Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1921 and said, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” He was wrong. Journalists today see Miami’s ethnic and racial divides as the future of America, and some say it won’t work. Are they wrong? This week I’m reporting on different aspects of an electric city with a remarkable diversity and a relentless pursuit of economic well-being.
MIAMI—Joel Girard is a Miami native who lives in Allapattah, a neighborhood in southeast Miami. Given Allapattah’s Central American population, Anglos like Girard are the minority. But he wants to work in urban ministry, so he’s living here with a local family, learning the language and culture.
I had heard a lot about this part of town, known for its collection of ethnic neighborhoods and vibrant culture: Allapattah brushes shoulders with Liberty City, Little Havana, and Little Haiti. While these small neighborhoods are known for their local culture and unique history, they also have histories of racial tension. I wonder: Are they signs of cultural freedom or of a new type of city segregation?
Girard agreed last minute to show me around before heading to his job at a local Starbucks. I pulled in front of his house a little after 10 a.m. Through my rain-peppered windshield, I made out colorful homes set behind gravel driveways and iron gates. Girard slid into the passenger’s seat and we pulled into the street.
Our first stop was right around the corner—the city’s largest fruit and vegetable center, which supplies most of the city’s restaurants with produce and provides jobs for many of the locals. If I had come earlier, I likely would have seen the streets full of workers moving boxes of produce off and onto trucks. We circled around the warehouse and back onto the main street, past colorful strip malls selling food, jewelry, and clothing.
Girard pointed out each neighborhood’s landmarks along the way. Liberty City has dozens of churches housed in bright, adobe buildings. Seventeenth Avenue—the Dominican part of town—hosts an army of barbershops. In Little Haiti, the text on cell phone billboards is in Creole and the buildings are painted bright orange, pink, and blue.
In this sense, Miami works: The neighborhoods are full of culture and diversity. But they also represent a new wave of ethnocentrism. If Miami foreshadows the nation’s future, what do these divides mean?
I fielded this question to Girard as we glided under an overpass. He paused. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said finally. Immigrants, he explains, build entire economies, develop trade, and enrich American culture. But they also impress upon cities less desirable traits, including division along ethnic lines.
I push further with a more direct question: The neighborhoods seem poor. Do the immigrant communities here work actively to move up the economic ladder?
Girard’s neighbor, Dinorah Diaz, 53, answered that question over the phone later in the day. She came to Miami more than 20 years ago when the U.S. gave extended visas to Nicaraguans fleeing political oppression. She planned to build a new life in America. After all, she thought, it shouldn’t be hard given her skills as a government accountant.
But those hopes were quickly shattered. She took her first job in the U.S. as a housekeeper in hotels, cleaning 26 rooms a day for minimum wage and then cleaning government offices for $100 a week. Her biggest obstacle was her inability to speak English, but she found fitting language school around two jobs and two small children nearly impossible.
The work, she admitted, seemed to take away her dignity. But even in these low-level jobs, she made more money than she had at home. Her income improved even more when she started her own business “importing” Nicaraguan clothing and jewelry, selling the items at local metro stops and fairs. Between that and cleaning houses in Coral Gables, she earns roughly $500 per week. In Nicaragua, she hardly earned $500 a month.
Girard said Diaz’s story is common in this part of town. Many immigrants can’t speak English and don’t have the time to learn. The people that can afford to move away, to nicer parts of town, often do, but many, like Diaz, stay. She told me she wouldn’t leave, even if she could, joking that she doesn’t need a Mercedes to take her to work and boasting that her house is the nicest on the street. She said she has what matters: God and family.
Only time will tell whether Miami’s ethnic divides represent the nation’s future. From my conversation with Girard, I got three tips. First, realize the causes of those divides are complex, so avoid over-generalizations. Second, realize that with time, inter-racial animosities become less potent. Third, strive to understand and integrate different cultures.
Close to noon, I dropped Girard off at a Starbucks close to Coral Gables. He’s right: Miami is a mixed bag. Reach in and you might pull out a part of town with high crime rates and extreme poverty. Reach in again and you might find a wealthy young man, like the one sitting next to me taking a leisurely lunch at a European-style coffee shop. Reach in a third time and you might meet someone like Diaz who isn’t rich, but who has a different definition of “the good life,” which doesn’t include a fancy car or a suburban home.
Read Tiffany's first report from Miami: Reforming Miami's prosperity obsession