantly ruining them back.”

“The truth is that Miamians are mystified by wealth, and assume that acts of charity equate to the goodness of character.” Pedrosa said, “Money laundering is used to launder a person’s reputation. In Miami, a person’s past means nothing.” Today this is done artfully and with artifice.

Walls of Change: The Story of Wynwood Walls,” profiles the Wynwood murals and the impact that Tony Goldman’s family has had on the neighborhood’s gentrification. Jessica Goldman-Srebnick is a street art evangelist and the curator of the Wynwood Walls and “co-founded Goldman Global Arts, a Miami- and New York-based creative collective.”

When it came to “molding the goo,” nobody did it like the Wynwood Arts District. It was formerly an almost exclusively Puerto Rican neighborhood called Wyndwood Park. Gone without a trace, the Puerto Rican community has moved to the Daytona-Tampa corridor -an important voting block. A third of the area was the garment district warehouses, now known as the Wynwood Walls, for its murals, which receive an estimated 3.5 million visitors per year, an Instagrammers’ paradise.

Goldman-Srebnick’s business card was slick and opened like a book. Embossed in gold on the front of the card are hieroglyphs -a sun, a pillar, a paintbrush, a car, and a light bulb.The Goldmans are like dynastic Pharisees. Goldman-Srebnick’s family owns 30 of the warehouses that are concrete, like the blocks in a pyramid. Graffiti artists are allowed to paint on them and repaint, creating an evanescent refreshment of artistic reputation while leaving no trace of the former. It oozes back into the goo. Goldman-Srebnick styles herself as an art curator and leads seminars at Harvard Business School every year on how to profit from gentrification and art. Her father spearheaded and nurtured conceptual/street art murals in New York’s SOHO and Philadelphia Village neighborhoods where they own dozens of other buildings.

The book covers all that, but not the killing of two graffiti artists by police. Or any pushback from the 100’s of warehouse owners who did not grant their permission. What they do is illegal. Goldman denies any wrongdoing and says the owners all like the murals, which have expanded so much she has to come up with themes for them each year. As if it were on a par with the influential conceptual art fair “Il Biennale di Venezia.”

“In 2005, there were no murals here at all. In New York, taggers were a secret society, but I saw kids being incredibly creative the way adults can’t. “You can see something for what it could be and the positive and the beauty in it -textural and full of color and light. Wynwood has a spine and a heartbeat, and is part of a global family.” Goldman said. Shepard Fairey murals aside, author Tom Wolfe once described post-2000 art as “imagination minus skill.” As if to announce that street art has arrived, just in time for the Haute-bourgeoisie at Art Miami Week and Art Basel, a graffiti museum will open in Wynwood Dec.8.

The apocalypse came early to Miami with I-95, but the end of the highway isn’t the end of the road. If anything was to be learned from the era of the dominance of traffic and particularly the automobile, it is that transportation needn’t define us. A Miami city manager once said, “It would be good if people had a conscience, but it is no replacement for solid laws.”

Journalist and Urbanist Jane Jacobs is a heroine in the recent Edward Norton film noir adaptation Motherless Brooklyn. A movie that transports us to another time, to the 1950s, and to the battles to prevent the destruction of ethnic neighborhoods by expressways waged against New York’s Robert Moses. One of the stories protagonists said, “what happens to poor people in this city wasn’t as yesterday and won’t be tomorrow.” “Where do the people go?” “Most of them, they just disappear.” She said. Jacobs successfully prevented a proposed highway in Toronto from destroying the Kensington neighborhood; its own “Little Brooklyn.” Today, it is still a thriving multicultural neighborhood and the heart of the city.

Heritage Minute describes Multiculturalism as multiple generations of multiple ethnicities where half are foreign-born, and no one ethnic group dominates. Florida doesn’t fit the bill where Toronto does because Miamis’ developers push ethnic groups out, and something is lost. According to Population Review: “Foreign-born people account for nearly half of the population of Toronto. This gives Toronto the second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents of all world cities after Miami. Unlike Miami, Toronto has no dominant culture or nationality, which also makes it one of the world’s most diverse cities.”

