Johnny Casares: Miami as Text 2021

Hi, my name is Johnny Casares and I am a student of the FIU Honors College currently majoring in Computer Science. My journey in Miami-Dade County starts in 2016, when my family decided to move from Venezuela to live here in the United States in search of a better life. I believe that I have been lucky to meet the best people throughout this journey, and to have found opportunities that have made me believe I am living the American Dream.
I personally enjoy the little details, being with friends, surrounding myself of positive people, and being outside.
Despite of being here for about 5 years I haven’t been able to really explore the hidden gems of Miami and I am looking forward to discovering some of the county’s secrets and stories.

Downtown Miami as Text

Fort Dallas and Wagner’s house by Johnny Casares of FIU

In the middle of a city characterized by its imponent buildings and cultural diversity, there is a park where two structures meet to remind us of the best and worst parts of our history, two houses that to this day resonate a truth of Miami that at times is overlooked.
Wagner’s house is a representation of the American Dream. A story of how a German man and a Creole woman go against the norm and move to Miami to pursue their happiness and make a family, mirroring both the immigration and the iconic diversity of the city. The Wagner’s also have a story, similar to thanksgiving, where the family and the Seminoles came together for dinner, both parties in their best interests.
The encounter of the family and the Seminoles was due to the Seminole Wars, which is just a fraction of the dark part of the history of Miami. In contrast to Wagner’s house, there is Fort Dallas, a former plantation residence for black slaves, which was then turned into a headquarters for military operations which ended the lives of many, to then become a tea house. This now called Fort has passed through many chapters of history, seeing the worst of humanity and bits of hope.
Despite of these not being the original locations of the buildings, they were perfectly placed in front of each other to tell us a story of both racial division and cultural acceptance. They now rests in Lummus Park, a peaceful place where the face of joy and liberty, meet the one of pain and oppression to go together in an often-unnoticed walk through the city.

Photo taken by Johnny Casares, 2021. Wagner’s house (left) and Fort Dallas (right)/CC BY 4.0

Everglades as text

Everglades by Johnny Casares of FIU

I lived in Venezuela for over 14 years, in that time I was fortunate enough to know some of the most beautiful views, rich in color and scent that one could only imagine seeing in movies. However, I lived my whole life in Caracas, a city surrounded and protected by El Avila, a cordillera that extends beyond the borders of the capital and that is known as the lung of the city. Despite waking up every morning to the spectacular view of the mountain, my family never had the opportunity to take me inside the national park that is El Avila and get to know the monumental and imposing nature that gives air to the inhabitants of the city.
Going to the Everglades was very special because, like Caracas, Miami is my home, and getting to know the biggest nearest national park to the city was amusing. It was what I always wanted to do back in my country. Like El Avila, The Everglades has some myths attached to it, and the most popular one is that it is a swamp. I even believed it, but when we were told that the exact place in which we were walking was a river I can’t deny that I was surprised by the truth. Reflecting upon it, I think people often underrate the nature that surrounds them because they ignore its true value. Sadly, for some those stigmas are keeping them away from adventuring into what really is Miami and Florida.
I was eager to see a panther, but the rangers told me they were rare due to their low population numbers. One lucky encounter, however, was the one we had with the gator. When talking to Ranger Dylan we had a conversation about their diet, because to me it seemed odd that a gator could survive in the waters where we were slough slogging. The inhabitants of those waters are small low trophic, how could a gator really sustain itself in such an environment? In a conversation with Ranger Dylan, she told me that gators feed on bigger fishes and turtles that inhabit the deeper sides of the river, also they prayed on birds when they approach the water. The heavy vegetation however made me wonder if they complemented their diet with some of the flora, to which Ranger Dylan responded that gators eat a fruit called the pond apple, but that their stomachs don’t really digest the fruit, therefore there is no nutritional benefit to consuming the fruit.
I have been living in Miami for over 4 years and I feel like I never got to know Miami the way I got to know her on that day. It is fascinating to think of how much humans can change the landscape and to visualize that maybe some of the places where the biggest buildings across Miami are now standing held a much life as the Everglades.

Photos taken by Johnny Casares, 2021. /CC BY 4.0

South Beach as Text

South Beach by Johnny Casares of FIU

Design is the concept of anticipating an idea through planning, and South Beach has been at the epicenter of design, witnessing both the destructive and creative nature that this concept can have

The history of South Beach has a dull beginning with the destruction of the mangroves that protected the shores of the island, completely changing its ecosystem. At first South Beach was turned into a plantation, but later it became part of visionary plans due to its touristic and leisure potential. The changes were not minimal, South Beach looks nothing like its natural state, and the beach that makes this place so famous around the world has sand that is originally from the Bahamas. South is a landscape that was altered by humans and transformed to our convenience, prioritizing desires and ignoring risks. South Beach now faces the dangers of rising sea levels due the early destructive environmental design.

South Beach, at the time known as Ocean Beach, was made as a city or town for affluent white people, and those groups that diverged from the standard were discriminated. The design of the city showcases how wealthy white people had access to the better sides of the island, near the ocean, while black people, despite their major role in the destruction of the mangroves and the reshaping of the island, were not allowed in this new touristic attraction. Jews, even though accepted because of their acquisitive power, were also discriminated, being allowed to own property at a specific distance due to anti-sematic ideas that Carl Fisher shared. So, despite not being noticeable at first sight, South Beach has a city planning that is designed upon discrimination of minority groups.

