Christian Gonzalez: Miami as Text 2021-2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

Christian Gonzalez is an FIU student and active member of the FIU Honors College. Born and raised in Miami, his passions lie at the intersections of art, nature, and technology. Christian is a junior seeking a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is currently majoring in Finance.

Downtown as Text

“Half Awake in an American Empire”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Downtown Miami
September 19th, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

A ziggurat-domed neoclassical tower of justice rises amongst brutalist administrative structures, colonial plazas, luxury postmodern condominiums and offices plastered with the names of moneylenders.

Long ago yet nearby, an extinct indigenous people used to congregate on the banks of a river named for its vast nourishing waters.

Unspoiled streams of freshwater once flowed from the inland Everglades and discharged into the Atlantic, cradling protogenetic life in a subtropical edge of civilization.

People who lived in a balance of nature and grace have since been replaced by a society living largely in a digital world, where the majority of communication and human interaction is now confined.

Raised on transistors and screens, we stage our photos, record our videos, pick our filters, post our content, and then retreat into the much more vital, much more valid electric reality within our devices.

Walking around this city, how many of us are oblivious to the legacy and atrocities below our feet? How many would even care?

“What are some bones in a hill or holes in a field to the inexorable progress of mankind?” politicians will argue as they fasttrack relentless urban development, the manifest destiny of our age.

On the Brickell Avenue bridge, a monument of respect to those who came before rises opposite the river to a monument of indifference.

But if every tragedy can be perceived as an opportunity, every ounce of guilt becomes a catalyst for redemption.

We commission plaques, we disseminate knowledge, we preserve artifacts in museums to honor and remember our past so we are not doomed to repeat it.

A quantum of humanity is salvaged anytime we strip our ego and show compassion, anytime we stop to hold the door open, to help someone up the stairs, or just to acknowledge someone’s presence and wish them a nice day. 

Overtown as Text

“A Far, Far Better Thing”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Overtown and Hialeah
October 3rd, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

It was the best of times.

You can’t live here, the white men say.
Nonetheless, a charter is signed.
Power is centralized.
Posh hotels and vacation homes are constructed.
A foundation of a city built upon the backs of the marginalized.
One town is planned. Another is born.

We won’t keep your records here, the bureaucrats say.
Segregated communities and cultures germinate from delusions of separate but equal.
The band plays on over at the Lyric.
Discretion battles grace.
The Reverend speaks.
A city listens.

You can’t park here, the officer says.
Look up.
Newly erected apartments darken the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the foyer of Greater Bethel on Sunday mornings.
The pews are empty now.
The billboards beside the highway over Mt Zion have gone digital.
Developers sing, and plowmen dig.
Can you hear the gentrification?

It was the worst of times.

I met a pale horse from an antique land, handicapped by time and labor the aged mare described to me a distant memory of a far-off place where he once emerged from stables to behold a structure fashioned with cosmic stone and marble floors built for presidents and movie stars, politicians and gangsters, railroad barons and sultans, filmmakers and widows, gambling addicts and jockeys who escorted their property through the tunnel onto the dirt track to be gawked at in the grandstands hanging above by the raging multitudes plied with liquor and staring vacant through binocular lens to catch a glimpse of a sport since outlawed but not without cost as spectators abandon the decaying palace, the clubhouse falls silent, bannisters rust, now home only to flamingos the racetrack still remains, forever vaunted, entombed in bougainvillea.

Vizcaya as Text

“The House at the Edge of Time and Space”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Vizcaya
October 31st, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

Past a pink wall and over a dry moat, through arcades teeming with spiders, lies a house with many wonderful things: A telescope, a library, a decorative harp. A gilded armchair, an Egyptian pedestal, a terracotta jar. Coffers and coffins, a dumbwaiter, a gift shop. A bust of Apollo, a bathtub for Bacchus, a bronze sculpture of Napoleon. A chandelier, a secret garden, an open secret. A mantle clock to count the minutes, a sundial to count the hours.

And hours feel so much longer when there’s nothing left to say. 

