Parallel Histories: Miami and the Great U.S. Cities (Part II – Chicago & NYC)

At a time when Miami has exceeded NYC in construction, analyzing the Magic City’s evolution in comparison to other great U.S. cities becomes rather important. This series aims at following Miami’s emergence from obscurity into what has arguably become the Gateway to the Americas. Miami’s emergence is tracked parallel to other U.S. cities in order to see a unique picture of Miami’s historic evolution and its special role in 21st Century urban America. Continued from Part One

Foundations of the Magic City (Miami: Early 1900’s)

The turn of the 19th century presented a unique new city to the American landscape. Miami, already pushing to become what it would later be known throughout the world for, a destination of uninhibited fun, excessive luxury, and plenty of sun, was beginning to register on the American radar. Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel was the southernmost luxury resort in the country. His railroad tracks brought northerners to the tip of the peninsula. The Royal Palm represented the culmination of his Florida hotel activities. Henry Flagler had single-handedly created Florida’s luxury hotel market. The reverberations of his actions were to be felt in perpetuity. The wealthy, ambitious, and daring streamed into Florida.

One of them was a New Jersey entrepreneur named John Collins who ended up buying a thin barrier island that would later be know as the “Billion Dollar Sandbar”: Miami Beach. He did so for fruit production purposes. It can be said that the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens is a slice of John’s vision for the barrier island. His horticultural plans however failed, and he was convinced by his family to sell plots of his slender island to tourists. However, to make the land sellable he had to connect it to the mainland. John endeavored to build the first bridge across Biscayne Bay. His limited capital would only get him halfway across, but it was enough to convince Carl Fisher, a self-made millionaire and founder of the Indianapolis Speedway, to finish the job.

Rich entrepreneurs were not the only ones influencing Miami’s emerging identity. By the early 1900’s, Bahamians had long since formed Miami’s first immigrant community. Most of the workers Flagler had hired to build the railroad and his hotel were by then the basis for Miami’s black community. Many of them settled along the railroad tracks they had built. Interstate 95 was built over the old tracks—as a result, many of Miami’s black neighborhoods are present along the I-95 today. Miami was gradually evolving but it remained a rather small unimpressive town. A traveler along Bayshore Drive might still have to worry about stumbling into a Florida Panther, but Julia Tuttle, Henry Flagler, John Collins, and Carl Fisher had already laid the foundation of the small town’s growth—it would later become so drastic and sudden that it would lead to Miami being called the Magic City.

Gotham City Emerges (NYC: Early 1900’s)

During this same time in NYC the Statute of Liberty had already graced the skyline for almost three decades. The statute had come to represent the beacon of hope that NYC was for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By 1900, the Big Apple had seen its first steel frame skyscraper. The Flatiron majestically towered 285 feet above the city streets. It must have stirred the imagination of those who witnessed it. The Brooklyn Bridge loomed over the New York City skyline. Even before a fruit farmer had decided to spend his savings on a simple bridge linking Miami Beach to the mainland, the Brooklyn Bridge spanned 5,989 feet in length and had Gothic towers that stood 276 feet above the waterline. The Big Apple’s urban sprawl had consumed all of Manhattan Island and densely spilled over into the Bronx up to Yonkers, North Brooklyn, West Queens, Staten Island, and all along the Jersey coast immediately adjacent to NYC.

During the day, New York City was engulfed in an ethereal haze due to the countless chimneys, factories and steamboats in and around the city. The suburbs had already spread to what would be its modern boundaries in all 5 boroughs. NYC had exploded in building densification and was racked with turmoil, violence, and corruption. The mafia had already formed. Immigrant and local gangs clashed on the streets. Rival police departments fought with each other. Every week, thousands more immigrants spilled into the unstable streets. The Yankees were filling up their ballpark. The Brooklyn Dodgers electrified crowds. There was already a Chinatown. The city was abuzz with the energy and ambition that is derived from immigrant influx. Central Park, the Statute of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Flatiron were signs of the progress that was to come. New Yorkers did not fail to recognize this.

Chi-Town is Boomtown (Chicago: early 1900’s)

Chicago, the great Midwestern boomtown, was already a phenomenal story. By the first decade of the twentieth century the city had recovered from the Great Fire of 1871 that destroyed around 17,450 buildings to give rise to the country’s first skyscraper in 1885: The Home Insurance Building at 138 feet tall. Chicago was a symbol of resilience, recovery, and progress for the entire nation. Miami had not even incorporated and the Windy City had already stood as a pillar in urban America. In 1900, the city’s central business district was connected to the rest of the city by at least 12 bridges across the south branch of the Chicago River alone. The Chicago River was crammed with ships. Dozens of trains ran parallel to the city and Lake Michigan daily. The city had nine general newspaper circulations. The Cubs and White Sox were competing in a cross-town World Series. Chicago was strategically located, serving as a gateway to the American Midwest and West via the Saint Lawrence River, Lake Michigan, and the Illinois canal. It was a national railroad hub and its tracks spread far and wide in all directions. The city was loud, bustling, and had triumphed over severe tribulation.

