I have been away from Miami, the city where my family made their homes after relocating from the northeastern US, for many years. I moved away in 2009, and this year made the most complete departure I likely ever will. One by one, the threads holding me to that place in particular wither and crumble, in items reclaimed and funerals attended. I had sad, sad cause to spend a few days in this sunlit hometown recently, being driven around in relatives’ cars, and those days were enough to cement in my mind what my opinion of Miami had already long been: the sheer heedless decadence of this place is incompatible with a life well-lived. You do not want to live in Miami.
This is a difficult idea for many to imagine. Miami is the stuff of dreams and fantasies, a lush subtropical oasis on the USian mainland where beaches are never far and retirements are passed in style and comfort, where Latin music wafts on the same breezes that carry ocean salt inland and tropical delicacies are in every storefront. Miami’s latitude aligns it with Algeria and Sinaloa, but oceanic humidity keeps its heat wet and its vegetation green. Miami is a narrow strip of urbanity between the warm, sheltered water of Biscayne Bay and the wilds of the Everglades, an ecosystem like no other on this planet, and the limestone beneath it is made of fossil plankton shells and ancient coral. Everything about this place screams out for the sweaty coziness of guayaberas and mojitos and walking to a corner store that sells tropical vegetables and then to a canal shore for fishing in skin-baring swimwear. This place demands outdoor dance parties late into the night, waterfront bungalows where aging adventurers spend their last days amidst mementoes of youth, and recreational tromps into the wilderness to see it in its hidden glory. This place is a wonder. But peel the layers back and it is also a tragedy.
The lizards, trees, frogs, and birds are almost all invasive species from around the world, squeezing their native counterparts to the margins or to extinction. Beneath the limestone is an aquifer collapsing so rapidly that the streets above it turn to sinkholes, while the sea creeps inland around it. The Everglades has been subject to extensive human engineering aimed, in no uncertain terms, at its destruction, and the too-late recognition of that folly has yet to heal the scars. Tree-filled hammock islands in its expanse of razored sawgrass burned so that snail collectors could feel sure of the uniqueness of their finds. Mercury warnings push fishers from the canals and coliform bacteria counts give swimmers pause. On the shore, waterfront developers panic as the sea, in its decadal motility, pulls the sand out from beneath their towers, and their seawalls try in vain to keep it from pulling down the towers, too. The waters are ravaged by invasive lionfish and the propeller-pulped remains of sea jelly blooms that sting swimmers even in pieces. Dive tours sullenly escort tourists to see the old reefs, knowing that all that is left by now of most of them is the algae-covered skeletons, the corals themselves long, long dead. Most of the largest and most spectacular creatures of land and sea in Miami, among them the smalltooth sawfish, the local puma subspecies, and the American crocodile, are endangered or worse, and some of Miami’s other megafauna are still more intruders from elsewhere in the world wreaking yet more ecosystem havoc. Old accounts paint amazing pictures of swarms of insects and frogs and other wonders of the sheer life of this place, all long gone. The crabs and baby anglerfish desiccating alive in the washed-up sargassum at every shore all paint the same picture: to know nature here is to hear the endless, inchoate shrieking of its Frankensteinian undeath. The subtropical lushness of southern Florida is but a patchwork skin worn on the shambling corpse of what once was, and it never stops screaming.