They say no man ever steps in the same river twice. Waters churn, sands shift, and people change. No river is ever the same river twice, and he is never the same man. But time is not a river. It is a whirlpool, cycling downward in orbit around a center that cannot hold. Wood rots, metal rusts, bones decay. 

A constant conversation, since 1917.

One of my oldest memories from childhood was looking up at night to behold a sky filled with stars too numerous to count. Was this a false memory? A dream? I wonder if my eyes have deteriorated or if this is a byproduct brought on by the inevitable acceleration of modern light pollution? These nights, looking up from the same place, I struggle to see a single star.

So I think again about the telescope in Vizcaya’s living room. 

In Deering’s day, someone might have been able to spot Enceladus or Ganymede peering through its glass. Imagine what could be seen back when even Cassiopeia and The Pleiades were visible with the naked eye on cloudless Miami nights. Since light travels at a constant speed to reach our eyes, any stars we see are like messages from the past. These stars, here on Earth, are images projected to us from years ago. Today, the telescope points not up but out toward the bay’s plutonian shores. 

Once more, the sundial beckons us. 

“Abandon serious things,” it commands, demanding us to shake off the existential angst of the new age. What does the present moment really mean when all we observe travels through space and time to reach us? …When these thoughts take time to process. What does it all mean when we learn to think before we speak and absorb before we think? The past is unpredictable, but the future is certain. And thus the present hour gets the better of the present moment.

South Beach as Text

“Deco by Daylight”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Miami Beach
November 14th, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

You can’t quite recall how you arrived here. 

Looking around, you soak in the salt air, the ocean breeze, the wafting palms, the sand at your feet, here in this tropical Elysium. You don’t need to read your watch to know that it will be dark soon. As the sun goes down, the people on the shore head inside. You remind yourself about your mission, your purpose here, as you follow the crowd across the street. Here comes the night.

The lambent neon arrives. It gleams up and down Ocean Drive, flickering and illuminating the faces of bougie beachside restaurants, chic cafes, and Henry Hohauser hotels. Stopping to admire the fashion and the form, in awe and slightly dazed, you take it in for just a moment before continuing forward. You make your way past the clamor and commotion erupting from the glass brick bars at the venerable Clevelander, past the profligates and the tourists, past the club promoters and the mixtape vendors. They keep their distance, as if somehow you weren’t a normal person. 

Where is she anyway?

The night gets darker, as the neon’s luminescence intensifies. It reaches its blinding climax before last call, so bright it almost hurts. You move off the street into alleyways, less bright, yet still dense with artistry. Poetry dripping from railings, strips of light strewn from wall to wall, it hangs from above. You stare up at the orb that floats behind the Betsy hotel, wondering whether or not it is hollow, wondering whether or not she’s in there somewhere. 

Further on, sports cars fly down Collins Avenue in the dim twilight as you find yourself emerging at the Lincoln Road mall, long after the shops have closed. Black as Erebus, you gaze down the boulevard, then back down at your feet. You realize that you have been here before, a long time ago. Was this the spot where you were engaged? In a rush, it starts to come back to you, one fragment at a time. Ambulance sirens blare as premature memories flood back in. Visions of holidays with the family, a gift she gave you for your birthday, shattered glass on the floor, doctors in the hallway, and then you hear her. You look back, expecting to see Eurydice. She is gone. 

She couldn’t ask you to remember her, but she couldn’t bear it when you forgot.

You don’t want to forget, and yet it’s no longer up to you. At the mercy of your own morphophysiology, the voices return. Lesions on your amygdala begin to drum like hoofbeats pounding in your brain. Swallowed by the miasma, you can feel your body begin to panic. The voices grow louder still, and you try your best to ignore them. You let out a primordial scream, not out of terror but out of defiance. You are not afraid. If the sun ever comes up again, you are going to sleep so well. Clutching the watch she gave you, you look back East and stagger once more toward the Beach.

