24 March 2008

False Advertising And My Journey To South Beach

As long as I can remember, Florida license plates have borne the slogan "Sunshine State." Interestingly (well, I thought so, anyway), so do those of the Australian state Queensland, which for a while also had a design and color scheme similar to old school Florida plates.

The difference is that in Queensland there actually is a lot of sunshine. In the outback sections, there's so much of it that the earth is parched and cracked and almost nothing grows there, but when you get up to the northeastern corner, you find tropical rain forests, which would imply that, yes, quite a bit of rain falls there, although it's mostly limited to the rainy season. Okay, the rainy season takes up nearly half the year, but even during that time, you still get bursts of sunshine poking through the clouds periodically. And, of course, you get incredibly lush and exotic vegetation and all sorts of strange, creepy crawly creatures.

Meanwhile, back in Florida, I see plenty of palm trees, and they're splendid as palm trees go (though I discovered today that many of them are coconut-bearing palm trees, which had me nervously looking upward during much of my walk down to the other end of town today), but lush, verdant, exotic vegetation? Not a lot of it, frankly. No rain forests in sight. But plenty, oh yes, plenty of rain. The kind of cascading, torrential rain that you see in Midwestern thunderstorms or, possibly, hurricanes.

And here's the kicker: Florida has a rainy season, too. But it starts in May, not March. We are in the dry season, allegedly. But somehow that didn't stop yesterday from being a complete washout and today was pretty much the same story.

True, the morning dawned semi-bright and semi-sunny after a night of pretty much constant rain (following a day of pretty much constant rain), but by the time I was able to get started on my long-planned hiking trip down to South Beach (approximately 5.8 miles), the clouds were back. The drizzle started almost as soon as I was out of sight of the hotel, and at the one-mile mark I had to take refuge, first under a palm tree and then under a bus shelter for about 45 minutes before little patches of blue sky re-emerged, along with 3.5 minutes (I timed it) of actual sunshine.

The next part of my walk was the best. Although the sun remained mostly out of sight, it wasn't lurking so far behind the clouds that there wasn't considerable brightness and warmth in the air, and the couple million gallons of water that had just been precipitously dropped on the city made everything look and smell particularly charming. Incidentally, as I was watching a substantial portion of those gallons swirl down a storm drain, I wondered what provision local authorities had made for capturing the abundant rainwater and using it to supplement the city's supply instead of drawing down the Biscayne Aquifer.

Answer: none, apparently; instead, they're relying on benzene-poisoned well water because, oh, I don't know, I guess it would be too much trouble to build cisterns and reservoirs to capture all that free water from the sky. Simpler to let it all run off into the ocean and then, when Florida inevitably runs out of fresh water, spend zillions of dollars building plants to desalinate it again.

It doesn't even all run off; there were many flooded streets, today. Luckily I was wearing my brand new pair of waterproof internet shoes and I came through high and dry. Finally got to Lincoln Road, which is kind of like a shopping mall disguised as a city street, and about which my friends were raving the other night ("It's so cosmopolitan, so international!" And these people are from New York.)

Well, there were a lot of people speaking Spanish and quite a few speaking Portuguese, but apart from one Russian man, that was about it for the international factor. Perhaps I would have seen more except that this was when the heavens opened up again and I spent the next hour and a half huddled under an awning and another half hour after that in an exotic and cosmopolitan Subway sandwich shop where indeed all of the staff spoke Spanish. Gee, I've never been anywhere like that in New York.

But Miami is a different order of Spanish, in that while you hear and see Spanish everywhere in New York, there's never any doubt that it's ultimately an English-speaking city. That's not the case in Miami, and the only reason I would stop short of calling it the first fully bilingual city on the American mainland is that the balance may have already been tipped in favor of it being the first predominantly Spanish-speaking city on the American mainland. There are cities in the Southwest where Spanish is nearly as ubiquitous, but there it tends to be the language of the immigrant working classes; in Miami it permeates all socio-economic levels, and one gets the impression that it would be easy to live a very full life indeed here without ever bothering to learn English. And when a city has reached that point, well, guess what: quite a few people are not going to bother to learn English. Not a complaint, just an observation.

When the thunder stopped crashing and the rain stopped flashing, I was all but ready to give up on my expedition and head back for the hotel, but the sky had brightened up enough to make it look worthwhile chancing a bit more of a walk. So I made it down to the heart of South Beach after all, to all the pretty pastel pink and yellow and blue buildings on the quiet back streets, the stretch of Washington Avenue with its large selection of very artsy and eccentric beggars and tramps (and some extremely pitiable ones as well), and finally the stretch of Ocean Drive where the South American equivalent of Eurotrash bumps up against Spring Break and the A-gay party circuit.

And that was impressive, something I'll admit I've never seen topped by Sydney or, for that matter, anywhere else in the New World; granted, I haven't been to Rio or Buenos Aires, so I'll reserve judgment. I could almost see why my friends are talking about moving there, though I could imagine it getting old, in the sense that while the neighborhood is exciting and vibrant, it's still just one exciting, vibrant neighborhood set down in the midst of ten miles of fairly bland (if nicely colored) apartment buildings. At one point I walked four full miles past NOTHING but apartment buildings, and I mean nothing, and this is on the main drag. No stores, no restaurants, no gas stations, nothing but driveways and a bit of landscaping to break the monotony, not to mention the tedium of having to drive several miles to buy a loaf of bread.

Jane Jacobs would be turning over in her grave; she's the one, you'll remember, who insisted that the secret to a dynamic urban setting was to have people living, working and playing all in the same immediate vicinity, as, for example in her beloved New York. One might say Miami Beach has taken a rather different tack, one which would be hard, though not impossible to remedy. Although the apartment buildings tend to be massive, there's still enough open space to think about slipping in some commercial premises that people could walk to. No doubt it would go completely against current zoning regulations, but once gas hits $10 a gallon or so, people might start changing their tune.

Then the rain started up again and I gave up on walking back to the hotel and hopped the bus instead, where I seemed to be the only English speaker, the driver included. Ended up riding past the hotel (deliberately) to a North Beach (NoBe, some of them call it) shopping area where I had a late night decaf cappuccino at a raucous salsa cafe and decided that rain, horrible urban planning and being the only gringo on the street notwithstanding, I still kind of really like this town.


joseph said...

It has been sunny and warm all week in your beloved Berkeley. It almost feels like summer. In the immortal words of Handsome Dick Manitoba, "Smoke it out baby daddy." I have no idea what that means - it's just been stuck in my head this morning.

Brooklyn Love said...

If you ever want to see a great documentary on Miami and the role that drug money played in the building boom of the 80's there, check out "Cocaine Cowboys." Crazy stuff.