Cover Story

Self-Portrait of Downtown

Downtown is an archipelago of zip codes, said a resident. Buildings disconnected from one another like islands. Each its own unique culture.

Raul Guerrero
Apr 18 · 12 min read
Downtown Business District by Niels Johansen.

Downtown News asked residents and stakeholders to draft a brief semblance of the neighborhood for a self-portrait. We wanted to model it after an early portrait young Rembrandt did. “He painted it the way he would paint a model, without personifying it,” observed Pat Steir for the New York Times. “It’s letting go of imparting wisdom to the figure. Brilliance, scale, beauty — letting go of all that. That’s what’s hard to do.”

We wanted a portrait of Downtown devoid of ego.

We sent this email randomly: Working on a story about residents’ and stakeholders’ perceptions of downtown Miami. We’d like to include yours. Some answers already received might give you an idea: A place without political representation. Another: The only place in the area that is authentic, with historical buildings…

From a condo overlooking Maurice Ferré Park and Biscayne Bay, a resident replied: “I wouldn’t totally agree that we have no political representation. I think we have the wrong political representation. Our commissioner is a bit of a pushover and allows a commissioner who is an unchecked bully from Little Havana to extend his reach into our community.”

Can’t corroborate nor dispute. My job is simply to report. I would echo, however, Commissioner Manolo Reyes — District 4, which does not include downtown — : “When I took office, my oath was to serve the entire city of Miami. I am a commissioner of the City of Miami.” In that sense, the five commissioners have a right and duty to guard the interests of downtown — the original Magic City.

But two commissioners have direct impact on the lives of downtown residents. Commissioner Reyes is the Chairman of the important quasi-governmental Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and Commissioner Joe Carollo, District 1 — downtown is not included — chairs the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which oversees Bayfront Park and Maurice Ferré Park. Only Commissioner Ken Russell, District 2, has jurisdiction over downtown, but has no saying in the two crucial institutions for downtown — one in charge of economic development and the other in charge of its parks.

For outsiders, downtown extends from Brickell to the Design District. Bureaucrats coined the Greater Downtown to engulf Brickell, the Downtown proper, and Edgewater. Locals know Downtown is the three square miles north of the Miami River to the Omni District around 15th street, and from I-95 eastward to Biscayne Bay.

That is the Downtown Neighbors Alliance’s footprint. The DNA is an association of most Downtown buildings, hence the one independent organization representing residents, and fomenting a sense of community. “Other places where one feels a sense of neighborhood are the parks, Whole Foods, and for sure local bars like Lost Boy, Mama Tried, and a number of beloved restaurants,” volunteered a resident.

The Downtown proper combines the Central Business District, in pink, and the Arts and Entertainment District, including the Park West enclave, in orange (. Brickell is the neighborhood south of the Miami River, in blue. Downtown Map, courtesy of the Downtown Development Authority.

The population for the Greater Downtown, the Census Office estimates, surpasses 109,000. The Downtown proper accounts for some 30,000. Downtowners are young, averaging 35, mostly college educated, love dogs, and buy into the 15-minute city: health, entertainment, diversity in food, architecture, demographics, and work, all within a fifteen-minute walk or bike ride.

What is Commissioner Ken Russell’s take on downtown? “Downtown is the vibrant heartbeat of the City with many good projects on the way. I will be prioritizing the renovation of Flagler Street and the restoration of the Olympia Theater.”

Rendering of proposed beautification project by Curtis & Rodgers in collaboration with stakeholders.

Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher and Princeton University Professor, famously said, I am I and my circumstance. By circumstance we are to understand all outside ourselves, including others’ perceptions. And the perceptions others have of Miami as a crazy and a cultural wasteland is no secret. Neither is a secret that such external perception is distorted by media reports like the South Beach incidents.

“There is a geographic arrogance that reduces people who should know better to stereotyping. It’s the lazy thing to do, repeating platitudes,” a painter fumes over the sensationalism.

