Keep Miami shady.”
Several months ago, I found those words emblazoned in graffiti on the asphalt behind a fenced-off area in a soon-to-be-developed patch of downtown Miami. The author of the sentiment and the date of its creation are unknown to me. But like many proverbs whose original authors are not known, its sentiment rings true, at least to some degree.
Obviously one does need to know the author to know that he or she is not worried about a sudden decline in palm trees that offer reprieves from the sun, but rather referring to Miami’s longstanding reputation as a place where vice reigns.
“A sunny place for shady people” has long been an unofficial motto for the city. Surprisingly enough, it originally wasn’t about Miami at all. The late English writer W. Somerset Maugham popularized the phrase when he used it to describe the French Riviera in his 1941 book Strictly Personal. Despite this, it manages to capture both the allure of this tropical paradise and its seedy underbelly, an image that it’s maintained since infamous mafioso Al Capone called this city home from the late ’20s until his death in 1949 (except for the years he spent in prison during the ’30s).
But Miami reached a breaking point several decades later, when the sunny place for shady people became just a shady place. In 1981, Time wrote its infamous Paradise Lost cover story describing South Florida as a place that had been “hit with a hurricane of crime, drugs and refugees.” While Miami Vice and Scarface maintained the city’s glossy, sinful sheen, the city was being ravaged by everything from the drug wars, racial tensions and widespread corruption.
Sometime between then and now, the city cleaned up its act, so much so that Time now praises it as a great travel destination.
The shady characters? Small by comparison. After all, this was the city where Pablo Escobar, possibly the biggest drug lord of the 20th century, owned a home.
Today, his former Miami Beach home is a pile of rubble, demolished this week by a new owner. While the cocaine cowboys were the ones making headlines for their dealings decades ago, Miami’s most famous criminal of the past five years is Canadian pop star Justin Bieber.
Few would say they would want Miami to revert to its darkest days. Nostalgia and naiveté are what makes the world seem so alluring when seen through rose-colored glasses, but even those who have a cursory understanding of Miami’s history would not yearn for the city’s shadiest years.
At the same time, I understand this unusual plea to keep Miami shady. Shady is a matter of perception, and its meaning has a slippery definition. While there are undoubtedly people or places that get labeled as shady for the right reasons, there are often broad swatches that get grouped as shady by no fault of their own. A community that is “shady” to one person is home to another.
Over the years, “shady” parts of Miami are becoming less and less of a fixture. In some cases, it’s largely for the best. In particular, formerly “shady” areas like Wynwood or certain parts downtown are largely becoming safer, cleaner and more livable, which is hard to argue with. But it also comes at a cost of long-term tenants and residents. These denizens often arrived in these neighborhoods long before they became sought after, forced to deal with the compromises of being in a sketchy neighborhood before gentrification arrives.
When a rush of development arrives at their doorstep, they are often the first to be displaced and are left with few (if any) undesirable options to turn to.
Moreover, little has been done to address systemic issues that have hindered the growth of certain neighborhoods. Neighborhoods like Overtown are entrenched in deep cycles of poverty that have kept them from growing. But rather than work for long-term solutions to address the fundamental issues affecting the community, these neighborhoods are often left for dead or are obliterated with a new cycle of development that pushes the existing community out.
There’s no question in my mind the city is less “shady” overall through community revitalization and it’s largely a better city for it.
But as the city heads into a new era, we need to rethink how we perceive neighborhoods and find ways to address certain longstanding problems without decimating a community in the process.