The urban fabric is no more intact. Most of Miami is laid out in grim reflection of all the worst ideas American urban planners have ever had and those in the tiny parts that aren’t must venture into that asphalt thunderdome to get to anywhere else. The glorious heat and sea breezes and subtropical ultramarine skies work overtime to make this hell of highways, reckless driving, and strip malls bearable, and every bus shelter set up in the median of a ten-lane stroad lays this contradiction bare in the most sunburnt terms possible. Miami is not for people: it is for automobiles, and its every layout decision bellows forth its confusion that the beings inhabiting it don’t have four wheels and engines. Even stepping out of one’s car after driving to one’s destination, one is confronted with the place’s hostility to actual humans, as fields of pavement radiate heat that makes shoes stick and drivers careen past like they’re surprised, too, that people might have the temerity to not be cars. Walking anywhere gives the unmistakable sense of one’s smallness, as Cyclopean monuments to car dependency loom throughout, walls and crossing-free streets block more direct paths, and residents glare at pedestrians they assume must be poor, homeless, or drug-addled, because why else would one do it? That this suburban moonscape is wedged between the gentrifying downtown, with its intriguing transit projects, and lower-income and university neighborhoods elsewhere being strangled by the press of the car-centric urban planning running around and through them, is all the more tragic.
I am still reeling over being driven to the lovely Colombian bakery “around the corner” that was actually a 10-minute drive away through suburban collector roads to an adjacent strip mall walled off from said suburb to make sure this long way around was the only way to reach it, that would easily have taken more than 30 minutes to reach on foot, all the while the driver crossed lanes with the reckless abandon of someone who would never admit it but fundamentally believes that it is possible to “win” an automobile collision.
This is Miami’s real inheritance, the surest description of its soul. Miamians drive with the foolhardy disregard for personal safety one might expect of places where one’s healthcare is not a personal expense, but the opposite is true. In reality, this wildness is part of why Florida is so opposed to correct (that is, single-payer and universal) healthcare despite being full of elderly people who literally already have it via Medicare. That recklessness isn’t borne from a love of “freedom” like they will say it is, but of a fundamental disregard for anyone else’s safety. In the Miamian mindset, caring about other people is the bleeding-heart foolishness or low-income desperation of those who have not armored themselves against the world with SUVs and gated neighborhoods. The highest aspiration of any Miamian is to be well-off enough to be immune to the consequences of not just others’ callousness, but their own. These are people that think in walls, fences, locked doors, hurricane shutters, and homes that sprawl into palatial McMansion garishness just to accommodate all the cars in the driveway. It is little wonder that they spend dinner conversations interrupting and talking over each other, asserting dominance before understanding, or that Ayn Rand’s writing on how selfishness is the highest virtue is required reading in its schools.
Miami is packed full of people so invested in the idea that no one can tell them what to do, that they don’t even notice how much their thoughts and lifestyles and desires have already been engineered by those with more power than they have. Their petty revolts against road markings, occupancy laws, and animal-importation ordinances and their vaunted “choices” to do the things their handlers from on high have already decided would always be the optimal course make it all seem so infuriatingly childish. I don’t even have to mention that Miami is, somehow, one of the better places in Florida, a sort-of-blue oasis in an increasingly solidly red state, because that doesn’t help when this is how Miamians think. A Miamian will argue until they and everyone around them are exhausted against any attempt to convince them to do anything, but quietly rearrange the circumstances to make your desired course the optimal one and they will happily decide your idea is their own, all the while decrying the tyranny of those people who want to take the freedom away. They will set themselves on fire if you convince them it was their idea, or that putting out the fire is yours. It is little wonder that southern Florida in general is one of the US’s hotbeds of petulant shrieking tantrums as policy, the Libertarian Party.
That Miami has any life to it at all is despite, not because of, how its well-off residents think, behave, and lay out their neighborhoods. In the most literal sense possible, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, because the parking lot was more convenient, and they don’t even miss the paradise. I would not hate this place as much as I do if it would just be ugly, but no, it must taunt me with the beauty it holds prisoner only so long as it can keep finding new ways to destroy it. It must dangle the possibility of its own perfection before me and so many others and save its grotesque reality for after they’re already in its grasp.
That’s what Miami feels like, in the end: the perfumed operculum of a pitcher plant, luring prey into the digestive pit below. And most of its people don’t even realize they’re the insects in this analogy rather than the plant.
You don’t want to live in Miami. No one lives in Miami. They just roll up the car windows to keep out the screaming.