But what is Downtown? One aspect is a cultural destination. Not many cities can boast having world-class museums, a center for the performing arts second to none, or an urban college anchoring the Miami Book Fair, arguably the largest in the country, and the internationally recognized Miami Film Festival, pointed out Beatriz Gonzalez, President of the Miami Dade College, the downtown Wolfson campus.

The President of Frost Science, Frank Steslow, observed:Downtown Miami is a cultural epicenter that serves as a showcase of innovation and technology to a local and international audience.”

Mr. Steslow noted: Frost Science is much more than a building — science happens here. Frost Science Museum. Photo, courtesy of Frost Science.

Speaking at a recent Salon on community building, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins stressed the evolution of the arts, science, and culture as catalysts for the future of Downtown. High-tech and financial institutions are fleeing New York and San Francisco for South Florida’s enviable weather, and the promise of a renovated, cultured and diverse Downtown.

Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), sees it like this: “Downtown is the future of Miami. Art, culture and commerce will lead the way!”

Both PAMM and Frost Science Museum are architectural gems, landmarks comparable to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, said the noted architect and urbanist Juan Mullerat. Photo, Downtown News.

If a city has an official word, it would be the mayor’s, right? The charismatic and always tanned Francis Suarez responded: “Downtown is rapidly becoming the model neighborhood every City in America dreams of having — a robust city center where people can live, work, and play without ever having to leave home.”

Freedom Tower, Paramount Building, and Avenue 2, photos Downtown News.

What makes downtown interesting is the contrast between historical architecture and the modern high-rises. Speaking of modern architecture, can’t omit 1000 Biscayne Boulevard, the 62-story luxurious building, designed by the distinguished Zaha Hadid. The exotic design features a curving exoskeleton that serves structural purposes, allowing the interior space to have fewer columns. Residents include mega celebrity David Beckham.

Long-time Downtown resident Terrell Fritz put it succinctly in a conversation with Downtown News: “Miami might not know it, but Downtown has the buildings through which we can experience the history of the city. Everything started here and some of those buildings are still here, and fortunately, we can preserve them for the future.”

Downtown News: Money moves the world. How can historic preservation be achieved vis-à-vis voracious development appetite?

Terrell Fritz: “One way is repurposing. The old La Epoca (1936) is coming back as a food hall. A brewery will occupy the Old U.S. Courthouse and Post Office Building (1912). Not to mention the DuPont Building (1937). Among other businesses, the DuPont lodges the popular bar Lost Boy. Downtown is easily the most important historical commercial district in the state of Florida, and one of the most important in the south. We have a critical mass of buildings… 58.”

Ballerina at the DuPont Building, photo by Marc Schmidt.

Casey Picket, the man behind the Miami History Blog, remarked: “Development has occurred around downtown, for better or worse. I like that there are still a lot of buildings still standing from the building boom of the 1920s.”

Top row photos: Contrasts, Panoramic and Maurice Ferrer Park by Downtown News. Middle row: Signage, DN. Fireworks, Niels Johansen, Park West, DN. Third row: Street Drama, Bayside Marketplace, and Wheel and Moon in Bayside, by Aurea Veras.

In their own words, here are selected responses:

“Concrete canyons filled with character, and grit.” Randy Alonso.

“Downtown is like a mirage in the desert. You are not certain if better things are ahead or not!” Dan Cruz.

“I love what Mayor Suarez has been doing. The demographics of our neighborhood have changed and it’s happened so quickly. I’ve overheard tech startups chatting in the sauna, seen 30 strollers in a circle in the park on several occasions which I refer to as “stroller conventions”, and noticed so many more dogs in the park. I’m so happy to see our spaces in Downtown being activated by the people who live here! I hope that the influx of professionals to our community will have a positive ripple effect of being seen as more than just a party city and addressing issues our city has always faced such as environmental and employment issues. I moved to Miami in 2001 and have lived on the NE 2 Ave corridor in various locations. Downtown Miami is finally becoming what I always knew it could be!” Jessica Boudreaux.