Deering as Text

“Of Egrets and Vultures”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Deering Estate
November 28th, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

1455

Morning arrives and sunbeams peak through narrow gaps between mangroves. Awakening from his desperate dreams, the Tequesta man emerges from the solution hole, set upon another day. At the freshwater spring, he meets his brother and his sister and the rest of his tribe. Breakfast today is a feast of freshly gathered conch shells. He sets the empty shells aside for his father, who fashions them into various tools and appliances. Today’s journey will lead him across the rock ridge and into the brush. So he equips himself with his own tools. He takes his stick to ward off evil and some rope to tether the good.

1915

Boom. The Bahamian takes cover and averts his eyes. A plume of dirt and rock and foliage erupts from the earth. They call for the foreman near the Main House to examine the results. Waiting for the man to finish his inspection, he stares up at the high noon sun breaking through the canopy above him. Not long after, vultures will arrive to pick apart any animals unfortunate enough to be caught up in the blast. After a while, the foreman concludes that this location will be insufficient. They’ll need to scout North of here and find a better location to plant the foundation. And so the Bahamian and his company retrieve their equipment and prepare to move on. Ready to continue the search for another site, he brandishes his toolbox and surveying equipment and ventures deeper into the hardwood hammock.

2021

The tourist looks up from his iPhone, as the guide announces they’ve nearly reached the end of their excursion. One final stop awaits, a site housing an ancient native burial mound. Stepping off the road, he follows the others, continuing onto the wooden framework that leads them deeper into the thickness of nature. Rotating around the slender platform, they see the mound rising above the flattened earth below. This will be an excellent photo opportunity, the tourist thinks. He extends his device over the railing and positions the camera lens at just the right angle. Snap. He drops his phone and bends, reaching underneath the railing to recover it. Grasping the rubber backside of the iPhone case, he notices a great white bird resting on the underside of the railing. Their eyes meet for a brief nanosecond, before the creature, startled, flies away. 

Rubell as Text

“Understanding Art Part I: What Art Means”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at the Rubell Museum
December 12th, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

What is art? What makes art great? Why is some art better than other art? Why is someone’s art considered good enough to be in a museum and not others? These are some of the questions that have been on my mind since visiting the Rubell museum. Since then, I have ruminated long and hard to arrive at some partial answers to these questions.

From my perspective, there are one of two criteria that must be met for something to be considered art: 1) Something has to be communicated or 2) Some emotion has to be elicited. Often great art does both. The first element is what I consider to be symbolic value. The second element is the aesthetic value, that represents how effectively an artwork evokes some emotion and to what degree of intensity.

Something that communicates a point effectively or creatively, in my opinion, can be considered art. A great speech, a letter, the stream of consciousness thoughts of Proust can all be considered art through the ingenuity and virtue of the writing itself and what is communicated even if it is not intended to evoke any particular emotion. Of course, on the other extreme, good art can elicit emotion without really ever communicating anything at all. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, from my limited exposure, are masters of this kind of expression. The Yayoi Kusama art installation at the Rubell museum is another example of this type of art, albeit in a more immersive sense.

If you were to plot these two factors, the significance of what is being communicated on the horizontal axis and the intensity of the aesthetic experience on the vertical axis, you could theoretically obtain a measure of an artwork’s greatness by calculating the total area.

This is part of the conclusion that I came to while browsing through the exhibits and the artwork on display at the Rubell museum, works from Basquiat, Keith Haring, Murakami, and Wiley. The surface level and the subtext of the art sometimes dancing in coordination sometimes merged like a mythical chimera, eternally fused.

Often, contemporary art will take existing frameworks for what people consider to be art and toss it out completely. Sometimes it all seems very simple. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. One definition of modern art that I’ve heard tossed around goes like “my child could do that,” or “I could have done that”. And that is true. You could have done that. However when it comes to the true value of art, there is one more important factor that has been left out of this examination thus far: context…

Untitled as Text

“Understanding Art Part II: The Value of Art”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Untitled
December 12th, 2021

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

The contemporary art at Untitled differs from the contemporary art at the Rubell Museum in one significant way. The art at Untitled is on display to be sold, whereas the art in a museum is on display to be experienced and enjoyed. These two aspects are not mutually independent. However, the question that stuck with me long after visiting Untitled was entirely a different one. What determines the price of art?

