Rachel Pasteris is a junior working towards a B.A. in Mathematics Education at Florida International University (FIU), as part of FIU Honors. Passionate about education, she is looking to specialize in teaching secondary and college students in the subject areas of mathematics and science. In her free time, she enjoys reading books, making music, playing soccer, spending time with loved ones, and volunteering in her community.
Though this area used to be referred to as West Dade, since the limits of Miami-Dade County seem to be ever-expanding, Westchester is now more central, most likely considered to lie within the midwest area of Miami. Its boundaries have also lessened the scope of land which used to be considered Westchester, leaving places like Westchester General Hospital, which used to be a part of the area, pushed outside its up-to-date designated boundaries. Its current area is 4.015 mi², with its elevation 3′ above sea level.
At the northern boundary is US 41, better known as Tamiami Trail, as well as 8th street or “Calle Ocho.” At the southern boundary is SR 976, better known as 40th street or “Bird Road.” At the western boundary is 117th avenue. At the eastern boundary is SR 826, better known as “Palmetto Expressway.”
The center of Westchester is at the intersection of 24th street, “Coral Way,” and 87th avenue, “Galloway Road.” Since Westchester has only officially been designated for nearly 20 years now, most of the land is used for residential neighborhoods as well as businesses and institutions. With a “perfect urban-suburban balance”, as Miami Herald article “Convenience, schools make Westchester worth a look” put it, it hosts famous franchises (e.g., Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, El Palacio de Los Jugos, Taco Bell, Wendy’s) and local legends (e.g., Burger Beast, Martha of Miami, Only in Dade, Pitbull, Rev. Jorge Comesañas) as well as local family-owned shops and restaurants (e.g., Arbetter’s Hot Dogs, Bird Bowl, Frankie’s Pizza, Rio Cristal). Most of Westchester’s open spaces set aside by Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation for greenery is found on grounds of local public schools as well as the local public library. A lot of local residents embrace the natural landscape as well, with plenty of flora and fauna to be seen even from street view. Flora includes banyan, flamboyan, palm, sea grape, silk floss, and fruit trees (e.g., avocados, ciruelas, coconuts, mangoes), as well as bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora, and plumeria flowers. Fauna includes iguanas, foxes, lizards, and, of course, stray cats.
Now that the geography has been surveyed, let’s dive deeper into the history of Westchester.
As it was subject to seasonal rains and flooding, under the 1862 Homestead Act, the land, like many areas of Miami-Dade County, was deemed ineligible to be developed in the 19th century. However, by the 1920, canal construction changed all this, the area then turned dry land as a result of the innovation. One residential subdivision was created—Olympic Heights, in 1924—despite the land boom era in South Florida. With the exception of Tropical Park racetrack and Tamiami airport (The Tower at FIU is the former air traffic control tower for Tamiami Airport, Tamiami Park is home to the Miami-Dade County Fair), the area we know today as Westchester was largely rural until the 1950s.
Post-WWII development boom, in 1955, a subdivision called Westchester served as inspiration for the neighborhood name, though the 1960s offered other subdivisions (e.g., Miracle Manor, Mirador, Westchester Park, Town Park, Coral Park) to make up what is largely the residential neighborhood we see today. During the same era, the area also experienced growth in commercial development, including notable sites such as the Tropicaire Drive-In in 1949 (now home to Best Buy, Publix, Target), Bird Bowl in 1956 (the only of these still remaining), and Westchester Shopping Center in 1959 (over time, changed to Kmart, now home to Walmart).
When Florida Senator Robert M. Haverfield introduced Senate Bill 711 in 1965, the area saw another major addition as they began planning for the development of a state university in Miami. As mentioned beforehand, after the Tamiami Airport closed by the late 1960s, the the new Florida International University was selected for the site, which, in 1972, had the largest opening enrollment in U.S. collegiate history, with 5,667 students. Today, FIU is among the top ten largest universities in the nation, with a student body nearly 59,000 as of 2019–20 enrollment. Tamiami Park, home to the Miami-Dade County Fair, still offers equestrian centers, as well as baseball, football, swimming, and tennis, in addition to the option for visitors to bike, walk, run, utilize the fitness, boxing, even attend a attend a farmer’s market.
Another educational institution was in the works: the Diocese of Miami, requiring that a seminary be founded within the diocese limits. Thus, St. John Vianney Seminary construction started in the late 1950s. Other Catholic schools, including St. Brendan Elementary and High School and Christopher Columbus High School, and churches, including St. Brendan and St. Agatha, were developed afterwards as well.