The Ambitions of a Few Form a City (Miami: 1920’s and 1930’s)

Meanwhile, Carl Fisher envisioned what he wanted Miami Beach to become. Jews and blacks were not part of his vision. Both he and John Collins wanted to keep them out of the island. They included provisions in their land sale contracts that restricted any future sale of properties to non-Caucasians. The Lummus brothers, owners of land in the southern part of the island, were non-discriminating. They sold their land to Jews. Miami’s highly influential Jewish community began on Lummus owned land. At the same time, farther inland from the coast, a former New York pastor and his family were replacing their plans for a citrus plantation to that of a planned city: the Merrick family. Their patron Salomon Merrick and his sons envisioned a Spanish Mediterranean style community with a grand hotel rivaling the Royal Palm and the city’s first university: The Biltmore Hotel and the University of Miami. The city would be named Coral Gables. The Merricks profited an estimated $20 million the first five years alone.

The Great Hurricane and Suburban Sprawl (Miami: 1920’s)

Miami suddenly began to appeal all sorts of developers and entrepreneurs. Glenn Curtiss had bought the land that would later become Miami Springs, Hialeah, and Opa-Locka. His developments on the land would set the foundation for the first westward push of urban sprawl Miami had ever seen. Outside of Coral Gables, these were to become the city’s first suburbs. Miami was on the midst of its first building boom. It abruptly ended with the Great Hurricane of 1926, which would decimate the city and leave between 25,000 and 50,000 people homeless (nearly half the entire population). To make matters worse, the Great Depression would hit Florida soon after. This crippled the economy and caused the city’s first bust.

The Great Depression and the Art Deco Boom (Miami: 1930’s)

Ironically, just after the hurricane and on through the Great Depression, Miami Beach saw dozens of Art Deco buildings get constructed. The Art Deco surge would last until just after World War II. It would later comprise the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world, become the back bone of South Beach’s 1990’s resurgence, and serve as the backdrop of countless films, music videos, shows, commercials, and video games. The city also saw the emergence of its central business district. During this time the Seybold Building, Freedom Tower (Miami News), Ingraham Building, Commonwealth Building (Meyer-Keyser), and the Miami Courthouse were built. By the end of the Depression, Miami had absorbed its first boom and bust, witnessed the nation’s first planned city, had suburban sprawl, the emergence of a central business district, and a wave of Art Deco construction. Still, Miami’s economy rested on one pillar: tourism.

Forget World Class: NYC and Chicago in a Class of their Own

The roaring twenties and thirties brought a tidal wave of concrete and steel to New York and Chicago. The two were competing with each other for height records with their skyscrapers. Both captured the world’s imagination with the awesome scale of their urban landscape. The boom in New York was highly speculative. In 1916, city officials scrambled to put together a revision of the zoning regulations. Sound familiar to Miami 21? Some New Yorkers were outraged by the obstructive height of some of the buildings. Sound familiar to today’s Miami? NYC came up with novel solutions to making the vertical evolution of the city more controllable and ample instead of unpredicted and constrained. Millionaires scrambled to pierce the clouds with their new towers. There were no height restrictions. The sky was the limit. The period included the construction of the Woolworth Building, Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, 120 Wall Street (the Pyramid Building), the New York Life Building, Metropolitan Life Tower, and many other notables.

As a testament to the city’s early 20th Century building boom, Chicago has sixteen buildings dating from between 1923 and 1934 that still rise over 450 feet above street level. By 1920, the metropolis had a population in excess of 2 million inhabitants. Compared to Chicago’s population of fewer than 30,000 in 1850, the 1920 census figures demonstrate Chicago’s mind boggling growth. Today, almost 90 years later, Greater Miami has population slightly over 2 million. In the early 19th Century, Chicago was a hotbed of criminal activity during the period. It was one of the most violent cities in America. Competing gangs fought over territory. The police were corrupted by them.
Miami Still in the Shade

At the time, Miami was hoping to lure anyone who wanted to indulge in guiltless pleasure. The city did not enforce alcohol prohibition, allowed gambling, and was privy to its visitors many vices. This lured the likes of Chicago Mafioso Al Capone who bought a vacation home along the ocean. While Chicago and New York City became the breeding ground for corporate America, Miami rested its laurels on white sands, warm waters, and sunny weather for tourists. Up until the 1940’s, there was no Gateway to the Americas just a snazzy southern tourist town. NYC and Chi-town on the other hand had seen unprecedented and voluminous vertical expansion, international recognition, and drastic population increases. They had come to represent the U.S.’s growing wealth and international status. Sunny Miami, although increasingly familiar to Americans, remained in the shade.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Parallel Histories: Miami and the Great U.S. Cities (Part II – Chicago & NYC)

  1. Anita

    Any idea who the elderly gentleman is under the palm tree?
    Or where the photo was taken?

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