Price and value are not always the same. In an economic sense, the price of something is simply what someone is willing to pay for it. Art housed in a museum is often considered to be “priceless” because museums claim they will not part with it at any price. And yet the art on display at Untitled is not priceless. Not yet anyway. 

For each booth exhibiting artwork, the artwork has almost an exact price for which the studio is willing to sell it at. If the price for a studio to display art at the Untitled exhibition is $50,000, then the sum total of the art displayed, we can assume, must be at least $50,000. Many of the pieces of art we observed and asked about were selling for close to that price. 

Of course, establishing a minimum floor price doesn’t answer the heart of the question. What determines the price of art? The invisible hand of the market sometimes isn’t sufficient enough to explain away everything. From my point of view, the one most significant factor to price, when considering the value of art, is precisely its context.

While the surface level aesthetics and symbolic subtext of art is important as well, sometimes the most important factor to how well art will be received lies in its context. The more history, the more backstory, the more context that can be provided for a piece of art and its artist, the more valuable that piece of art happens to be, regardless of its aesthetic or symbolic value. When studios and vendors at Untitled would talk to us about their art, it felt like they were primarily and purposefully trying to establish context in order to justify why the art being displayed demanded such a high value. 

All of this might seem highly philosophical and out of place for what is essentially a reflection on one day at a museum or one day at an art show. But just like our class, Miami in Miami, attempts to recontextualize our relationship with our home through in-depth examination of the environment, history, and culture around us, modern art, like the kind found in the Rubell Museum and at the Untitled exhibition, also attempts to recontextualize our relationship with art itself.

Everglades as Text

“On the Nature of Inconsequentiality”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Everglades National Park
January 23rd, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

Surrounded by South Florida’s vast wilderness, it is easy to feel inconsequential. You cannot observe any commercial office buildings, high-rise condominiums, industrial power lines, or cell phone towers when staring out into the horizon, only canopies of cypress trees rising up over a foreground of bromeliads stretching across the sunlit fen for miles. Migrating flocks of storks and great blue herons sporadically flutter and flit across the sky. Knee-deep in slough, we wade just a few meters away from the main road and listen for a while to the orchestra of the damp morass. Shallow waters pitter patter throughout the sawgrass marsh, the wind howls as it slides in and out of towering cypress domes. A red-bellied woodpecker chisels in response.

However, in relation to the fragile balance of man and nature, one can argue that we are anything but inconsequential. It is the first piece of knowledge imparted onto us as our day begins. With the visual aid of an oversized map, the park ranger explains how water used to flow freely from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee and then southward throughout the Everglades. Then, in the early 1900s, South Florida developers began a process that would attempt to drain the wetlands, so that new property could be built on top of dry land. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who successfully ran for governor of Florida in 1904, promised to drain the Everglades completely if elected.

To complicate things further, it is entirely natural to feel inconsequential. We have a biological imperative to eat and breathe and survive with the ultimate goal of maximizing the total number of genes we pass on to the next generation. Environmental conservation is not built into our DNA. We are born with natural biological mechanisms that cause us to hoard resources for the benefit of ourselves and our kin. We exist as products of nature, but are blessed with the grace of reasoning, language, and critical thinking. With the faculties of the human mind, we have expanded across almost every inch of the planet. But we have also constructed a society that values public education. It is because of this kind of education system that many of us have learned about the fragility of our ecosystem and the potential for harm we possess as a species. Human beings, after all, are capable of so many wonderful and terrible things.

Coral Gables as Text

“We Need to Talk About George”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Coral Gables
February 6th, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

I have fond memories of Coral Gables. 