 Over the years, however, South Beach quickly became one of the places that pioneered feminism and the acceptance of LBTQ community. With symbols like the rainbow crosswalk and bars like Palace, achieve to show the inclusiveness of the city, and the many sexual references that one can find in relief sculptures allude to the sexual nature of the city. The house of Gianni Versace, who can also be found along Ocean Drive, was the place where one of the most influential designers lived, and one that promoted fashionable clothing for the likes of women instead of the conformism that society obligated them to endorse. But beyond clothing, there is Barbara Baer, an activist that played a major role in preserving the artistical structural design of the art deco that makes South known around the globe.

From destruction and discrimination, to preservation and integration, the past and the present of South Beach are contrasting, but it just shows how much humanity can change for the better.

Photos taken by Johnny Casares, 2021. /CC BY 4.0

Deering Estate as text

Deering State by Johnny Casares of FIU

The vision of preserving a part of Miami as it was originally found was a brilliant idea from Charles Deering, and one that has allowed for the protection of both the environment and history. When reading about the Deering Estate, and finding out that some of the oldest human remains in North America were found here in Miami I was intrigued. The idea of people living here more than ten thousand years ago is a number almost unimaginable, especially when having the perception that the Americas’ natives are relatively new when compared to other societies of the world. The way nature achieves to preserve the past in the form of fossils is almost fictional, but the fact that is real and we can get little clues about the past of humankind and the fauna that surrounded them is something that is really worth it.

Apart from the findings of human remains, I think it is also great that the ecosystem is preserved by protecting this land. Many species endemic to Miami live in these areas, many of them which I even ignored inhabited Florida, like otters and manatees, which I thought could just be found in either South America or Africa. I believe visiting the Deering Estate can be a didactic experience from which visitor can built a better connection and understanding of the delicate fauna that surround us.

The Deering Estate not only is committed to the protection of the environment but also to promoting and presenting art to the public. Afraid of the destructive capabilities of fire, Deering decided to build a house designed to be non-flammable, especially after the events at the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed many of properties and left many without a home. The place is an ample storage and gallery for art to be displayed safely. Their economic power allowed the Deering brothers to pursue and put forth their individual desires and goal, and thankfully they used it in a way that created a long term positive impact in the community.

Vizcaya as text

Vizcaya by Johnny Casares of FIU

Miami is known for its beaches, nocturnal life, and architecture. From its design to its history, the Vizcaya museum and gardens share the same features that make our city so famous. A majestic colonial house that showcases dreams and desires, full of excessive details characteristics of power and eccentricity, facing the very ocean that merges two worlds into one. Vizcaya is a European villa built to fulfill the conquistador complexes of its owner and the craving lust that hunts the human mind.

There are many questions surrounding this built and the owner of this massive property. James Deering is a figure that not much is known of. One of the most interesting rumors are regarding his personal life, in specific, his sexual orientation. Many have questioned his sexuality, and the decorative artifacts in the house, some people argue, hint his possible homosexual inclinations. However, this might never be confirmed, but what we know is that James Deering was accepted Paul Chalfin, one of his architects, who was openly gay. This is a remarkable fact because Miami is a city known for openly accepting and embracing the LGBTQ+ community, something that during the early 20th century was not an easy task due to gender roles and social expectations.

The concept of an European villa was an idea that served to feed the conquistador alter ego of its owner, and also serves to emerge the users that visit the place into the whole idea of encountering signs of civilization in the middle of the wilderness, just as the colonizers did. The experience now is obviously not the same as what the first visitors might have encountered, but it is still impressive how contrasting it is to the eye to see such European builds in a landscape in which is dominated by nature. Once one is deeper into the museum, the opposite happens, nature is dominated by man-made structures, showing a conflict of man vs nature and desire of humans to govern and bring order to the chaotic beauty of nature.

Converting this property into a museum was a great addition to the Miami’s historical sites because it resonates with the self-centric attitude that many privileged people have, and also with the eccentric and liberal nature of the people of Miami.

Photos taken by Johnny Casares, 2021. /CC BY 4.0

Margulies Collection as text

Margulies Collection by Johnny Casares of FIU

think of museum, art displayed under protection, among many others. However, the Margulies collection is not a usual art gallery. From the outside, an unattractive warehouse that blends with the rest around the area; so, starting from the place itself, it is already different.

Once I entered, I was welcomed by the class and some art that to me seemed abstract. However, when the lecture started, I was moved by the story of how Jews were seen and treated by the Nazis and the connection of this idea to the sculpture of the faceless crowd. The story was touching and terrifying at the same time. I find it very beautiful and very powerful how everyone has the intrinsic value of freedom printed in their DNA, and despite the efforts to dehumanize a person, the individual will always seek for a way to find happiness. On the other hand, it was heartbreaking that some others try to take from others the most valuable thing: life.

Apart from that story, the rest of the museum was mostly an eye-enriching experience. I was never exposed to conceptual art before, and I would continue to argue that I am not a fan of it, but I can see relevance in it, especially when without looking at the title, one can extract some meaning from the shapes one sees.

One sculpture I want to talk a bit about is the “Sprache der Vogel”. I chose this one because I think it really achieves to portray what the collection is about. The piece can be described as a set of books with its wings extended as if it was ready to fly, and to me that can be interpreted as the human ability to give meaning to an otherwise nonsensical arrangement of matter. The object is not alive, but by us giving meaning to it, it becomes embedded in our minds, and as long as we live, the ideas and dreams that we hold are also, in some way, alive.

Photo taken by Johnny Casares, 2021. /CC BY 4.0

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