Hebah Bushra: Miami as Text

Photo by Inaya Shaikh (CC by 4.0)

Hello everyone! My name is Hebah Bushra and I am an undergraduate student at the Honors College at Florida International University. I am majoring in Biological Sciences and Natural and Applied Sciences as well minoring in Chemistry. Some of my aims are to pursue a career in the medical field and travel to all 7 continents whilst trying different cuisines, volunteering, exploring cultures and religions, and meeting new people. I find gardening and painting to be my therapy in this chaotic world of ours. Although I have lived 3o minutes north of Miami my entire life and have most likely visited all of the beaches in South Florida, I have yet to experience the hidden treasures Miami encompasses. With this opportunity, I hope to gain knowledge of Miami’s concealed stories, diverse culture, and rich environment through the numerous destinations below.

Downtown Miami as Text

Photos and edit by Hebah Bushra (CC by 4.0)

Melting Pot Miami,” by Hebah Bushra of FIU at Downtown Miami, 29 January 2021

While driving through the shadows casted by the towering buildings of Downtown Miami, I realized that I have never set foot outside of my car and explored this colorful city in the 20 years I have lived in South Florida. Due to the pandemic, this busy city was quite muted which came to an advantage for me as I was able to grasp onto the architecture and scenery that Downtown Miami possesses. As we strolled through different areas of the city, the hidden history and melting pot of Miami was unveiled. 

From the beginning of time, Miami, unlike many other major cities, consisted of people from different backgrounds who eventually found a way to live together. The interactions and presence of Seminoles, the Tequesta tribe, Bahamians, Jews, African Americans, the Miccosukee Tribe, Spanish conquistadors, White Americans, and Latin Americans displayed this beautiful melting pot that Miami held from the start.

Amid the roaring highway was a small park, Lummus park, containing two old houses, originally located near the Miami River, holding a great amount of history. Fort Dallas was originally built and quartered by African American slaves and later was taken hold of by the US army during the Seminole War from which it received its name by the Navy officer at that time. Once the army leaves after the Seminoles agree with a treaty, the house was utilized in several other ways such as a post office, the 1st courthouse of the county bought by Julia Tuttle, and a social gathering club. Although it is difficult to judge others of the past, it is important how we frame history. I really believe that the name of this historic structure is an insult to the suffering faced by the hardworking slaves in the 1840s and a name change to English Slave quarters is necessary to actually tell the history and origin of the house. Alongside the Fort of Dallas is Wagner’s house which tells a story of a positive moment in Miami’s history. Against the norm at that time, a German man named William Wagner married a Haitian woman. Wagner and his mixed race son encountered 17 Seminoles and offered them clothes and dinner. This beautiful interaction and some may say a real Thanksgiving is a great illustration of diverse people being at peace with one another and having a sense of unity. 

Even with the mixture of people that make up Miami’s vast history, their representation is lacking and significance is undermined. For example, Miami Dade Cultural Center has a Spanish colonial theme which only represents one group of people leaving several others such as the Seminoles and Tequesta tribe. If you were unaware of Miami’s history, you would only see what the people want you to see and it portrays the wrong message. 

Obtaining knowledge on Miami’s history immensely opened my eyes to the non inclusiveness and flawed portrayal of what Miami is. In school, I have never learned anything about Miami’s origin and only learned what people want to remember. It is important to call out how history is framed and learn about the past. Even with the gloomy history, the diversity and melting pot of Miami is unreal and there is always positive light. For example, the Freedom tower, Miami’s Ellis Island, symbolizes liberty and free will to many Cuban immigrants escaping from Castro’s repressive rule. I believe a great artwork which portrays this concept is right in the middle of the Government Center named Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels by artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. This massive statement art depicts the spread of different cultures and groups of people in this populous metropolis.

Everglades as Text

Photos and edit by Hebah Bushra and Bottom Left Photo by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

Being One With Nature,” by Hebah Bushra of FIU at Everglades National Park, 12 February 2021

When I stepped foot in the murky water surrounded by pond cypress trees I expected warm water as after all, we are in sunny South Florida. However, to my surprise, the water was cold which actually had an instant soothing effect on my nerves. With the help of my walking stick and gradually gaining balance on this unusual surface, I finally looked up to see the captivating environment surrounding me. 

The Everglades started experiencing harmful biodiversity depletion and habitat loss dating back to Henry Flagler’s touch in Miami. This resourceful environment was at one point home to different Native American tribes. I learned that the cypress trees were a survival tool to create boats as the trees were hollowed out with fire and scraped with shells which surprised me at first as the trees next to me were very thin. As we went deeper inside the tree framed dome, the water level increased, the trees were much larger, and I observed more flora and fauna. I was determined to spot an alligator but I realized I was more appreciative of seeing the small creatures that  play a major role and inhabit this area and such as woodpeckers, mosquito fish, and even a red cardinal. I gained the knowledge of how natural and prescribed fires are a key component for the Everglades’ prairies to thrive as the absence of fire creates crowding and overgrown plants. Certain plants such as sawgrass can take over and with no sunlight reaching down, there is a decrease in the population size of species. The burns clear the top and opens up the understories so various species can develop. Pine Rockland is the most biodiverse habitat in the National Park with 23 species of endemics and according to Ranger Dylan, this environment would have extended far all the way to Downtown Miami.

