Don't let still-unrealized aims become our claims to fame
By Michael Lewis
Miami long has sported grand ambitions, big dreams and exaggerated claims. Carl Fisher in the 1920s touted a spit of mosquito-ridden swampland as a great place to live. What a salesman. Today, it's called Miami Beach.
But reality doesn't always eclipse the hype. Sometimes the only reality is the hype. Miami's hardest task always has been to tell one from the other.
For example, turn back the clock 40 years, when grand plans bore resemblance to today's.
Like any local 1966 guidebook, Guide Miami sings praises. Of 17 pages that describe Miami's attributes, seven target the biggest. Can you name it?
Not sports, which rated a page before we had major-league teams. Not fishing, which also rated a page. Not outdoors, at two pages. Not culture, which got less than a page before we began building and building to house our performing and visual arts.
Certainly not business. It didn't even rate a footnote.
No, our major attribute in 1966 was Interama, which was detailed in seven pages of articles and pictures.
The name may not be familiar because Interama - the Inter-American Cultural and Trade Center, which was to attract 15 million visitors a year by 1968 - never existed.
Nor did its listed attractions: the 1,000-foot Tower of Freedom with its restaurants and observation platforms designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki or the four permanent areas - International, Cultural, Industrial and Leisure-Sports-Festival.
The Marine Amphitheater with its floating stage and seating for 12,000 wasn't built, nor were the symphony hall, the opera, the ballet and music theater, the dramatic arts theater, the art gallery or the museum.
The international bazaar with its artisans at work and the ceremonial plaza and the computerized, automated audio-visual library never came to pass. Corporate executives who were to meet at Interama to explore Latin American markets never showed up.
The meeting ground for the nations of the Western Hemisphere was no more real than today's vision of a headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas on Watson Island is so far, though the renderings were equally impressive.
Interama was one of those failed grand dreams despite the guide's introductory note: "The large concentration of construction activity in the northeast section of the Greater Miami area is the building of the world's largest and first permanent international exposition - the Inter-American Cultural and Trade Center, better known as Interama."
Thought the book noted that this massive hub was to open July 4, 1968, the "large concentration of construction activity" was poetic license for a project that literally never got off the ground.
Plans were grandiose, but the site that was to be Interama now is used in part by the north campus of Florida International University. The other part became, quite literally, a dump.
When the air came out of Interama, the City of North Miami received title to 350 of its acres in 1970 and two years later signed a lease with Munisport Inc. to create a recreational facility. Munisport got permission to raise low-lying areas with clean fill and construction debris but soon was burying the land under municipal refuse instead and then got a permit to turn the site into a sanitary landfill. Instead, the land was filled with drums of toxic waste and infectious hospital waste.
So much for the "world's largest and first permanent international exposition" - gone to waste.
Interama-Munisport is now the future home of Biscayne Landing, a $1 billion mixed-use public-private project being developed with the City of North Miami by the Swerdlow Group and Boca Developers, who say they are making the site "South Florida's premier residential community."
That transition encapsulates Miami, past and probably future. One site went from the world's largest international exposition to a municipal recreation area to a sanitary landfill without once becoming any of those things. Now it is about to become the region's "premier residential community."
That is Miami. We often promote the development that is not yet and may never be. We dream big dreams, and sometimes they come to pass. If we didn't dream them, they never would. Altogether, it's better to think grand thoughts than never to try to scale the heights.
Unfortunately, in the process, grand can become grandiose and then the figment of a large imagination.
Sometimes, but not invariably.
Concert halls that were to rise in Interama are rising today straddling Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown.
International meeting halls are still on the drawing boards, this time on Watson Island as we wait for the yet-to-exist Free Trade Area of the Americas to anoint Miami its headquarters.
The art gallery and the museum are now targeted for Bicentennial Park - to be anointed Museum Park once the museums accumulate the hundreds of millions needed to build.
And the nonexistent 1,000-foot Tower of Freedom is almost matched by any of a half-dozen residential high rises on the drawing boards - and none any further off the ground.
Not all the Interama dream was pie in the sky. The concert halls are rising. All the rest might well.
We have become the business hub for Latin America without the formal setting of the Intern-American Cultural and Trade Center. Physical infrastructure wasn't the catalyst. Geography and the Cuban influx that rated less than one paragraph in the 1966 guidebook did the trick.
Today, as we dream big dreams of a home for Cirque du Soleil that would draw millions and a home for the Free Trade Area of the Americas that would cement our role as capital of the Americas and museums in the park that would be a cultural Mecca and a South Dade hub of theme parks and attractions that would make that region a tourist delight and on and on, we walk in the footsteps of those who knew Interama would be the making of Miami.
We dream big dreams, and we're better off doing so. We aim high, and it's far superior to having no aims at all.
But before we write a 2006 guidebook that sings the praises of our great projects, let's be sure first that they at least get off the ground.