As mentioned beforehand, today, the area is predominantly residential, along with business and institutions. Thus is the “History of the Westchester Neighborhood,” with the help of a Memorandum dated August 11, 2020, per the request of Commissioner Javier D. Souto.
The population of Westchester is nearly 30,000 residents, according to the 2019 ACS 5-Year Estimates Dates Profiles.
When analyzing sex and age, it shows that, considering represented values indicated 46.3% are males while 53.7% are females, 4.5% are under 5 years old, 16.1% are under 18 years old, and 23.2% are 65 years old and older, leaving a majority of 60.7% between the ages of 18 and 65 years old. Westchester’s median household income is $55,660 and 14.6% are living in poverty. The cultural roots of Westchester grew more Hispanic or Latino after the 1960s, now with a population that is over 80% Hispanic. As of 2019, its residents are 90.7% Hispanic or Latino, leaving only 9.3% identifying as otherwise. In fact, as of 2000, Westchester had the highest percentage of Cuban residents in the US with 65.69% of its populace, Hialeah having the second highest percentage with 62.12% of its populace. Soon enough, the Westchester Cultural Arts Center will be constructed in Tropical Park, providing cultural programming and instruction focusing on Hispanic arts and culture in celebration of Westchester’s Hispanic heritage. I often hear people refer to Miami as “North Cuba,” with an entire webpage on Quora dedicated to offering an answer to the question, “Why do people say that Miami is North Cuba?” Now I can see why that may be the case, especially in Westchester. When it comes to the most Cuban place in Miami, as an article from Miami Herald titled “Please don’t confuse Westchester with Kendall. It’s so much better.” concurs on this matter, “The realest of the real know Westchester truly deserves the title.”
All statistics are courtesy of the United States Census Bureau unless otherwise indicated with a hyperlink.
Carmen is an 80-year old Cuban-American who is currently enjoying her retirement. Upon visiting her in her current home (formerly Westchester, presently University Park) I had the opportunity to interview her as one of Westchester’s residents on her perspective of her neighborhood. Though the area in which she now resides is currently considered University Park, she visits Westchester frequently to attend church services and spend time with loved ones.
Since this interview was conducted in what I would call “Spanglish,” the unofficial language of Westchester as well as the rest of Miami, I will provide both direct quotes and translated paraphrases.
Question 1: Where are you from and how long have you lived in Westchester?
“Yo nací en Artemisa, Pinar del Río. Pero mis papeles está Los Palacios, Pinar del Río, y es donde me escribieron legalmente.”
It was also said that she moved to Westchester in 1982, renting two different houses before moving into her current home in 1987. Though she technically lived in what is now considered Westchester for roughly 5 years, she has lived in the area for nearly 40 years.
Question 2: What’s it like living in Westchester?
“I love it. Yeah, I love it. It’s nice. It’s not too…muy, mucho movimiento, pero vaya no como el centro, pero buen…neighborhood, a good neighborhood here, good schools, everything, stores, everything. I love this place. Yeah.”
Question 3: What’s your favorite thing to do in Westchester?
“Si te digo que me gusta hacer en Westchester, trabajar en mi patio, en el jardín de mis casa y un parque atrás (Westbrook Park). I love this house. Yo vivo aquí en el nineteen-eighty-seven, in this house.”
Question 4: Out of all Westchester, what’s the best thing about it?
“Bueno, aquí trabajamos, aquí tenemos nuestro trabajo aquí mismo en Westchester, y, era un buen lugar para los hijos estudiar, bueno colegios, la iglesia, dónde trabajamos. Era un bueno lugar para vivir.”
Question 5: Out of all Westchester, what’s the worst thing about it?
“Yo no oigo nada malo en Westchester.”
Upon further inquiry, both Carmen and her daughter, Amy, informed me of other local lore as well, which will be discussed under the church and library portions of this page.
While Westchester does not have relatively any museums or monuments to offer its residents and visitors, there are some notable landmarks that most in the area would recognize. The majority of these may be seen included in the Westchester mural shown later on. I have highlighted three unmistakable landmarks here.
“The Whale” or “La Ballena” church
There has been some speculation about its strange shape, as the architecture is said to have been inspired by the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale.