As a kid, visiting Coral Gables with my parents was a rare treat. I remember the many busy restaurants and bustling shops on Miracle Mile illuminated at night by street lamps and the brilliant glow of the Actor’s Playhouse marquee. I remember watching the fireworks on the green of the Biltmore hotel’s golf course on the 4th of July, surrounded by other families and the warm evening air of a Miami Summer night. I remember driving down the corridor of Coral Way, shaded by oaks and lined with banyan trees, admiring the old Mediterranean Revival homes, my mom dreaming aloud that we would live here one day if we had enough money, the carrot at the end of the stick that is the American Dream. 

In Coral Gables, George Merrick is the predominant figure whose name appears more than any other individual and who is honored by the solitary statue presently located on the front lawn of the Coral Gables City Hall. Merrick accomplished many great things in his lifetime. He studied law in New York City, he is credited as the progenitor and chief developer of Coral Gables, he helped establish the University of Miami, but, above all, Merrick was a salesman. Merrick made his living investing in land, developing plots and building homes, and flipping real estate for profit which earned him considerable influence and wealth. The history of modern Miami can be told through the history of its relentless expansion and insatiable development, and Coral Gables is no exception.

Many accounts like to emphasize Merrick’s rags-to-riches story as well as his friendship with Black people. “His best friends were the black Bahamian laborers who worked on the plantation side-by-side with him,” claims one report written by the City of Coral Gables in 2002.[1] However, in a speech presented on several occasions and later published in 1937, George Merrick proposed “a complete slum clearance be made, effectively removing every negro family from the present city limits”.[2] In May of 2021, the University of Miami decided to remove Merrick’s name altogether from buildings on campus, acknowledging that “George Merrick’s proposals as chair of the Dade County Planning Board perpetuated a wealth gap for Black residents and broad inequities in our community that persist to this day”.[3] 

On Aragon Avenue, I remember visiting the Books & Books on warm Autumn evenings to hear local authors lecture and recite passages from their latest novels. Adjacent to the bookstore is the old Coral Gables police and fire station since converted into a neighborhood museum, the lintel of its edifice adorned with reliefs of men and women, boys and girls, dogs and cats, and busts of firefighters equipped with helmets. Many buildings in Coral Gables are similarly decorated with carved images of pelicans, historically a symbol of sacrifice. Conveniently omitted from most of the town, is the sacrifice endured by Black Bahamians laborers who were essential in the construction of Coral Gables and many other districts of early Miami. 

Bibliography

  1. The Coral Gables Charrette Report. City of Coral Gables, 2002, https://www.coralgables.com/media/Development%20Services/Planning/2002%20Charrette/GablesCharretteFinalReportApril2002.pdf
  2. Merrick, George E. “Planning the Greater Miami for Tomorrow.” University of Miami Digital Collections, University of Miami Library, https://digitalcollections.library.miami.edu/digital/collection/asc9999/id/13354
  3. “University Reaffirms Commitment to ‘Belonging and Justice’ through Naming, Renaming of Facilities.” News@TheU, University of Miami, May 2021, https://news.miami.edu/stories/2021/05/university-reaffirms-commitment-to-belonging-and-justice-through-naming,-renaming-of-facilities.html

River of Grass as Text

“Lost In Search of Time”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Everglades National Park
February 27th, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

29-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi was on a business trip in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb went off on the morning of August 6th, 1945. Despite his wounds, despite being heavily bandaged, he arrived for work on-time three days later in his hometown of Nagasaki. Tsutomu Yamaguchi lived another 65 years and had 9 children.

These are my thoughts, as I began my walk into the river of grass.

Earlier that day, we visited the HM-69 Nike Missile Site located within Everglades Park. The Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles here were strategically placed to intercept nuclear missiles launched from Cuba, as part of a defense program established during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to advise Kennedy in those October days of 1962, at a time when the world was the closest it’s ever been to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. Today, as I am writing, it is hard to avoid thinking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and all the fear and uncertainty that comes from speculation about a potential World War III.

How do people stay calm and rational when it seems like their whole world is collapsing?

