Miami’s open-door history reveals the best path forward
Exactly 125 years ago in a grimy pool hall on our nation’s frontier a new city was born: Miami. Each concert hall at the Arsht Center today holds six times as many people as lived here to form the new city on July 28, 1896. We were born with great expectations.
The city this week is celebrating that anniversary with events to connect our history with our present lives and look to the future. Miami Today detailed the events last week as we published a 60-page overview of Miami’s rapid growth that points toward a tomorrow that can be rich in every way.
If you’re a Miamian – anything from fifth generation (very rare indeed) to a relative newcomer (most of us are) – you should be proud of that history.
But more than pride, you should take lessons from the history of a great city that has every opportunity to be even greater.
Each of us will read something different into that history. But let me give you my takeaway: Miami has always done best when it is very inclusive.
More than most other big cities, Miami was created and led not by an exclusive handful – in Manhattan in the 1890s it was referred to as The Four Hundred – but by our own 400, which was the total number of adults who could be found to go to that pool hall and create a city.
Miami’s 400 included more than 100 Black Bahamian citizens who had come here to construct buildings and work the land – incorporators of a city who shamefully were thereafter excluded from living in most of it because of race, yet may have been among the most skillful of early Miamians. How much more could Miami have become if Miami had remained inclusive after that first day?
Go two years back before that first day. As history shows, Miami was founded because of two women, Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell, major landowners who yielded some of that land to Henry Flagler in return for him bringing to Miami his railway and hence people and prosperity. Yet, powerful as those women were, they could not vote because they were women. Again, inclusivity could have given Miami an even more sparkling history.
Because Miami has grown so fast – decade after decade, population doubled – there has been little choice but to include newcomers. People came from everywhere in the US to work, buy land, build homes, start businesses and often prosper. While older cities of the Northeast were run by people who had been there for generations, out of necessity institutions in Miami were run by recent arrivals only because most Miamians were recent arrivals. Being open to newcomers was the only possible path.
Then, starting just before 1960, Miami’s newcomers came more and more not from the nation but elsewhere around the globe. While Miami’s establishment was slow to welcome mostly Spanish-speaking new arrivals to leadership, the city was fortunate that the disaster of Castro in Cuba brought to Miami another nation’s leaders in virtually every field, people who quickly contributed to our city’s growth and shortly thereafter moved into local leadership. Just look at who runs most of our major institutions today. Those names are Hispanic.
Again, it was virtually impossible not to be inclusive of the foreign born when more than half of all Miamians were born not in other states but in other nations. Minimal barriers to virtually anything in Miami, from business to government, was key to successful community development.
There is no doubt that Miami is becoming more diverse daily. Whatever roadblocks we once had based on gender, sexual preference, race, language, nation of origin, religion, political party or whatever seem to have been mostly removed, although Heaven knows plenty of good work is needed in that regard. If there are no formal barriers in public or business life, in private gatherings we are more divided than united – perhaps more now by political affiliations than ever before.
If Miamians cannot talk comfortably with one another, in whatever language, our future will be far less bright. People used to talk about trying to break down barriers by inviting to dinner someone of another nationality, religion or race. Now the difficulty may be in getting Donkeys and Elephants into the same room. Again, if inclusivity has been Miami’s historic formula for prosperity, it has to be inclusivity of every sort, politics included.
Inclusivity has also meant the economic activities for which Miami was known. Early on it was agriculture. But that didn’t last long. Almost immediately our best-know activity was buying real estate cheaply and quickly selling it for a whole lot more as the city grew.
That growth came first as a small segregated southern town. But quickly the tourists came, and with them the new residents who vacationed here and then bought a house, went to work, started a business and invested in Miami’s growth.
Part of the growth was banking and finance, first strictly local but soon expanding to the Caribbean and Latin America, very much thanks to a new group of Spanish-speaking Miamians who together with our geographic position made us the region’s business and banking center. If we hadn’t been inclusive with Hispanic newcomers in banking and trade we wouldn’t have displaced New Orleans as the region’s link to Latin America.
Being a city in which everyone plays on a relatively level playing field has been absolutely pivotal to Miami’s growth and prosperity. It helps to have money – that’s true everywhere – but in Miami we have mostly allowed the talented and energetic to exercise those attributes. We get the most out of more people than do other cities, and it has paid off for Miami.
So how does this city of the mostly foreign born carry forward its inclusive history to the benefit of all? Does that play in a tech world, or some other new incarnation in Miami?
Change is not easily harnessed. Some of it may come naturally. In some high school in Miami right now might be the next Jeff Bezos with the next Amazon, maybe an Amazon on steroids. But will Miami afford her or him the opportunity to create that new Amazon-plus here as a home town?
Remember, Jeff Bezos didn’t return home to Miami after graduating from Princeton, and Amazon is not a Miami company. Only by keeping opportunities open to every one of our residents can we be sure that we won’t kill off that opportunity because we inadvertently stepped on creativity before our student genius ever had a chance to create.
Inclusivity keeps all of our doors open to greatness, thereby multiplying Miami’s opportunities. Backwatering any group narrows our chances. Give all that brainpower, creativity and energy maximum opportunity to thrive.
Remember, we are a city created by women when women were largely excluded. We are a city created only because Black, foreign-born workers briefly became voters in a state where Blacks were oppressed by Jim Crow laws. We are a city that became an international powerhouse largely due to Hispanic exiles who were welcomed.
If those aren’t lesson enough, remember that Miami became an international community largely based on the will of a Puerto Rican, Maurice Ferré, who became mayor of Miami with a vision that this would be a major international city, and he made it happen. Granted, all the conditions were right, but without his vision and leadership we could have missed the opportunity – the economic equivalent at its time of Jeff Bezos on steroids.
We need to make sure that we keep every door wide open for those of ability, vision and leadership from every group. Miami, as Mr. Ferré always said, has the climate and geographic position. Now we have the population mix from everywhere.
If we also keep the doors open to all, we maximize the opportunity to write an even greater Miami history at 150 years, then at 200 and beyond. Build on those great expectations. Think big.