By Steve Kelman

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Miami and the return of cities

Shutterstock image: urban, digital design.

I adore Boston, probably the most beautiful and historic city in the United States, and don't want to leave. But a mixture of this year's winter from hell -- with day after day of snow, week after week of temperatures hovering just above zero – and some personal health problems have made me decide I definitely never want to spend another whole winter in Boston again. Thus, over the last few days I've been in Miami looking for a condo to buy where I might spend as much of the winter as my job responsibilities permit.

What I saw when I came to Miami was evidence that U.S. cities -- and not just the New Yorks, San Franciscos, Chicagos and Bostons -- are really coming back.

Even before World War II, and accelerating in the following decades with the construction of highway nets making it easier for people to live in suburbs even while working downtown, U.S. cites went on a long decline.

Regeneration efforts, the "urban renewal" construction of the 1950s and 1960s, unfortunately corresponded with the worst era ever in Western architecture, leaving many cities with monochrome, ugly rectangular boxes, often clad in concrete, that replaced charming if rundown older neighborhoods.

Then came the urban riots of the '60s, burning down parts of many cities and giving birth to a hideous anti-riot architecture that "protected" buildings by keeping windows away from the ground levels (we see this in Boston in a downtown Macy's department store from this era and the original campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston).

It is hardly a new story that there has been an amazing renaissance in flagship U.S. cities, which have become very popular among young people and that are bejeweled by renovated old neighborhoods mixing historic architecture on the outside with the latest comforts and design on the inside. But what really impressed me after spending a few days in Miami was just how much the rejuvenation is spreading to places without extensive historical or architectural traditions.

Miami is one of those cities about which people would traditionally have said there was no there there. Bereft of beaches (these are across the causeway in the separate city of Miami Beach, which does have the historic architectural signature of the art deco period), with only minimal historic architecture (with the exception of some nice residential neighborhoods such as the somewhat Disney-like Coral Gables and the Mediterranean estates south of downtown in the Viscaya/Wainwright Park district), Miami became famous mostly for the post-revolution Cuban-exile community and the drug dealers of "Miami Vice."

What I have seen in Miami is how a city can come back even without much of a history. The answer is that a lot of the architecture, and a lot of the excitement, is newly built.

I have been looking to buy a condo on Brickell Avenue, just south of downtown and just west of Biscayne Bay, which actually once did have a significant number of mansions -- eventually torn down -- but which is now dominated by 35-story apartment towers, mostly built in the last decade.

The buildings themselves display the happier turn that contemporary architecture has taken compared with the soulless functionalism of the '60s; facades are a pastiche of colors, creating a visually exciting neighborhood, and the rectangular shapes of the past have been replaced by angles and curves. The sidewalks of Brickell Avenue are surprisingly wide, allowing ample room for walking, and Citibikes, the bike renting service, has appeared with sidewalk stands every few blocks, allowing people to pick up and drop off bicycles.

With the many restaurants -- often Miami branches of celebrity chef places – opening inside hotels, at the Mary Brickell Mall and just along the streets, and with the gym and other facilities in all these new high rises, the vibe is very youthful. And, a hallmark of Miami, the vibe is international; having dinner one night in Boca Raton, north of Miami and more traditionally suburban, it was a surprise to see a sea of only white faces.

One sees Miami coming back as new construction rather than history in other parts of town as well. Two new areas north of downtown, the Design District and Midtown, have been emerging, again dominated by high rises, in areas that before had been largely abandoned. The old downtown was mostly replaced by skyscrapers (not showing the city's best) a while ago, but there is a rash of construction, both new museums and new performing arts centers, and new housing, occurring just west of Biscayne Bay north of downtown.

One exception in terms of adapting the old rather than building new is the Wynwood Arts district, where in the last decade old auto body shops and derelict warehouses have been transformed into a jumble of graffiti art, an art wall, and hip restaurants and galleries.

Another thing I noted in Miami is that, contrary to the pretentions of us in the Northeast or the West Coast who see ourselves as trendy and hip, and the rest of the country as still mired in some sort of 1950s old America, trendiness has gone nationwide, with quinoa and acai berries on menus everywhere.

Miami in many ways reminds me of Singapore, another thriving waterfront city with minimal history (Singapore has a bit more than Miami), where the vibrancy comes from intelligently building anew. This is a path available to most any city that wants to follow it, as long as it has an economy that can support the renewal. The changes in places such as Miami are making our country a more interesting place to live.

P.S. -- My old friend Chris Dorobek, formerly of FCW and now of DorobekInsider, will be having surgery on Wednesday. I know that many blog readers, who also know Chris, join me in praying for a successful operation and a speedy recovery.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 20, 2015 at 1:11 PM


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