Amid the glitz and glam that is symbolic of Miami’s image (recently perpetuated by the televised shots of the millionaires’ row that usually occupies the Miami Heat’s lower bowl seats during meaningful games) lies the well-hidden, little publicized, hardscrabble economic reality of most Miamians.
Few American cities are as economically disparate as this one. It’s no wonder we are so welcoming of entertaining distractions such as Heat championship runs to take our minds off of the rundown, depressed state of our neighborhoods.
Every now and again, I like to drive around my old stomping grounds in West Hialeah just to see how the neighborhood is holding up. This past week I took the sojourn and was quite disheartened with what I saw.
To say that the neighborhood has slipped in appearance is an understatement. The once neatly manicured lawns and freshly painted homes have now ceded to weed-ridden yards and houses whose cracking paint seems to be the least of their woes given their poor structural conditions. Whereas before, one of every five or so homes seemed disheveled and out of place, the rarities now seem to be the well-cared-for houses — infrequently sprinkled into the landscape of each block.
The reasons for the decay are plentiful. The non-Hispanic white crowd, which left in a huff after the mass influx of refugees in the early 1980s, points to its departure as the root cause of the free-fall of community values and aesthetics. And while there is a kernel of truth to this theory considering the foreign, unfamiliar standards and ethics of the new residents, I remember a more orderly, civil and well-kept Hialeah as well as Westchester, North Miami and Carol City long after the “white flight.”
A more plausible explanation for the deterioration of Miami’s middle-class neighborhoods may be the financial instability produced by the economic tsunami the entire nation has withstood over the last decade.
The effects of the economic landslide especially wreaked havoc on South Florida, whose economy has always been less than traditional. Void of national headquarters for big business and still struggling to achieve a diversified economy, this area has always been dependent on the disposable income from tourists living out their tropical fantasies, ambitious, entrepreneurial mavericks looking to make their mark, wealthy Latin Americans fleeing despotic regimes or dope-peddling cowboys perpetually seeking safe business havens to launder their wealth.
The economic debacle has left the Magic City’s rank and file barely clinging to their middle-class status. In fact, although many residents of these longstanding Miami neighborhoods still consider themselves middle class, many have slipped into the less romanticized working class — foregoing lifestyle choices for bare sustenance.
The toll of the struggle to stay afloat and make ends meet at the end of each month is reflected on the façade of these communities. Up until a few years ago, I still knew most of the homeowners on the block I grew up on. Many of the residents of these suburban Miami towns and municipalities, like Hialeah, had lived there for several decades.
In an interview, former Miami Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda aptly described Hialeah’s famed (and many times illegal) home additions as “architecture of the heart” — because many of the efficiencies built in the back of homes were either for the homeowners’ kids who were transitioning into adulthood or the abuelos, the grandparents who were an essential part of the family nucleus.
Sadly, those families I knew on my block are long gone — in many instances, swept away by burdensome second and third mortgages or accrued debt that was insurmountable.
Miami, like the rest of America, is only as healthy as its middle class. The very essence of the American Dream is the promise of middle-class bliss, and yet that goal becomes less attainable everyday. Our neighborhoods stand as decaying shrines of an American society that used to be.
Thank goodness for distractions — go Heat.