Enigmatic Miami

Miami. Photo by me in 2009.

Several times over the last nine or ten years I have traveled to Miami and each time I leave I still feel like I do not know the city any better than I did before. Part of me wants to love this city carved out of the swamp and perched next to the ocean on the southeast corner of the state, but I cannot love something I do not know.

Miami is a mystery to me that comes wrapped in sandy beaches, glistening waters and shiny towers pulsating in a rhythm and energy that unsettles me. The city has the most aggressive drivers I have ever seen - worse than New York, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago or Los Angeles. Maybe it is all that hot sunshine boiling the atmosphere that removes patience from the human mind? Driving on I-95 or any street in that city is an education in seeing how quickly a car can be maneuvered through traffic and miraculously squeezed into the narrowest of gaps. It is more than the driving that perplexes me about Miami, it is the entire city that feels so anxious, on edge and violent as if cocaine is swirling on the sea breezes.

In an effort to better understand Miami I decided to read Joan Didion's book called Miami in hopes that it might give me a better idea of what I am missing from my own experiences in the city. Didion's book published in 1987, which I read over the last couple of weeks while traveling the American West and finished back at home unfortunately was not the book I hoped it would be. Miami is a book that is narrowly focused on the history of Cuban exiles and how they have influenced South Florida since the 1960s into the 1980s. The book is good at examining the key players in the Cuban exile community since the 1960s and their activities here in the U.S., Cuba and Central America, especially Nicaragua, but it never steps outside those bounds to provide a larger take on the city as a whole. If you want to read about guerillas training in the Everglades, bombings, the Bay of Pigs, clandestine CIA operations and U.S./Cuban politics then this is a great book for that. If like me, you were wanting a broader view of a Miami and its people this is definitely not the book to provide such a background.

I will have to keep looking for a book that will help me better understand what it is I am missing from my own experiences in Miami. In reading Miami the most interesting piece of information that I learned about was a temporary art installation by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1983. I was ten years old at the time so I must have missed out on seeing this on the television news or I simply do not remember it, but this was a large scale installation that would have made national headlines at the time. The installation was called Surrounded Islands and was incredible.

Surrounded Islands 1983. Image courtesy Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

The installation consisted of surrounding eleven islands in Biscayne Bay with floating pink polypropylene sheets. It would have been beautiful to have seen this in person. Prior to this I only knew of Christo and Jeanne-Claude from a documentary I had watched several years ago about their temporary installation known as The Gates of Central Park in 2005.

Though I may not have enjoyed Didion's book about Miami I do have her to thank for exposing me to Surrounded Islands. Here's a link to a 2018 story from the Miami Herald looking back on Surrounded Islands thirty five years later.