Planted by Rev. Jorge Comesañas with his wife, Carmen Comesañas, the First Baptist Church of Coral Park purchased their current mid-century modern seemingly whale-shaped building from Temple Or Olom, with Rabbi Samuel April as one of the early leaders, as the area had attracted Jewish families during the late 1950s and early 1960s as Westchester grew. Though they had several sizable offers, they did not want their precious synagogue to be torn down to construct more shopping malls. Instead, they were more than willing to part with the property for Coral Park, knowing their building would be preserved for future generations to cherish its ingoing service as a house of worship. I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line, the National Register of Historic Places would designate the place to be preserved indefinitely. Hopefully one day, just maybe, I’ll live to see that come into fruition.
The church not only has Coral Park Christian Academy, a Christian private elementary school (next to a public high school, Miami Coral Park Senior High School), but also rents their facilities out on Saturdays to The Miami Hoshuko, Inc. (マイアミ補習校 Maiami Hoshūkō), a supplementary weekend Japanese school, where they hold classes (the school offices located in Doral).
In this photo, you can see Rev. Jorge Comesañas working in his office filled with his collection of gifted whales, which started when his daughter, Amy, bought the large gold figure pictured on the mid-right to create a brown replica out of clay to resemble the bronze-colored state of the building at the time in her pottery class at FIU. In 2010, it was announced on the local news that Senator Soto, as Jorge and Carmen’s youngest son, Pastor Alex, read, urged “the Florida legislator to codesignate SW 87th Avenue from 8th street to SW 24th street as Rev. Jorge Comesañas Way.” Luckily, he was able to hear the news before he passed away from brain cancer October 2011.
Since “The Whale” is on Ram Road as well, let’s take a quick detour as to why that is today. The street was promptly changed back to Ram Road, in honor of the local high school’s mascot. One of the notable alumni from this high school was José Canseco Capas Jr., a Cuban-American former Major League Baseball (MLB) outfielder and designated hitter. As a professional baseball he won honors, including Rookie of the Year in 1986, Most Valuable Player award in 1988, a six-time All Star, on top of becoming a two-time World Series champion, as well as the Silver Slugger award four times. After watching Netflix’s Screwball, I can now better comprehend the gravity of the steroid scandal. Canseco was one of many players who fessed up to having used performance enhanced drugs, and he actually published a tell-all book called Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big in 2005 creating even more issues for the community by bringing it all to light. Despite all of this, due to the drama now associated with his name, including a relatively recent mishap concerning tweets about politicians and sexual molestation back in 2018, the neighborhood reverted the decision they had made to name this specified portion of 16th street after him with a name change back to Ram Road, causing the county to consider background checks for street names.
“Welcome to Westchester”
While there exists two “Welcome to Westchester” signs, one outshines the other in its presentation. However, for those who are willing to drive around town to have some fun scavenger hunting, there is a GEOCACHE located at the site of the second sign.
No one passing through can miss seeing the sizable Bird Bowl sign located off of Bird Road. In addition to bowling, this place offers billiards, arcade, karaoke, and more, providing fun for all ages for the past 65 years, since it was established in 1956. With competitive pricing for hourly rates and party packages, this popular locale has outlasted many others that have since faded away from this neighborhood.
Green through parks, recreation, and open spaces are not exactly a forte of Westchester either. There is only one that exists outside of an educational institution with the local library, which I will delve into in another section. For the sake of borders, I will not include Tropical Park here, which would technically reside within the current limits of Olympia Heights. Nonetheless, the majority of them share property with public school grounds, which I will highlight here.
Located on 30 Street & 87 Avenue, Banyan Park sits in the backyard of Banyan Elementary School. As one can assume by its name, the park is lined with banyan trees around its perimeter. There is a walkway suitable for walking, jogging, running, biking, roller skating/blading, and so on. A playground set is also available for children to play on as parents can sit on the benches provided to watch them comfortably.
Most interestingly, there are signs that read, “NATURE ALERT: HAWK NESTING IN PARK,” outlining natural behaviors (“actively hunting to feed their young, protecting a large area of the park, including walkways near trees and open green fields.”) as well defenses (““dive bombing” and making territorial calls.”) to expect if the opportunity were to arise. It advises visitors to “enjoy from a distance, avoid area until the baby hawk(s) flee the nest.” It concludes with the following statement: “This hawk has been a resident of this community for many years.” How sweet is that? They consider these hawks the same way one would consider their neighbors, so much so that they care to inform others to take care as well and be on the lookout.