On Wall St, one of the most coveted traits of a good trader is the ability to hide your state of mind. Like a bad poker player who can’t hide his tells, most traders divulge whether they are making or losing money by the way they move, the pace at which they speak, the timber in their voice. The profound ability to wear the same blank expression in any situation, to control your emotions so precisely and to stay calm and collected in tense situations is such a desirable skill because so often traders are consumed by their own fear and their own greed.

Why must we fight our natural instincts so often to succeed in business and society these days?

Peering out into the vast expanse of the Everglades, knees wet and the sun low in the sky, I get the feeling that Nature doesn’t care. It is our nature to maximize our own happiness, to eat and hoard resources, to protect ourselves and our kin, to be liked, to be loved. Naturally, we all find ways to be unhappy even when the greatest wonders of our world, the apex of human evolution, the marvels of modern technology are apparent all around us. 

Perhaps, to find real happiness, we have to accept being slighted, being disliked, and — eventually — being forgotten. Maybe the only way to be happy is to love, without restrictions or filters or conditions. To see the glass half full. Before life passes us by. 

I think Tsutomu Yamaguchi is the luckiest man who ever lived. 

Yet Nature is made better by no mean

But Nature makes that mean; so, over that art,

Which you say adds to Nature, is an art

That Nature makes…

The art itself is Nature

Winter’s Tale [Act IV, Scene 4]

Miami Art Institutions as Text

“Painters and Patrons”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Wynwood and Design District
March 13th, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

On the highest floor of the de la Cruz art collection in Miami’s Design District, planted on the Northern wall, is a portrait of a woman painted by Salvador Dalí. The woman is Dolores Sureo Falla, the mother of Carlos de la Cruz. This piece was striking for many reasons. It was a portrait created by a notable artist who famously did not paint many portraits, it stood out as a portrait within a hall of colorful and striking contemporary artwork that made even Dalí’s surrealist style appear rote and traditional by comparison. Although, I believe, the primary reason why it stood out was because of how closely the woman in the painting resembled my own grandmother. Appearing just like I’ve seen her in old photographs from Cuba, if someone had told me that this artwork was in fact a portrait of my abuela, I would have easily believed them.

According to the collection’s archivist, this portrait has a long history. It was smuggled out of Cuba through the Dutch Embassy in the 1950s when the old government fell during the Revolution. It was one of the few treasures that Carlos’s family managed to get out of Cuba before they fled the Castro regime. It is a story that many Cuban families in Miami are familiar with. The details may differ, but the scars are shared the same. The portrait can almost be seen as the crown jewel of the de la Cruz collection, the keystone located on the topmost floor from which all other pieces of the collection are informed. It is an early example of modern contemporary artwork and the rest of the collection can almost be seen as an evolution of the movement that stems from early modernist artists, like Dalí.

That same day, we visited the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse in Wynwood. It was explained to us there that Mr. Margulies acquires new pieces according to how well they fit into the “rhythm” of the collection. Although they both contain works of contemporary art, the themes and feelings evoked by the de la Cruz collection and the Margulies collection are noticeably different. The artists I noticed the most in the Margulies collection were primarily German, Italian, and others from all over the world. The colors of the art there were earthy and muted compared to the more colorful works of the predominantly Cuban, Hispanic, and local artists that I noticed in the de la Cruz collection.

If all of the artwork housed in the Louvre was relocated to warehouses in Wynwood, would the experience be comparable to its original setting?

Often a collection of artwork is an expression of its collector and curator than the sum of the artwork or the artists represented therein. Galleries like the de la Cruz and Margulies collections are themselves works of art, from the form of its presentation, to the layout of the collection, the position of works within the room in relation to other art pieces and the flow of the exhibit, to the themes and artists featured. Even the halls and doorways that lead us into our first impression of certain pieces are facets of style that are part of the experience of the collection. In this way, the collectors of art themselves become artists capable of expressing themselves.