Ranger Dylan read a poem by Anne McCrary Sullivan who would explore the Everglades on her own and find a spot to sit and write. She refers to the Everglades as an in between place where it is not quite land or water and describes the way the world is when we (humans) are not there. As I separated from the group to explore my surroundings, I discovered this fallen tree which was still alive and decided to sit on it for a minute or two as Anne McCrary and listen to my surroundings. I felt one with nature hearing the creaks of the cypress trees, chirps of birds, and the gusts of wind. At this moment of the silent yet loud atmosphere, I understood the poem and what Sullivan was trying to illustrate through her words about being in an untouched place, which I would have not comprehended a day before. 

South Beach as Text

Photos and edit by Hebah Bushra (CC by 4.0)

Architecture Treasure Chest,” by Hebah Bushra of FIU at South Beach, 26 February 2021

While walking to the end of South Pointe Pier, I was able to absorb my surroundings of the turquoise blue water, vibrant architecture, and the wave of people relaxing on the sand even with my eyes squinting from the harsh sun rays. Even though I had a tiresome week and would have loved to unwind with the rest of the people, I was eager to learn about this tourist magnet called South Beach.  

With the welcoming atmosphere and diverse array of people all having the same motive in mind, one would have not thought that Miami Beach had negative aspects to its history like Downtown Miami. Miami Beach, originally called Ocean Beach, was a barrier island of mangroves. The development of Miami by Henry Flagler, Julia Tuttle, and others brought about wealthy northerners as well as segregation and class disparity. Carl Fisher, an automobile developer, built the longest bridge at that time to connect the mainland to ocean beach and hired Black Americans and Bahamians to clear the massive mangrove forest and called the area Miami Beach. After their forced hard work, the people of color were segregated and had to stay in an area called Virginia Beach depicting that as the town developed, lines were drawn. Although at one point Miami’s first black millionaire named Dorsey bought an island and people of color resided there, the Great Depression made him sell it to Carl Fisher (Fisher Island) forcing the colored community out. Today, this is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. Although South Beach is incredibly unique and a major part of Miami’s cultural identity, it is important to understand and remember the negative aspects of its history.

As we walked further away from the beach and under the shades casted by the hovering buildings, I started to obtain knowledge on the harmonious yet distinct architecture surrounding us. South Beach buildings were composed of three architectural styles: Mediterranean Revival, Miami Modernist (MiMo), and Art Deco. With ceramic roof tiles and European features, Mediterranean Revival architecture was easy to distinguish. Both MiMo and Art Deco architecture encompassed a futuristic look and fanned away from the European style. The curved buildings shaped like boats/ships with glass were part of MiMo architecture. Lastly and my favorite, Art Deco architecture had such unique characteristics such as the rule of three and relief sculptures. Most Art Deco structures are three stories, have lines in threes, exhibit eyebrows and slick curves, and illustrate relief sculptures that reflect landscape around us such as water and seagulls depicted in a geometric pattern. South beach has the largest Art Deco neighborhood in the world. There was also “identity crisis architecture” as Professor Bailly would say and these structures had a combination of different aspects and not a particular unique architectural style.

 As I passed each building on Ocean Drive and every place we walked, I would quiz myself or act like I was in a treasure hunt by using characteristics (hints) of each building to discover the architectural style (the treasure). The positive end to our day was witnessing the conservation of Lincoln Theater’s architectural style in an H&M store in Lincoln Road Mall. The efforts put into saving the uniqueness of South Beach buildings was definitely worth it with the tourism it attracts and the distinctiveness not found anywhere less. The vibrant colors and welcoming atmosphere of Ocean Drive today is much different from the 1910s. Until this class, I would have viewed the architecture as just pretty, colorful buildings as most tourists but gaining this knowledge on architectural styles and the history of Miami Beach actually made me feel a sense of belongingness and connection to this city.

Deering Estate As Text

Photos and edit by Hebah Bushra (CC by 4.0)

Entering Miami’s True Nature,” by Hebah Bushra of FIU at Deering Estate, 12 March 2021

As we huddled in front of the massive gates of Deering Estate, I wondered what today’s class had in store to add to my growing knowledge of Miami’s history. As we entered the premises, I saw two houses with architectural details we learned about previously and a beautiful basin with manatees surrounded by several islands. However, what was not seen immediately and the unknowns were the most valuable aspects of this experience personally.

In time of intense racial segregation, the grounds, degraded channel, and house was built by Black Bahamians and Black Americans under horrible conditions. Charles Deering bought Richmond cottage in 1916 and the stone house was finished in 1922. The houses displayed Mediterranean revival and Islamic dome shapes and were influential to many parts of Miami as seen in Coral Gables architecture. One of my favorite parts of the house was actually outdoors and was this spinoff of a European mosaic with Miami elements such as corals, sea plants, and shells decorated on a ceiling. 