Coral Estates Park
Located on 1405 SW 97 Avenue, Coral Estates Park sits in the backyard of Coral Park Elementary School. As is typical for almost any public park, a playground set is available for children to play on while parents can sit on the benches provided to watch them comfortably. It has several amenities to offer for the enjoyment of the community, including a baseball field, recreation center, soccer field (no lights), as well as a tennis court. The open areas, shelter, baseball field, soccer field, and recreation room may be reserved, with multiples rates to choose from. In addition, funded by The Children’s Trust and offered by Parks Disability, an after-school care program is available for children with disabilities ages 6-21. These children have the opportunity to participate in activities, including included physical fitness, literacy, art and music, during the after-school session on a rotating schedule. They also provide homework help.
Located on 9460 SW 27 Drive, Rockway Park sits in the backyard of Rockway Elementary School & Rockway Middle School. In addition to the standard playground set, they offer several programs, including Fit2Play Afterschool Program (qualifying families can receive financial aid), Fit2Lead Youth Enrichment and Sports (Y.E.S.) Program, Fit2Play Winter Camp, Fit2Play Spring Camp, Summer Camp, as well as Learn-to-Swim (taught to swim by certified American Red Cross Water Safety Instructors), with their pool facility open year-round (not taking into consideration current COVID-19 pandemic restrictions for the public).
Primary modes of transportation in the area are walking, biking, and driving, and, since Westchester hasdirect access to the Interstates from Bird Road, this can take you to hotpots such as Miami International Airport, the Port of Miami, Downtown, the Beaches, among many others. Many people also take advantage of the public transit systems, including the Metrobus, Metrorail, Metromover, and more. In an attempt to beat daily traffic, one could also hop on the frequent local circulator Westchester Circulator (Route 82), Westchester’s own bus trolley system, providing convenient stops (from Tropical Park to FIU Maidique Campus Metrobus terminal) throughout the community for just 25¢ a ride! The Westchester Miami Dade Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in the creation of the “Westchester Circulator” trolley system, and they continue to work as an advocate of mass-transit with various governmental bodies. While the Westchester Circulator continues to be a popular transportation component of the community, there is also talk of a new and innovative car sharing system, as it is used in other others and could be a great addition to the area.
Westchester is known for a variety of Hispanic and Latino cuisine, including Cuban, Colombian, Salvadoran, Chilean, Mexican, and so on. Some legacy businesses still surviving, alive and well today, include Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (1959, current located 1970) as well as Frankie’s Pizza (1955). Several award winning restaurants, now with moved and/or multiple locations, made their start in Westchester, including Mojo Donuts & Fried Chicken, Nunzio’s Ristorante, PINCHO, Rio Cristal, Tropical Chinese, and so on. Aside from these honorable mentions, here I have highlighted three of my personal favorites.
Graziano’s Restaurants & Markets
“They say that Argentina is the Italy of South America.“
Located on 9227 SW 40th Street, Graziano’s Ristorante is the place to be to get churrasco asado. I’d also highly recommend watching the film “Todo sobre el asado” if you are interesting in learning anything about the rich history behind Argentinian grilling. The documentary describes the experience as such: “Roasting is a meal and a ritual. It is primitive and contemporary, wild and refined, an art and a science.” This place has almost as much pride as the country itself. The owners take pride not only in their country, but in their asado as well. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to check out their market as well, filled with Argentinian goods and fresh food from their bakery, butcher, deli, and panini shop.
Mojo Donuts & Fried Chicken
Located on 8870 SW 40th Street, Mojo Donuts has award winning donuts, as seen on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Any other competition in the greater Miami area dims in comparison to their fresh gourmet doughnuts that are “sweet, salty and everything in between,” as they offer a wide variety of flavors. Not only that, but in addition to the best doughnuts in the area, they offer savory fried chicken and coffee drinks as well, notably their chicken brûlée sandwich and hot chocolate. As they’ve proven themselves, with a good product, being inventive can pay off.
“One of the country’s best burgers is from Miami — again.”
Located on 9860 SW 40th Street, the original Pincho Factory restaurant features a mural dedicated to the history of Westchester. As you can see, it is packed with local nostalgia inducing references, including the now relocated Rio Cristal original restaurant. They have won several awards, mostly recently winners of the 2019 Food Network SOEBEWFF Burger Bash, 2019 Miami Newtimes Burgerfest, 2019 BurgerBeast Hamburger House Party, 2019 Burgerlicious, and many more. Besides their ponchos, they offer innovative take on the classic sandwich, including the Pincho burger (topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese, potato sticks, and our secret pink sauce), the Fritanga burger (topped with fried white cheese, cabbage slaw, and crema), and the Toston burger (two fried plantains as the “buns,” then topped with jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and homemade cilantro sauce).
