September 9, 2012

Miami Stories bring memories to life

Readers react to the writers of Miami Stories, those quaint, information-packed tales of old Miami that help to keep our history alive for new generations.

Jane Wilson — and countless others who called Miami home from the late ’40s through the mid-’80s — recalled the sweet, heady aroma of baking bread serenading the senses in South Miami.

Seth Bramson, a leading chronicler of Florida history through his more than 20 books about the region, saw his collection of Florida East Coast Railway memorabilia grow after he shared his tales of local lore with readers.

Haitian activist Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Miami’s Haitian Neighborhood Center, found new voices for her cause after she detailed her deepening connection to the city in her Miami Stories feature.

These are just some of the more than 100 people who have written about growing up in South Florida for the popular Miami Herald Neighbors column, Miami Stories, since its inception in May 2009. The weekly feature is a collaboration by HistoryMiami, historian Arva Moore Parks, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, National Conference on Citizenship Chairman Michael Weiser and The Miami Herald.

Miami might only be 116 years old since its incorporation but its history is rich and vibrant. This is a place where change is the only certainty. Books and photographs capture the places and faces along the way but add personal memories and the stories really begin to come alive.

“It’s your own story, it’s your own life,” says Parks, acting director of the Coral Gables Museum. “When I used to teach history they’d say, ‘I hate history!’ I’d say, ‘What don’t you like about yourself?’ I’d always have them tell me their life history — from their parents to their grandparents. When they would do so, I’d say, ‘ That’s your history.’ ”

Personal remembrances, through oral history, are particularly valuable, Parks says, because it gets to the truth.

“If you are watching something happening it tends to be accurate, they are eye-witnesses.”

And what a set of eyes we have.

‘Miami is for me’

Metellus opened her story in February by recalling an old tourism ad popular around the time of television’s pastel-colored crime drama, Miami Vice: “When I arrived in Miami in the early 1980s, the slogan ‘Miami Is For Me’ was ubiquitous. As someone who had just arrived here from New York, I not only wondered what the buzz was all about, but I did not believe for one second that it could ever apply to me.”

Turns out Miami was for this reluctant arrival.

Metellus, 50, quickly immersed herself in the Haitian community and its issues. The community, she recalls, was recoiling from “the abuses and neglect of the Duvalier dictatorship,” not to mention a period when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified being Haitian as a risk factor for acquiring the HIV virus.

Metellus worked in the fields of research, education, government and community work, with a goal toward empowering and enriching those who had arrived from the island. Today, she’s the executive director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center.

Writing her story, she said, was purposeful.

“Miami is a place for new beginnings of so many people and that’s the magic of Miami. I had to sit down and write this story,” she said. “I hope it encourages other people to follow suit. My work is all about making sure our immigrant population becomes fully integrated and becomes self-sufficient, can prosper and open doors for future generations of immigrants from Haiti.”

The feedback she received after her story ran still touches her.

“It was most exciting. People would say, ‘I didn’t know those details. I didn’t know you met your husband in Montreal. I didn’t realize you were married.’ That one got me laughing. Some others were very touching and some thought I’m doing what I’m meant to do. The Haitian community has such interesting stories that, too often, go untold.”

Sense of place

Nidia Rodriguez-Gralewski wrote of her arrival in Miami in 1959, three months after Castro took power in Cuba. She moved to “where all the newly arrived Cubans were living” — Southwest 14th Avenue and Second Street, home of Ada Merritt Junior High, the first junior high school in Miami, built in 1923.

Life in Miami for Rodriguez-Gralewski in the Kennedy space-race era meant meals under a dollar at McDonald’s. Royal Castle deals — two small hamburgers, a birch beer and doughnut for dessert — for .99 cents. Fun Fair off 79th Street, which offered a day’s worth of arcade games and finger foods for pocket change. Top of the Columbus Hotel was an extravagance with their $5 steak meals. A down payment for the family home east of the airport went for $350 in 1962. Rodriguez-Gralewski moved back to Miami in 1973 after five years in New York City, back to the same neighborhood where she grew up and where her parents remained. That’s Miami’s lure.

She hoped to find more people who graduated from Ada Merritt, so she wrote her Miami Story in June 2011. Rodriguez-Gralewski and a schoolmate have managed to track down some 60 people over the years who graduated from the school in 1961, including the principal and a couple teachers.

Miami Stories like these “build a sense of place,” Parks says. “Particularly the Cuban refugee stories help people who have been here for half of Miami’s history recognize the connection of love of place. That’s how you build a sense of place since only about 10 percent of people were born here. Building a sense of place is difficult because they leave their sense of place somewhere else. When you connect with someone you build a sense of place.”

Baking bread memories

“The stork” brought Wilson to Homestead in 1927, she wrote in November, so her fond recollection of growing up the daughter of the man who made South Miami smell yummy for generations didn’t quite lead to an avalanche of calls or letters.

“A lot of my peers have moved out of town or passed away, so my group has gotten very small,” Wilson, 84, says from her home in Coral Gables. But her feature — “a full page,” she says proudly — adds texture to several books that have been written about her family.

Her father, Charles T. Fuchs, Jr., opened Fuchs Baking Company which became known as the baker of Holsum Bread. South Miami went from sleepy to wide awake with the smell of bread after the bakery’s opening in 1934 and remained famous for unleashing its tasty aroma until its closing in 1984.

“I think about it every time I go by,” Wilson says. “All my shopping is in South Miami and I have fond memories of it. It was the most modern bakery in the country and people from all over the country came to visit. People need to know where they came from and try to save as many historical buildings as they can. The Historical Museum is doing a good job downtown and Coral Gables has a historical section and they are trying to collect things for their museum. I think it’s great.”

Alas, today Sunset Place Mall sits on the bakery’s grounds. An earlier mall at least tried to evoke the name of the landmark bakery which, in the 1950s, decorated U.S.1 with Christmas displays and automated ice skaters and moving trains, but the Bakery Center soon failed on that location after its opening in 1986.

Growing collection

Perhaps Bramson, who wrote of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, has the most tangible result of reader reaction to his Miami Story, published in April 2010: more artifacts to add to his swelling collection, reputed to be the largest private collection of Miami memorabilia in America.

Just check out his garage, as it’s festooned floor to ceiling with cherished relics of our past. “That’s 56 years of collecting,” he boasts.

Readers sent him booklets and postcards, FEC timetables and photographs, rare hotel brochures and menus, ice tongs from the Biltmore Hotel, a Burdine’s employee’s hat and even a fez from a Shriner. Bramson also received a monument from a less enlightened time in our nation’s history, a Negro Housing in Greater Miami booklet published by the University of Miami in 1952.

“While my Miami story did not bring out any old girlfriends — didn’t have to do any explaining to [wife] Myrna! — or long-lost relatives, it did turn up some things that, to me, were equally as important. The Miamiana was marvelous,” Bramson said.

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