It is, without question, the first sentiment I experience when I am away from Miami: When do I get to come home?
It doesn’t matter where I am, how long I am gone, or who I am with, I miss Miami. And it is ultimately upon that return that the first beacon that signals to me that I am near is my actual home — downtown Miami.
Once bleak center for commercial activity that shut down at 6 p.m. each day, and then a condo canyon that represented the country’s real-estate market crash, today, Miami’s urban core is a 24/7 center for business, leisure, city living and entertainment.
My home and my work are both in the city center. I walk to the office, enjoy dinner and drinks with friends blocks away, see movies and shows in one of America’s most beautiful theaters, run through the parks along the bay and river and, as of this month, now do my grocery shopping around the corner. What might sound like city life in New York, is actually city life in Miami’s revitalized downtown fueled by the energy of a millennial generation, including myself, that is calling downtown Miami its headquarters.
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According to a recent Miami Downtown Development Authority study, people ages 25-44 make up nearly half of the greater downtown population. Almost 60 percent of residents over the age of 25 have a college degree, which is a 70 percent increase since 2000. These numbers speak immensely to the change that downtown has undergone.
At 30, I am one of those residents. I grew up in Coral Gables, and after graduating from Duke University, I moved back home. Back then, I — like many young graduates — had my heart set on living in Miami Beach, but decided to move downtown to be closer to my family business, La Epoca department store. That was eight years ago.
At the time, moving to downtown’s One Miami was a pioneering step since it was one of the first residential towers to be completed in the Central Business District. There were times closing my store late at night, that I would carry a hammer in my pocket on my walks home because I didn’t feel safe. Now, with a new density of residents and activity, I can’t recall a time I didn’t say hello or bump into someone I knew on my walk home. Downtown has long fought the perception that it is not safe, but with a boost in police presence and the DDA’s Ambassador Program, I feel just as secure as I did growing up in Coral Gables.
Not only is downtown Miami fortunate to line some of Miami’s most famed waterfront, it is truly at the center of a greater Miami that encompasses the neighborhoods that also are shaping a new Miami from Wynwood to Sunset Harbour to the MiMo District to Coconut Grove to Mid-Miami Beach. Moreover, being a downtowner means that I rarely need to use my car to reach these destinations. Metrorail and Metromover have always been our limited but long-standing transportation routes, but with new modes of public and alternative transportation, my dependence on a vehicle has diminished. I take the Metrorail Orange Line to Miami International Airport, I drive Car2Go to Lincoln Road, I ride the Miami Trolley to the Design District and I can pick up a CitiBike at stations that are popping up all over the city. There is still much work to be done to make transportation better, but we have come a long way in just a short time.
And as the vitality of the millennial demographic expands, more restaurants and stores are opening to serve it. According to the DDA report, the median income of downtown residents is $65,311, a 48.5 percent increase over the past three years. And the median household income in Brickell is $100,307, far above national averages. Joining our La Epoca department store, which is going into its 50th year in downtown, are major mixed-use developments Brickell City Centre and Miami World Center, which will bring several big-name retailers to the area.
In addition, many small business owners are eyeing the Flagler Street district as a potential site.
In the 1960s, my father would save his money all week long so that he could take a bus into downtown to have a milkshake at the Walgreen’s soda fountain and catch a matinee at one of Flagler Streets six theaters. I would get dragged against my will into what seemed an endless sea of homeless, cracked sidewalks, and cheap electronics. Now, it is has come full circle to my generation, and it is the first place I want to be when I return home. Now, artists, entrepreneurs and the next generation of Miami leaders get to build our community. We get to create our lifestyle and shape our downtown.
Randy Alonso is the owner of La Epoca and Lost Boy Dry Goods in downtown Miami.