“Bayfront Park views of beautiful turquoise waters, except when the park is not a park, but a walled-off venue rented to the lowest bidder.” Martin Fenton.

Martin also wrote: “I wanted to add the decade long dormant fountain, but I am sure that would have been too long.” Coincidentally, another resident had a comment on the same fountain.

“That waterless thing in the middle of Bayfront Park I used to think had no purpose, but now I realize it must be a toilet for extraterrestrials. And when extraterrestrials don’t use it, our large contingent of homeless do.” Resident requested anonymity.

“The downtown community is close to non-existent, a sight for sore eyes, as the commercial sharks, the construction lords have deemed it doomed… Assisting in, allowing it to disintegrate right before our eyes, not only to become a victim of desolation, but also a hub for the forgotten community… To us it will always be home, the place we have grown to live in, and love in our hearts. The fight for its upkeep will continue regardless of the political and financial divide, which does not benefit money-hungry giants unless a piece of it is sold for a song and a dance. Regardless, as the name defines it, 305 will always be our forever zip code.” Desiree D’Souza Lasrado.

“For me Downtown is where our community began. The Flagler’s, Julia Tuttle, the Burdines family, the Merrick’s, the Fisher’s they all played an important role in the birth of Miami. The root of a community is also the heart of the community. I thoroughly love the history, the performing arts, the sports and concerts, and people watching. When I moved to Miami my first apartment was at the Dupont Plaza in Downtown and I instantly fell in love. It’s historical, colorful and real!” Pamela Weller.

“A jewel that is just starting to show her beauty, unequaled anywhere.” Sergio Rok.

“I’d describe it as a kaleidoscope of cultures,” Steve Simeonidis.

“Downtown is a work in progress. What does it need most? A Political voice and organization.” Michael Fueling.

Of course, someone had to speak for the Miami Heat:

“The Miami Heat, and their Championship run was the local highlight of the pandemic. We are lucky to have one of the best franchises in the league walking distance from Downtown residents.” J.J. Colagrande.

“I witnessed the other day a homeless man cut himself and almost bled to death. I was left wondering that it could have been a pedestrian the victim of his mental disorder. It’s not an indictment on the homeless, but on the negligence of authorities to let people with mental issues roam freely our streets.” Aurea Veras.

“Flagler Street is a disgrace. Speculators have free rein. No control. No accountability. Real developers build, the Melo brothers, for example, have revitalized sections of the city. Speculators just bank on real estate… In the process have reduced Flagler Street to emptiness, rats, and danger.” Gilda Velazquez.

Editor’s note: Many responses addressed issues pertaining to Flagler Street and homelessness. Speaking to a sociologist, she offered that, “residents who must endure the consequences of perceived negligence sometimes grow impatient, frustrated and can pass quick judgements. It’s hard for the public to understand business strategies designed behind closed doors, especially when you see developers in other parts of town actually building.”

“Downtown Miami comprises the best and, unfortunately, the worst of what a city can be — kind of a love-hate relationship.” Cheryl Jacobs.

“My perception of Downtown Miami reflects upon the old saying of good things come to those who wait. I wouldn’t ordinarily use this saying, however knowing the large amount of work that we, the stakeholders, have put into the area over the past few years, I am confident that the fruits of our hard work will come to fruition in the very near future.” Dylan Finger.

“The ‘Little Engine that Could,’ Downtown is the undervalued neighborhood that will continue to aspire to greatness and motivate its residents and the City of Miami to work hard on realizing its potential.” Joy Prevor.

One resident from neighboring Brickell piped in:

“In some ways, Brickell is the Time Square of Miami, minus the sensory overload. Flanked by waterways on either side, its central location and youthful cosmopolitan ambience made it a wonderful place to live!” Gemma Barry.

“I would describe the Central Business District (CBD) as a jack-in-the-box on the cusp of revival.” Gary Ressler.

