Former Miami mayors don’t usually write books anyone would want to publish, much less read.
Then there’s Manny Diaz. Whether you admire him like many in Miami and across the country do, or excoriate him as some at home did, Diaz was hardly shy about embracing big plans and notions. And few would disagree that the city was a far different place when he exited City Hall in 2009 after two terms in office.
So it should come as no surprise that Diaz has written a book for a national audience, recapping his greatest hits as mayor. Recall police reform and Irish-cop Chief John Timoney, Midtown Miami, the downtown condo boom, the “mega-plan’’ and the innovative Miami 21 zoning plan. It’s been published by the über-serious University of Pennsylvania Press. No vanity press project, this.
But Miami Transformed: Rebuilding America One Neighborhood, One City at a Time, is no policy wonk-fest, either. A breezy read at just over 200 pages — index and foreword by New York mayor and Diaz buddy Michael Bloomberg included — the book is meant as a concise case-study of how a poor, crime-ridden and economically stagnant medium-sized city can be swiftly transformed into a flourishing, swaggering metropolis with a hurtling skyline and its own Tom Wolfe novel.
“I wanted to keep the book short and easy to read,’’ said Diaz, who will appear at the Freedom Tower for the Miami Book Fair International on Friday evening. “You can lose someone with a 750-page book really fast. So it’s sort of conversational, talking about how we got to where we are.’’
If features, of course, an ambitious Cuban-refugee protagonist who arrived as a 6-year-old child, grew up happy in Little Havana despite poverty, studied hard and became a successful lawyer and behind-the-scenes political fundraiser and operative. Then he was thrust into the spotlight by the curious case of another young Cuban refuge-seeker: the rafter-child Elián González, whose Miami relatives Diaz famously represented.
Diaz was in the family home in Little Havana, working on last-minute negotiations, when the Border Patrol broke down the door at gunpoint to take Elián, and says he still feels betrayed by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a former Miami-Dade state attorney who ordered the raid.
There is little inside baseball and only a few reveals: For instance, Diaz earned $1.10 an hour working as a janitor at Belen Jesuit Prep, where he was a student, under a federal jobs program.
All this and more is quickly recounted before Diaz, who wrote the book with longtime collaborator Ignacio Ortiz-Petit, gets into the heart of the matter: The eight years he served as mayor, which coincided with a dramatic real-estate boom and helped usher Miami into the rank of world cities with a changed downtown, regenerated neighborhoods, a growing, young population and the kind of buzz even the best promotional hype can’t buy.
The overriding goal of his administration, Diaz writes, was to bring the middle-class back to Miami from the suburbs by improving substandard city services, fostering both private development and affordable housing, and rebuilding crumbling streets. He also focused on creating alluring amenities, including parks, museums, and arts and cultural institutions, which he says are proven economic generators.