|Driving down the 395 from Miami Beach, one can
only gaze in wonder at the downtown skyline set against the tropical
waters and blue skies. It's amazing to think that merely 100 years ago,
the area was dominated by swampland vegetation and mosquitoes. In such a
short period of time, the city has emerged as a major cosmopolitan center
for international business, tourism, fashion, and nightlife.
Long before the trendy street cafes of the Grove or the pastel buildings of the Art Deco district existed, the Tequesta Indians lived here for an estimated 2,000 years. The Spanish built a mission here in 1567, when the area was known as 'Mayaimi,' but it remained secluded and generally inactive until the American acquisition of Florida in 1821. Hundreds of pioneers settled the region around the Miami River, but growth was stymied by the lack of a speedy and efficient land route north.
Motivated either by a vision of the region's potential or simply by a desire for civilization, settler Julia Tuttle convinced magnate Henry Flagler to extend the route of the railroad he was building. In 1896, the completion of the Florida East Coast Railroad opened Miami to the rest of the United States, and marked the birth of a new city.
Flagler opened one of Miami's first luxury hotels, the Royal Palm, and its success inspired others to join him. In the 1910s, John S. Collins and Carl F. Fisher collaborated on an ambitious real estate project that transformed a mangrove swamp into present-day Miami Beach. A decade later, George E. Merrick developed the well-planned residential area of Coral Gables with its plazas, fountains, Spanish street names carved on white stones, broad boulevards, and shady oak trees. To complement the residential developments, Merrick created the elegant Biltmore Hotel, elaborately designed in a Mediterranean style.
Other individuals decided to apply their investments to their personal estates. James Deering built his exquisite 16th Century Italian Villa Vizcaya by the bay and filled the architectural masterpiece with a collection of art works.
The 1920s are widely associated with extravagant spending and ostentatious lifestyles. With the sudden property boom and influx of investment capital, Miami was in full swing in this era of abundance. Its population burgeoned, and the Art Deco movement brought a unique flavor to Miami Beach. But just as Miami began to enjoy this prosperity, the Depression and two devastating hurricanes temporarily halted progress.
In the 1940s, Miami became home for soldiers living in the city's military training camps. Always known for attracting a diverse blend of people, Miami also became the residence of the outlaw Al Capone. In the 1950s, the tourism industry continued to grow. The white sandy beaches and warm climate provided the perfect setting for winter vacations. But Miami was still mainly a tourist playground, and had yet to reach its full potential as a metropolis.
The mass Cuban immigration following Castro's 1959 revolution has been greatly responsible for Miami's growth since then as an area of international business and commerce. The first wave of political exiles included many educated professionals with a desire to apply their knowledge and skills to the city's growth. The Cuban community developed their own economic and social enclave, and fostered ties to the Latin American market. International business took Miami's downtown by storm as the city rapidly grew into more than just a tourist town.
As with any big city, Miami began to experience problems in its transitional growth. Crime rose tremendously in the 1980s. Race relations grew tense, riots broke out, and the historic Art Deco district in South Beach was left to deteriorate. But crime is now down and restoration projects abound.
Miami has come a long way since the days of Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler. As the gateway to Latin America, Miami serves as the headquarters for many international companies and as home to the leading Spanish-language media in the United States. South Beach has become one of the country's hottest hubs of style, fashion, and nightlife. The ethnically diverse city continues to attract a multitude of cultures. Miami is truly unique--a tropical paradise with an interesting history, a diverse population, and a 'not quite in the United States' feel.