I was amazed to find out that the protected natural areas of the estate that we explored consisted of not one but multiple distinct ecosystems and habitats and is part of the original Old Cutler Road which served as a Native American footpath for connecting Tequesta villages to others near Miami River. We walked through and learned about several ecosystems like Biscayne Bay seagrass beds, salt marshes (blue crab mania), mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands to name a few. I found the Gumbo Limbo, a native tropical tree, to be one of the intriguing plants as the trunk is green inside and red for the outer layer and to combat the threat of vines, the tree peels making the vines fall off the bark as a means of protection. Also, if limbs are knocked off, another tree will grow right there which was probably advantageous to Native Americans. While admiring the beauty of the Flora and Fauna, I learned about the significance of this area. It is difficult to connect with Miami’s past because everything has been destroyed and paved over to showcase an attractive developed city, however, this one place is pristine and untouched. I tried hard to envision the Tequesta people walking along the same path as me to survive and perform daily activities and it wouldn’t click until Professor Bailly showed a treasure of the past. As we approached the mangrove forests, we entered a midden which contains discarded tools and food. Researchers found shells and with a hand grabbing test, they observed if it fits in your finger like a tool. These shell tools could be used by the Tequesta to scale fish, skin animals like squirrels, and create holes in deer or in the ground to plant seeds. As I grasped onto the tool with my thumb fitting perfectly in the indent of the shell, I had a glimpse of the history, people, and land of Miami’s past. 

Another part of the land that served as a way for me to connect to the past people was the Cutler Burial Mound where around 8 or more Indians were buried in a circle. Walking on the bridge and keeping an eye out for the burial mound, I couldn’t see it until it was pointed out. The mound was hidden in the intertwined trees but was almost honored with one of Miami’s biggest Oak Trees thriving on top. I felt that this gloriously massive tree casting pools of glimmering sunlight served a symbol of the significance and strength Native Americans held as they endured many hardships and played a major role in Miami’s history. 

This walk back into Miami’s real natural history showcased the importance of respecting the way of life of people and history and understanding species and environmental interactions to promote long term survival of these unique ecosystems in order to preserve biodiversity. Most people have not experienced the true natural state of Miami due to destruction and this realness is not seen elsewhere.

Vizcaya As Text

Photos and edit by Hebah Bushra (CC by 4.0)

Miami’s Elegant Playhouse,” by Hebah Bushra of FIU at Vizcaya Museum, 26 March 2021

Driving into the entrance to a narrow road surrounded by thick green trees and pops of small sculptures was a complete change of scenery from the city feel I just passed ten minutes ago. The Vizcaya Museum named after Spanish explorer Vizcaíno who lived with Tequesta Indians was built in 1914 and 1916 and owned by a wealthy industrialist, James Deering. After the last of the seminole war, most seminoles left however, the few that remained inhabited the everglades. The US passed an act that enabled white Americans to obtain 160 acres of land if they defend it against the seminoles. When the seminoles and bahamians had to leave, wealthy northerners occupied land. James Deering’s fondness of Spain, Italy, and Mediterranean revival was the key inspiration for this museum’s aesthetic. In the middle of the mangroves was this recreation of an Italian Villa.

The pathway leading to the house was framed by the tropical hardwood hammock ecosystem which enabled the maintenance of the greenery and acted as curtains unveiling the house. This inviting aspect was accompanied by shallow flowing water fountains to create a linear perspective. Although this house is quite beautiful and enchanting, James Deering entering a habitat originally occupied by seminoles, Bahamians, and tequesta was not acknowledged. There was no representation of the culture and people in Vizcaya which is unfortunate as he was the most wealthy person in Miami. This entirely European, Mediterranean Revival house in the middle of the mangroves was designed by the artist director Paul Chalfin. Personally, I would have not known much about the style and architecture of each room if not taught this information. From sculptures to secret gardens, this house was a mini getaway to Europe. 

As we entered the main doors, we were welcomed by a Roman god sculpture of Bacchus, the god of wine and pleasure, with grapes and a massive tub. This was a major display of Deering’s mindset and personality and was depicted throughout the house layout. Although this place was home to residents, the house was aimed to be a source of entertainment and show for guests. This graceful and refined playhouse had an inner courtyard, decorative rooms, small outdoor theater, bush mazes, a lover’s bench, and more showcasing his vision. Several architectural styles such as neoclassical, fuoco rococo, and Islamic patterns were incorporated into the design of the house. The neoclassical style which focuses on perfect balance and symmetry was seen in one of the rooms where the ceiling shapes corresponded with the floor tile shape. Many rooms had the complete opposite atmosphere with fuoco rococo focusing on the decorative, detailed ceiling purchased in Venice, Italy, and playfulness with palm trees and flowers. One of my favorite parts of a room was a chandelier framed with beautiful gold flowers instead of crystals displaying elegance and liveliness. Islamic elemental art called Mudéjar was seen in abstracted Arabic writing. All of these distinct features definitely provided the house with its playful yet sophisticated nature. This stop on our Miami list was definitely quite different from others with this European inspiration and secret gardens; however, it is a significant part of Miami’s history.