Tom Wolfe appeared at the 2012 book fair to promote his novel “Back to Blood.” It sought to describe Miami as a series of secularized tribal identities and as a source of meaning in a city where half it’s population was born elsewhere. It was to be Wolfe’s last novel. Little Brown Publishing reportedly gave Wolfe a whopping four-million-dollar advance. It sold a mere 62,000 copies. Wolfe, acclaimed for getting it right and for meticulous research, believed the American frontier closed after the Cuban arrivals and that everything that followed was a mere footnote to their dominance of the city.

Chapter Five: Climate and Expertise

Author Nathaniel Richs’ “Losing Earth,” and New Yorker deputy editor David Wallace Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth -Life after Warming,” set the tone for a moderated discussion led by Miami based Cleo Collins who trains eco-presenters. Rich and Wells, are often criticized for not being climate experts, but as journalists write the first draft of history and like Jacobs they filled a void- a knowledge gap in climate science communication. The CIA’s Michael Klare and Geographer Gilbert Gaul are experts who both agreed with Rich and Wells that it is too late to stop climate change -a force of nature. Klare was concerned about Florida’s military bases built on porous limestone, where groundwater is already contaminated. Gilbert M. Gaul’s “The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of Americas’ Coasts” examines how the burden of storm damage has shifted from private investors to public taxpayers in much the same way as gentrification did. Only now “Climate Gentrification” is forcing the wealthy away from the coast and into neighborhoods like Little Haiti that are inland and 5 meters above sea-level. Despite incredible pressures of growth, experts believe that the city is rapidly disappearing, and one day soon, it will be gone entirely.

Chapter Six: A Seismic Political Shift

The most compelling candidate to be the closing chapter of this year’s fair, however, is a book about the rise of Republicanism in Florida over the last 30 years. Peter Dunbar, is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. Mike Haridopolos is a former president of the Florida Senate and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. Together they are responsible for the book “The Modern Republican Party in Florida.” One good reason for this choice is that it is a history book and so based on expert opinion. Another is that had Vice President Al Gore, who became a Nobel laureate for his efforts to combat climate change won Florida; we would have had an “environmental president.” However, the most dramatic moment in recent Florida political history might not have been in 2000 when Al Gore lost the presidential election to George W. Bush by 500 votes in Florida. Instead, it could have been the moment when Elian Gonzales was sent back to Cuba by then-Attorney General Janet Reno after his mother drowned, getting the boy out in 1999. Another hypothesis was that it was a supreme court stacked with conservatives that cost Gore the election, not the unpopular decision to send Gonzalez back. “I appointed Janet Reno,” said Dunbar, who traces Floridas’ political troubles back to Rutherford B. Hayes instead.

Dunlop described how the Republican Party and the Cuban community of Miami embraced each other. Each felt like “underdogs up against a dominant Democratic Party.” Logic dictates that Cubans should have been grateful to the Democrats. Attorney General Robert Kennedy spirited fourteen-thousand children out of Cuba in the “Pedro Pan Airlift.” Instead, they blamed his brother JFK for messing up the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Dr. Eduardo J. Padron, who is the retired president of MDC, founded the book fair and was also a Pedro Pan child. In Florida, logic rarely dictates much. Dunbar confessed he had never heard of Alan Lichtman’s logic-based theory based on the progress of the political party in question and not the leader. Yet, Lichtman has successfully predicted the last nine presidential elections.

Fortunately, there will be time next year to add to that growing list of Miami stories that “read like fiction but are real.” before it sinks entirely back into the goo. Like the film-noir movie “Chinatown,” the screenplay reads like a book. But like its characters, you already know too much for your own good. It is all about knowing what questions to ask next.

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