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Fabiola Santiago: On Valentine’s Day, a love letter to Miami

Miami, my Valentine, sometimes I hardly recognize you.

Where’s the sea? Where’s the sea?

I strain my neck peering between highrises sandwiched along Brickell Avenue and intersecting streets. Where there isn’t yet a building, one is under construction. I’m trying to spot a sliver of blue just for the exercise in nostalgia. But all I see from the vantage point of my SUV in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the only kind there is these days, are mirrored buildings reflecting each other.

Fool. This is not Mary’s Brickell, all green canopy charm and splendid bay views. This is not even your Brickell, where rents were cheap enough for a Dominican immigrant to open a watering hole named JJ’s Bar (jota, jota, we called it in Spanish) and feature a Cuban trobadour who played his guitar and sang for the sheer love of music, beers and good company.

Now, this is a surreal city of glass, steel and concrete where the latest marvel of luxury living, Echo Brickell condominium, will have a 12,000-gallon shark tank in the lobby.

Talk about metaphors.

Inhale and meditate on that while I wait for the valet to park so I can climb to the 21st floor of a friend’s rental. She used to be a “creative,” but now’s she’s an executive. She can afford to live here. But not many creatives can pay these four-figure rents, no matter how many times best-selling urban theorist Richard Florida celebrates that this Miami is our doing, that we fomented the arts and culture revolution that brought on all this transformation.

Ay, if this ode to clutter is the promised movement to bring back life to the cities, I’ll take the funky, low-rent years when the pizza man delivered our dinner on the sand at a $104,000 beach condo.

Alas, there is no return once love and respect for the land are replaced by addiction to money.

Take Little Havana. For 30 years, the promise of a prosperous historic “Latin Quarter” went unfulfilled despite the successful Tower Theater restoration and the Cultural Friday events. Now, the enclave faces the prospect of high-density Brickell-style construction, although an effort to save history is afoot.

That just might be the last straw, to see historic bungalows, Art Deco buildings, and Mission-style homes razed — and more density yet, unimaginable to some of us but part of the plan of those who see economic growth as the only card on the table.

Miami, I hardly recognize you. But it’s Valentine’s Day, and this is supposed to be a love letter delivered on one of the most glorious weekends of the year, when your marinas sport mega yachts for sale at the Miami International Boat Show and we savor all that’s to be discovered at the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.

I should sound more like the grateful daughter that I am.

But maybe it’s the sight of the gutted shell of the MiMo-styled Miami Herald building the city’s preservation board failed to save that drove a wedge in our love affair.

For three decades, the sea was always before me. It wasn’t a mirage. The sea and the city were one.

It was love, true love.

Now, I tip toe with uncertainty to view my city from a Brickell balcony that gives me vertigo.

I see dizzying, confusing reflections in almost every building in front of me.

I see that the coconut and palm trees also have moved upstairs to high terraces that pretend to be gardens.

I see the tiniest sliver of blue in the distance and it takes the zoom lens of my camera to finally find the sea.

I hardly recognize you, Miami. But I still grudgingly love you.