A more geometrical image, showing a perfect arch: “From Cocaine Cowboys to a vibrant city of the 21st century.” Claudia Roussel.

Downtown is the most walkable neighborhood in Miami. I walk every day. Lately, one hour is not enough — must be the one year pandemic confinement. But being a writer, walking is a luxury I indulge in, and maybe it’s a necessity: thinking, observing, listening, capturing the aromas. Writing about a city from behind a screen strikes me as reviewing gardens from a subterranean train. Every single walk is a lesson on urbanism, sociology, politics, and history, urbanist Michael Sorkin taught.

I live right in the center of Downtown, so every day I must decide which way to go. The possibilities promise many a reward. North takes me past MDC and its young students hurrying from one class to the next. Not all are college-age, some are professionals retooling their skills for the changing work market. Further up is the Miami Worldcenter’s incessant construction. One constant throughout downtown is construction; accordingly, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava jokes that Miami’s official bird is the crane. Final destination is the paseo edging Biscayne Bay. Not seldom a bunch of tourists run all excited at the sight of dolphins or a manatee family.

Sometimes I go south along Second Avenue — parts of it fashioned after New York’s Fifth Avenue, and a handful of buildings stand to attest to the ambition.

The Ingraham, the Huntington, the Olympia Theater, photos Downtown News.

Brickell stands just across the bridge. The imposing Epic is right there almost within reach.

Other times, I turn westwards on Flagler and take photos of the few stores in operation, the empty shop windows, the Seybold Jewelry Building. I would stop for coffee with artists at the pop-up galleries. The intended walk is all the way to the River, but at times, halfway through, North Miami Avenue draws me to the Courts District. Before appearing in court, people do carry contrition on their faces, and fear and anger. Sometimes a wife waves up to the narrow windows of the detention building, and cries. On the left on 6th is the Brightline terminal. During office hours, this corridor is bustling, a good portion of the 250,000 day Downtowners make a living here. Culturist Islara Souto explains that the “day people” represent government employees, students, lawyers and court personnel, hospitality workers, and tourists.

A quarter of a mile up is the old cemetery. I chat with caretakers about the latest technology in historic monuments’ preservation and ghosts.

A detour to Overtown is in order, hoping to engage octogenarians in conversation and hear stories passed down generations. How, for example, Henry Flagler sent black laborers to clear the wilderness that was Miami, and how these laborers made it possible for Miami to incorporate as a city, an act that required a minimum of 300 signatories. The Miami Metropolis reported that 163 of the 344 signatories were registered as “colored.” The colored laborers who made the city possible with their work and votes could not live in the Miami they built. Florida, Deep South, observed the laws of segregation, and relegated them to Colored Town, behind the cemetery, today’s Overtown.

Brightline Terminal, photo by Aaron DeMayo. Historic Lyric Theater of Overtown, photo by Pietro, courtesy of Wikipedia. The Old City of Miami Cemetery, Photo by Ebyabe.

Occasionally, during my walks, I step on dog poop, and curse, and look for the careless human responsible for the four-legged guy. The anger never lasts. In the final analysis, the bride is just fine. “Cities are like lovers,” a poet told me; “look past the petty and discover. But remember, what you get is what you plant.”

One last perception to end this Baroque portrait: “Full of contradictions yet guided by the promise of what is to be, Miami’s downtown represents the entire landscape of the human condition and the hope embodied therein.” Matilda Kalaveshi.

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Downtown NEWS

Local Perspective - Downtown Miami

Raul Guerrero

Written by

Editor, Downtown NEWS. Academic Curator, Downtown Arts + Science Salon (DASSMIAMI.COM). Novelist and historian.

Downtown NEWS

Local Perspective - Downtown Miami

Raul Guerrero

Written by

Editor, Downtown NEWS. Academic Curator, Downtown Arts + Science Salon (DASSMIAMI.COM). Novelist and historian.

Downtown NEWS

Local Perspective - Downtown Miami

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