No city in the United States has evolved into as many disparate identities in so short a time as has Miami. A bit more than a hundred years ago this former Spanish settlement, located along the Miami River where it spills into Biscayne Bay (now the center of the city of Miami), attracted neither interest nor population. That's understandable since up until that point, the only way to reach Miami was by boat.
That changed in 1896, when financier Henry Flagler extended his new Florida East Coast Railroad south from its previous terminus at West Palm Beach. By the turn of the 20th century the first of Miami's real estate booms was underway, a pattern that continued unabated right up to the Great Depression. Miami was one of the few places on earth where someone could offer you a get-rich-quick deal on 10 acres of swampland, and there was a good chance that you could actually get rich on it.
The 1960's saw another sea change in Miami, generating another boom cycle, brought about by the unlikely combination of the advent of universally available air-conditioning and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. As Cuban refugees fled in droves to the U.S., they settled in that part of our country most like their former homeland in climate -- namely, South Florida. Miami, whose tropical temperatures were now tamed by indoor climate control, thus tolerable to an influx of workers, became the gateway to the Caribbean for any number of businesses, which soon rivaled tourism as the keystone industry.
The Caribbean population influx also profoundly changed Miami's personality. It is now largely bilingual, with French and Creole also gaining a foothold with increasing waves of immigration from Haiti. It's hard to walk a block in Miami without coming into contact with Cuban food, Cuban music, Cuban culture. It is a dynamic, vibrant city steeped in multiculturalism.
Across the bay from the mainland is the renovated Art Deco district, including South Beach, which has become a mecca in its own right, attracting celebrities and those who follow them, whether it be with camera or with autograph book. South Beach is also home to Miami's nightclub, fashion, music and hip dining scene, and rivals Venice, California, as the place to go to people-watch.
Not all is development (or overdevelopment, some would say). Though the seaside corridor has been urbanized almost from the tip of Florida to midway up the coast, there is still much for lovers of nature and the great outdoors. The Everglades are within a half-day's drive to the southwest. Off the Atlantic coast a short distance to the south is the only living coral reef in the continental United States. Birders wax poetic over opportunities to spy tropical shore birds and waterfowl found nowhere else in the States.
And where else in the U.S.A. might you have to brake to avoid alligators crossing the road?