Miami's power is not in towers but in willingness to change
By Michael Lewis
Lunch Friday with one of our most respected bankers reinforced how fast Miami has changed and what makes it a beacon for the future.
Bill Allen, Northern Trust vice chairman, pointed north from a ninth-floor window along a rapidly changing skyline where construction cranes hover to the spot where he began his career 44 years ago. Each morning back then, he'd park in Brickell, a street of residences with a riverbank of scrub brush, and cross the bridge clutching a lunch bag to beat downtown parking costs.
Then he shared his thoughts on "10 defining things that have shaped banking in Florida." He'd listed unit banking to branching, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the savings-and-loan and banking crisis, international banking, correspondent banking and more.
But he pointed to item 6 and said he should have made it No. 1. The most important impact on banking in his years, he emphasized, was the Cuban refugee influx of the early 1960s.
He hit home. We are so busy looking at overwhelming physical changes, the rising condos that some say total 60,000 units planned or under construction, that we forget what has triggered Miami's growth: changes in our society.
In the glitter of a European-inspired Art Basel event that night, I talked about what Miami's changes mean. A young South African-born physician living in Toronto was telling me that a mutual friend had suggested that she make Miami home. But, she said, she likes the multicultural life in Toronto.
She was surprised when I told her that the majority of this community is Hispanic and that English is not a dominant language.
What, she asked, is our official language? I didn't have a good answer - I didn't get into county publications issued in English, Spanish and Creole, or election ballots in the three languages, or the more than 100 languages heard at home by our 370,000 public-school pupils.
And I certainly didn't tell her that just a half-century ago, this was a segregated community where differences were neither prized nor tolerated, a place where even water fountains were labeled "white" or "colored," a community where a hotel posted a sign barring dogs, blacks and Jews, a Miami Beach that permitted no African Americans in city limits after sundown.
At lunch, Bill Allen had recounted how a decade or so after the early 1960s' first wave of Cubans, he'd worked to open private clubs to African Americans and Jews and was told by an unsupportive boss "you're on your own."
That's a Miami we don't recognize today - and many don't believe could have existed.
The world hasn't changed so much everywhere. That same Friday, a weeklong recount of an Alabama election on Amendment Two ended - by a slim margin, voters refused to drop a 1901 state constitutional provision requiring racial segregation. The provision isn't enforced, or course, but voters refuse to remove it, and they're proud of it.
"We're too concerned about the image of this state as compared to others," the Associated Press last week quoted former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Elbert Peters. "I hear about Wisconsin, where a maniac shoots six people, or California, where men are marrying men and women are marrying women."
In Miami, fortunately, we're embracing differences as never before - differences that began with the Cuban influx but have become as global as the crowds that came for Art Basel.
Judy Drucker, impresario of classical music, said over dinner Friday that she sees increased support for her Concert Association of Florida from South Americans - an increasingly influential group first made comfortable here by the earlier Cuban arrivals.
Indeed, many of our cranes towering are those of developers from South America who have become Miamians, people like Argentina-born Diego Lowenstein, also at the Art Basel event, who bought the old Dupont Plaza and is in the process of razing it for new development. Cultural changes clearly have triggered the county's physical transformation that is far more visible.
But Miami's strength is not in towers. It's not money flowing from around the globe. It's not glitterati who arrived with Art Basel. The construction crane may be our current bird of choice, but it can fly the coop when the fiscal climate freezes the physical.
Our strength is best shown not in visible changes but in the human mix from around the globe that has made, and will continue to make, Miami a magnet, a mix that we have embraced in multiple languages rather than rejected in ballot language as Alabama voters just did.
Bill Allen's item 6, a strong diversity, clearly trumps a failed Amendment Two that seeks to freeze a society the way it was 100 years ago. Our ability to rapidly reinvent ourselves is Miami's greatest strength, one carrying us strongly into the future rather than weakly into the past.