Key Biscayne as Text

“Under Halcyon Skies”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Bill Baggs State Park
March 27th, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

Driving into Key Biscayne, it is hard to imagine a better view of Miami than the vantage point atop the Rickenbacker Causeway as you cross Biscayne Bay and look back westward toward the city. And yet, if you continue south past Virginia Key, down Crandon Boulevard, and into Bill Baggs State Park you might just discover the best vista Miami has to offer. Like the view from St. Peter’s cupola in Rome, there is something special about the view from the platform at the top of the Cape Florida lighthouse, made even more special by the somewhat unnerving and wobbly ascent up the tower’s spiral staircase. 

The Cape Florida lighthouse is a landmark that sits on the southern edge of Key Biscayne. Before its construction, this edge of the island was used as a meeting place for runaway slaves and Black Seminoles seeking freedom via passage to the British Bahamas. This crucial location, an important point along the little-known Saltwater Railroad, was compromised by the bright light from the tower after it was constructed in 1825. 

In 1836, the lighthouse again became a site of historical significance. Seminole Indians, making a defiant stand against encroaching colonial occupiers, raided the lighthouse during one of the many skirmishes of Second Seminole War. In an arguably tasteless move, the Florida Historical Society has marked this event with a stereotypically inaccurate piece of artwork within the park which depicts the event. 

From the viewing gallery at the top of the lighthouse, one can only imagine what it must have been like to be a lighthouse keeper here: sun and sand, ocean breeze and a tower all to yourself, a life by the sea. However, the lanterns once fueled by whale oil and kerosene can now be powered by electricity and solar panels. Although the last lighthouse in the United States was automated in 1998, lighthouses are nonetheless an iconic feature of the American landscape dotting up and down the coastline, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, from the East Coast to the West, from sea to shining sea.

Coconut Grove as Text

“Simple and Genuine”
by Christian Gonzalez of FIU at Coconut Grove
April 10th, 2022

Photograph by Christian Gonzalez / CC by 4.0

Commodore Ralph Middleton Munroe organized the first Biscayne Bay regatta in the Spring of 1887. Munroe, a native of New York City, often spent his time in search of a better life, an idyllic life, the simple and genuine life. By all accounts, he was a man who cherished the natural world, and he must have been finely attuned to his environment to endure through the days when Coconut Grove was an isolated and dense mosquito-plagued tropical hardwood hammock. 

Munroe is said to have been many things in his lifetime. In addition to being a naturalist, he was a civic activist, and a photographer. Clearly apparent due to the many existing pictures of him, Munroe lived in the twilight age of photography. He utilized the power of this burgeoning technology to record himself, his family, and the natural world around him. Perhaps most importantly, however, Munroe was a man who loved boats.

Traditionally, the title of Commodore is given to Presidents of yacht clubs. Thus, Monroe, who never served time in the Navy, became known as Commodore Ralph Munroe when he founded the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club in 1887. Throughout his life in Coconut Grove, Munroe spent a majority of his time designing and building yachts, successfully completing fifty six during his lifetime. 

Shipbuilding is not only a technical discipline, but an artistic one as well. It is easy to appreciate traditional architecture because buildings on land are meant to last indefinitely. In comparison, naval architecture is much more ephemeral. Boats serve a functional purpose primarily, but as a recreational activity they can also serve an aesthetic purpose. In this way, Commodore Ralph dedicated his life to exploring the natural world on both land and sea through the application of technology with artistic intent. 

Ralph lived and died in South Florida, passing away in 1933. The state of Florida acquired his home, the Barnacle, in 1973 to convert into a park and historic landmark. By that time, the largely Bahamian community of Coconut Grove gave way to a bohemian counterculture movement of the 1970s. Despite Munroe’s enviable life, it would be wrong to reflect on our time here without acknowledging the original Bahamian settlers of the area. The history of Coconut Grove, like so many other parts of Miami, can be told through the history of displacement and gentrification. Not even the coconuts are native, and the native people are all long gone. Time nonetheless moves ceaselessly forward, here in this lush and indomitable paradise, beside an endless tide and a bottomless ocean.

Author: Christian Gonzalez

FIU Class of 2023, Finance Major

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