If you had asked me what I wanted when I was 12 years old, I probably would have said, “to marry a plastic surgeon.”
You can hardly blame me: I was growing up in Miami. My life plan elegantly combined the city’s worship of bodies and money, and its indifference to how you came by either. When I left for college, I put Miami behind me, and tried to have a life of the mind. I got a graduate degree. I traveled. I even married a fellow writer, whose only real estate was a dingy one-bedroom apartment in Paris, where we lived.
But with kids came long summer pilgrimages to Miami to see family. It took a lot of effort to keep spurning the city, especially since the weather was so good. Miami had grown up a bit, and so had I. Hadn’t it developed a soul beneath its vapid, extremely pleasant, slightly menacing exterior? If I understood Miami better, could I grow to like it? Maybe I was the problem?
Like practically everyone who grew up in Miami, I knew little about its history. We were more worried about mangoes falling on our cars. It took just a bit of reading to realize that Florida had always attracted people with “an inordinate desire to get rich quickly with a minimum of physical effort,” as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once described them.
And if the Miami of my childhood had the temperament of a spoiled teenager, that’s because, effectively, it was one. The city was founded in 1896, but for its first 60 years or so it was a segregated backwater, with fewer than a million people. (Despite the occasional celebrity sighting, “There was nothing, not even a Neiman Marcus,” someone who lived there in the 1950s told me).
The 1959 Cuban Revolution was modern Miami’s unofficial birthday. Over the next 20 years, practically the entire Cuban upper class arrived. Many other Cubans followed. One of my neighbors in the 1970s had been imprisoned by Fidel Castro’s government. Another was doing his best to overthrow it. After the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 more Cubans to Florida, surprised-looking children who spoke no English suddenly appeared in my sixth-grade class. Colombians, Nicaraguans and others arrived later.
The upper-class Cubans who became Miami’s new aristocracy had little trouble adapting to the city’s materialistic ethos. After all, they had been forced to leave all their stuff in Cuba. Soon there were two dominant modes of conversation in Miami: discussions about where to get your hair done, and anti-Castro rants.
In recent summers, I’ve found that Miami isn’t that city anymore. Young Latinos — no longer burdened with the myth that they’ll one day return “home” — adore their American hometown. They major in Spanish literature at Florida universities, gush about Miami’s weather, and get sentimental about stone crabs, Cuban coffee and buying avocados out of the trunks of cars.
The area’s remaining “Anglos” — now just 15 percent of the population — want their kids to learn Spanish. (Confusingly, Miami’s Latinos call these Anglos “Americans.”)
Miami even has a homegrown dialect. Young Latinos — regardless of whether they even know Spanish — speak English with a Spanish twang. To non-Miamians, they sound like extremely fluent immigrants. Phillip M. Carter, a linguist at Florida International University, says that when young born-and-bred Miamians visit the rest of America, or even Boca Raton, people often ask them what country they’re from.
“Miami English” is also proof that a city can be international but not cosmopolitan. People typically don’t realize they’re speaking a dialect unless they leave Miami, Mr. Carter says.
Most locals also don’t seem bothered that Miami is one of America’s most unequal cities, with lots of very poor people living close to rich ones. Miami’s have-nots are easy to ignore, since — if they’re not cleaning your house or parking your car — you just drive past them.
Still, Miami has gotten more interesting, just by existing a while longer. Its buzzing new arts scene is a start. “I think Miami is now trying to figure out a way to be a center of ideas and brains,” the urban-studies theorist Richard Florida told me.
For the moment, though, Miami looks like a giant construction project. After a several-year lull that started in 2008, luxury condominiums are shooting up again, often right next to each other. The local economy still runs on selling bits of land to newcomers.
And while there are some thinkers scattered around town, Miami is overrun with lawyers, jewelry designers and personal trainers, all trying to sell services to one another. “Injured on a cruise ship?” reads a sign on South Dixie Highway, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
My recent stay coincided with Miami Spa Month, a bathing-suit fashion week, and a “camming” convention for stars of do-it-yourself pornography. While dropping off my rental car, I met a Central American woman who made extra cash picking up people at the airport and driving them to their appointments for cut-rate breast enlargements.
I wanted to fall for the place. I’m a third-generation Miamian. I’m fond of it. I’m an expatriate, so it’s the only American city I can still legitimately claim. Many of its faults — especially its inordinate interest in shopping — are my own too. And it’s obvious why people like it here. After two weeks, I’d swum so many laps that the flaps of fat on my arms, which I’d assumed were an inevitable consequence of middle age, were nearly gone.
But still, compared with the Miamians, I felt practically deformed. And I struggled to have conversations that weren’t about real estate or consumption. There was a lot of pleasure in Miami, but not enough surprising interactions and ideas.
Miami may one day be the city for normal-looking people with semi-intellectual aspirations and a mild social conscience. But it’s not there yet.