Paola Castro: Miami as Text 2021-2022

Paola Castro is a senior majoring in Computer Science at Florida International University. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, and later coming to pursue higher education in south Florida, she was able to meet other people of various cultural backgrounds and learn more about the vibrant communities of south Florida. As someone who is interested in the history, art, writing, and politics of the Caribbean and south Florida, she is eager to explore Miami in this course.

Selfie taken by Paola Castro/ CC BY 4.0

Downtown as Text

Even in the years prior to its official establishment, Miami was the “melting pot” we celebrate today – and understandably so. It is not a stretch to say that south Florida is a natural extension of the Caribbean, sharing many of its historical trends and its sheer variety of inhabitants. Much like the islands of the Caribbean, Miami was inhabited by a multitude of people since its beginning, offering a home to Tequesta natives, Bahamians, Africans, and European settlers. 

Wagner House in Lummus Park taken by Paola Castro/ CC BY 4.0

People of color built Miami from the ground up, in more ways than one. Their various contributions are what allowed Miami to prosper. Without the Tequesta natives’ techniques for taking care of the land, Miami’s soil wouldn’t be fertile enough to start growing crops for profit. Without slaves to tend to the crops within the farmland, the railroad would not have been brought down to south Florida for the purpose of shipping food up north (a decision which later allowed the city to grow and get officially established).

Longhouse in Lummus Park Miami River taken by Samantha Johnson/ CC BY 4.0

Unfortunately, these contributions later spelled the marginalized communities’ doom, in one way or another. The fertile land Tequesta natives cultivated was coveted by wealthier European settlers and later taken by the settlers, driving the Tequesta out of their own communities. Barracks created by enslaved Africans and Bahamians were later used as forts to fight native people in the Seminole Wars. Even the railroad brought down to south Florida by Henry Flagler later led to segregated communities, one of which being modern day Overtown. 

Statue of Henry Flagler taken by Paola Castro/ CC BY 4.0

People living in Miami nowadays, ignorant of the town’s history, may see these formerly segregated neighborhoods populated by people of color as a failure. They may assume that these communities are in dire straits through some fault of their own, some character flaw or just bad work ethic. The truth of history tells another story. Miami – much like other big cities around the world – has a history of profiting off of marginalized people’s labor, even using it against them at times. It’s difficult to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when your bootstraps are constantly stolen from you.

Make no mistake, Miami was built by the marginalized.

Vizcaya as Text

Vizcaya Garden Areas taken by Paola Castro/ CC BY 4.0

Throughout the tour of the Vizcaya museum and its gardens, all I could notice is how custom-made for its original owner everything was. Every single aspect of the estate was made with Deering’s peace and pleasure in mind, down to the last detail. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than the gardens, where the landscaping creates less of a garden and more of an extension of the house with rest areas, plentiful shade, and entertainment in the form of hedge mazes. Having been built from scratch in a previously undeveloped forest area, even the nature outside of the garden grounds was altered to suit his needs – such as the moat surrounding the estate and the stone taken from it to use in other areas of the house. 

It was refreshing to see Deering’s realized vision of taking what was naturally beautiful about the area before it was developed and making it not only more beautiful, but also livable and comfortable for him and his guests. Nowadays, many famous architects are paid to create spaces in the city of Miami, but as they have never had to live in the city for a long time, they end up creating beautiful but impractical public spaces. One example of this is the courtyard we saw on our first Miami in Miami class that was built to be a public space for museum goers but, due to offering no protection from the scorching sun, is usually vacant. And that is just one example of many. 

In contrast to that thoughtless construction, Vizcaya’s outdoor areas are positively heavenly. As soon as you walk out, the serene sound of running water calms you down, the sheer amount of lover’s benches provide many opportunities for resting or lounging, and small, water cooled grottos provide ample shade and respite from the harsh sun. It truly was made for the comfort of all who visit, since even in such a humongous garden, you’re never more than 20 feet away from shade and rest areas. 

After visiting Vizcaya, I truly hope the city of Miami will take some notes on how to make public areas comfortable as well as beautiful for all who visit, so that more people are encouraged to spend the day outside. Making public areas comfortable does not always have to cost a fortune, but it does require vision – something Deering and his crew definitely possessed.

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