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New moon over Miami.

The poet Sidney Lanier was not impressed when he described the Miami area in 1876. What he observed had none of the present city's gilt or glitter. "Dade County is sparsely inhabited," he wrote, "and the facilities for reaching its settlements, outside of private boats, are confined mostly to an occasional sail from Key West."

The Miami area remained a wasteland until 1896, when Henry Flagler, a railroad baron, added 100 miles of tracks from lush Palm Beach to Miami. Southbound trains soon brought a flood of immigrants, primarily real-estate speculators and sharecroppers, in a migration that was to be both a blessing and a curse. The area that soon developed into America's favorite into a city shaking with fear.

Almost from the beginning Miami was a glamorous refuge for the notorious. Its cast of folk heroes resembled a "Who's Who of the Underworld" that included Al Capone, who lived in a mansion surrounded by electric fences and guardhouses, and the mobster Meyer Lansky, who held court each day at his favorite steakhouse and then returned to his hotel, known for its lobby filled with parrots and cockatoos.

By the mid-1970s, many critics had written off the city as nothing more than a haven for gangsters. Not long after, its brilliant sun was blocked by smoke rising from homes and businesses bombed by rioters. Though Miami never really gave up, the city suffered some telling setbacks to its image.

Sandy beaches and tropical breezes still enticed snow-belt refugees from Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, yet Northerners grew ever more apprehensive at reports of race riots, a rise in major crimes and arrests of drug dealers. "This is no longer a safe place to bring my family," lamented one of Miami's former regular visitors.

As bold newspaper headlines revealed that every conceivable problem had converged upon Miami, Maurice A. Ferre, Miami's mayor, realized in the arly '80s that if tourists continued to avoid Miami, the local economy would not survive. He and the Downtown Development Authority of the City of Miami began to devise an ambitious plan to change the face of the city. The result--a classy, cleaned-up act, accompanied by a crescendo of construction from new hotels to five-star restaurants to sophisticated centers for the arts. "The important things is that for the first time in Miami's history, the people are planning their future on their own," Mayor Ferre says.

Construction has already begun on some major projects; in the next couple of years, the city will fill out with even more steel, concrete and glass as Miami's now modest skyline spirals toward a new, big-city look.

Among the signals of that emergence: a $68 million doubling of the Miami Beach Convention Center that will provide more than 500,000 square feet of exhibit space; a new oceanfront promenade that will be Florida's longest boardwalk, extending the length of Miami Beach; and a $30 million expansion at the Port of Miami that includes a 500-seat restaurant and two new cruise terminals. By 1986, the port will accommodate 14 cruise ships simultaneously.

The 55-story Southeast Financial Center at Dupont Plaza, the centerpiece of Miami's skyline, is the tallest building in the Southeast. The center is part of a $2 billion development effort in downtown Miami. Other downtown commercial buildings include the $65 million Brickell Bay Office Towers, the $90 million CenTrust Tower and the $65 million Metro-Dade Administration Building.

The new metrorail--a commuter rail system--will make intercity transportation much more convenient. Testing will soon begin on a state-of-the-art component of the Metrorail system called the "Downtown People Mover."

A spacious $25 million, shellstone-and-red, barrel-tiled Center for the Fine Arts will house 1 million volumes, host traveling art exhibits and tell the story of man in south Florida to thousands of visitors and residents each year. The four-story, Mediterranean-style complex covers a city block in downtown Miami. "It will be a 'people center,'" promises its architect, Philip Johnson. Jan van der Marck, the director of the center, says stepping into the open-air plaza in the center of the complex "is like stepping into a Giorgio De Chirico painting--a dream world. In a sense, the center is an ideal place in which one can forget, for a short while, the problems of the real world."

The problems van der Marck speaks of remain in Miami, as they do in any large city, but a recent all-out war against crime has produced results. Miami police-department statistics show a significant decrease in murders in the past five years. The number of other violent crimes has declined as well. Miami's chief of police, Clarence Dickson, says much of the credit belongs to conscientious citizens and their neighborhood crime-watch programs.

"We've never had a real problem with violent crime against the tourists," says Angelo Bitsis, the public-information officer of the Miami police department. "Our problems have been mostly internal."

The internal travails of the past few decades have given Miami plenty of headaches and something else as well--a kind of gritty character that has enabled the city's people to rise out of the pits, shake the dust from their clothes, roll up their sleeves and rebuild the magical paradise that nearly got away.

Private and corporate investors from Greater Miami have combined their talents and their financial resources to regenerate the city's hotels. Nearly 3,418 rooms have been added over the last three years at a cost of $318 million. One observer dubbed them "Flabbergast Hotels that hold more allure, more glamour and more razzle-dazzle bigness than any other hotel group in America."

Emblematic of these "Flabbergasts" is the Alexander--the first new hotel to open in Miami Beach in more than 15 years. The 229-unit, beachfront hotel, a suites-only showplace, specializes in luxury. The hotel boasts Dominique's famed French restaurant--named after a flashy chef, Dominique D'Ermo, who owns and operates his own Dominique's in Washington, D.C.

Another swanky success story is the Fontainebleau Hilton, tomb-like just a few years ago, a shadow of its luxurious past. Its fading, peeling paint suggested the depleted revenue that forced bankruptcy. In 1978, a $45 million spruce-up returned it to the ranks of the elite.

A number of prominent business executives have put their reputations and their careers on the line by standing behind Miami. When Miami-based Eastern Airlines' books were filled with red ink, Frank Borman, president of the airline, remained confident about his city's future. He saw Miami emerging as America's No. 1 international attraction and let it be known that Eastern Airlines was "committed to grow with the community." His faith has paid off. Today, Eastern is adding new routes and showing a profit for the first time in years.

While other sports franchises chase larger markets, the Miami Dolphins owner, Joe Robbie, plans to construct a new, $90 million football stadium on the northern border of Dade County in time to host the 1989 Super Bowl.

Perhaps the most impressive endorsement of the city's future comes not from wealthy investors or corporate giants but from citizens who pitched in to restore their community to its former stature. The restoration of Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, the former 1926 Olympia Theater located in the heart of downtown, illustrates what can happen when enough people show they care. Once a crumbling has-been, residents and tourists now fill the old building during organ concerts on Tuesday evenings--a treat made possible by members of the local organ society who volunteered their time and labor to restore and care for the great pipes and bellows.

In nearby Coconut Grove, storefronts once scarred from years of neglect were painted in dramatic colors by local merchants. Once again, as they did in the 1930s, the "in crowd" now heads out to "Grove experiences" on weekends.

Miami, Florida, is still a city overflowing with contradictions. There is violence, certainly, but also a strong community spirit; prices are sometimes outrageous, but bargains can be irresistible; there is dismal poverty alongside enormous wealth and golden opportunities.

Raul Martinez, the mayor of Hialeah, a suburb of Miami, took advantage of those opportunities. The 1960 refugee from Cuba recently told some schoolchildren: "This is a country in which you have to work hard, but the one who works hard will be successful." As the first Cuban-born mayor of a major city in the United States, Martinez is living testimony to his philosophy.

Today's Miami is blessed with a rare mixture of natural resources and dreams. Its architecture is a tapestry woven with threads of the old and the new. Add to this a dash of creative imagination and the seemingly undying spirit of local support; the result is a city destined to generate an electricity felt nationwide.

Even Sidney Lanier would have to be impressed.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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