Miami Book Fair

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz pens book about reinventing the city

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.

Along the way, he writes, Diaz realized that economic prosperity was inseparable from environmental sustainability, which comprises mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods of the type required under Miami 21 — which he considers his crowning achievement — and convenient, local transit options like trolleys.

It’s a familiar story to Miamians, though the book only glancingly refers to the controversy generated by Diaz’s backing of mega-projects like the PortMiami tunnel and the Miami Marlins stadium.

But it also details initiatives to fight poverty, crime and even litter that received less publicity but that Diaz writes were just as significant. Those included programs to foster financial literacy among the poor and another, emulated around the country, that helped thousands of low-income families claim federal tax credits to which they were entitled but which they never filed for.

Indirectly, the book serves also as a reminder that Diaz, who served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and after leaving office taught a semester at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, often enjoyed a more favorable profile outside Miami than at home. The book is at the top of Amazon’s best-seller list in the category of regional politics and planning.

In his foreword, Bloomberg praises Diaz for the “entrepreneurial spirit’’ of his administration and says he “made Miami a national leader on urban issues.’’

“It will influence cities around the country and the world,’’ Bloomberg writes.

Above all, though, Diaz said his book is intended as a call for non-partisan pragmatism in politics and renewed investment in U.S. cities, the country’s economic engines, as a way to rebuild the economy to compete on a global scale.

While politicians in Washington, D.C. bicker over cultural wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion and cut back funding to cities, Diaz writes, it’s mayors who get things done, because they have to.

“Despite the issues we face, we can’t get people in Washington to make some important decisions,’’ Diaz said in an interview, rattling off examples: “They refuse to do something about the availability of automatic weapons. But we’re the ones who have to go out at 2 a.m. and deal with someone shot up with an AK-47.

“To me, the importance of this book is not Miami per se. Miami is the brand. But unless you have a keen interest in Miami, who’s going to read it? But the example of Miami serves to support the premise, which is that politics in America has to change.’’