What Westchester lacks in other areas, it more than makes up for with the widespread array of unique businesses it has to offer. Some legacy businesses still surviving, alive and well today, include Bird Bowl (1956) as well as Yesterday and Today Records (1981). Taking a look at what remains in modern day Miami, here are three highlighted locales.
Westchester Regional Library & “Francisco” Human Rights Park
I would say out of all the libraries in Miami, Westchester Regional Library (formerly known as West Dade Regional Library) is second only to the Main Library located in Downtown. My love for reading was nurtured here, in these walls, throughout my childhood. Every now and then I still try to visit when I can, last time I went to checkout the book The Prince of Los Cocuyos, a memoir of Richard Blanco’s childhood set in Westchester during the late 1970’s and ‘80s.
After all these years, I did not know that “Francisco” Human Rights Park had domino tables! Here I thought they were just for sitting around, but no, you can actually check out domino sets, conveniently available inside the library at the front desk, and play away in the day, right then and there! How amazing is that? It’s just so “Miami” I almost can’t believe it myself. It’s so ingenious. It’s the little things in life, you know?
Anyways, back to the point of the park. If a visitor walks around, they can see several stones with info-packed plaques dedicated to significant individuals who served vital roles in human rights movements along the walkways, including the Father Miguel Angel Loredo Domino Pavilion and Vaclav Havel Rotunda. What a great message for the next generations! Hopefully we as well as they will be able to continue to honor their memories and follow in their footsteps towards building a brighter future.
During the interview with Carmen, I asked her a follow up question on a story I had heard during my childhood, to which she responded in affirmation. Santeria, considering by many to be simply satanic devil worshipping, though it translates to English as “way of the saints,” is defined by Oxford Languages as “a pantheistic Afro-Cuban folk religion developed from the beliefs and customs of the Yoruba people and incorporating some elements of the Catholic religion.” “Pero no me molestan, eso es en todo del Miami…son los Cubanos que trajeron,” replies Carmen, as Britannica confirms that it was “developed in Cuba and then spread throughout Latin America and the United States.” One of this tree’s common names is “Palo Borracho” or “Drunken Tree.” The phrase palo borracho directly translates to “drunken stick.” Because these deciduous trees, native to the subtropical areas of South America, drink up water when it is abundant and store it, their trunks have the swollen beer-belly shape. It is sort of fitting then that the Santeros choose landmarks like these to conduct their rituals and offer their sacrifices to their many gods. My best friend who lives a couple blocks away from me also had the joy of having their neighbors (promptly removed from the property) who were renting the house behind theirs chanting in their backyard with their fellow Santeros late at night and leaving behind a goat head on their curb they were met with the following mornings ever so often.
Santa’s Enchanted Forest
Featuring over 100 rides, games, shows and attractions, Santa’s Enchanted Forest—the world’s largest holiday themed park—is one of Westchester’s claims to fame. Though a lot of their rides, acrobats & magic shows, plus traditional carnival food, are all similar to those The Fair already offers in the hot spring break, the cooler winter break has some merits, with beautiful Christmas lights strung throughout the treetops of Tropical Park to brighten the night and odd themed displays that allow you to pose atop a surfboard as you pretend to ride the wave alongside a Santa statue; can’t really beat that photo op anywhere else in Miami. Though some may rather save their money for a trip to Disney World, if you ever have the opportunity to go, this seasonal amusement park is open from Halloween night on October 31 up until the first week of January.
Only in Dade
If you live in Miami, you may recognize Only in Dade from their popular Instagram page, with 611K followers to date. I was surprised to learn that the home of this local legend of a media/news company was right here in Westchester! They rose in popularity by reposting local relatable content. They continue to share “The Good – The Bad – The Funny” of Miami-Dade County on social media. Their employees also make an effort give back to the community, as you can see on their Only in Dade Cares Instagram page “to shine light, emphasize, and focus on content geared towards the community helping the community.”
Though I have lived here for nearly 20 years of my life (Hey, about just as long as Westchester has been official!), there is a lot more to Westchester than first meets the eye. Even though La Ballena is practically in my backyard, I really didn’t know all that much before looking into things further and taking a drive around town for myself. All it takes is a bit of digging around and, who knows, maybe you, the reader, or others, like Burger Beast with his blogpost “Many Things to do in my Hometown of Westchester in Miami” and The New Tropic with their article “Things to do: Welcome to Westchester“, would continue to add to this compilation of curiosities and hidden treasures found in Westchester has to offer over the years while it still has a presence in the great melting pot that is Miami. This is the good, the bad, and whatever else onlookers would care to add (Sergio Leone may say “the ugly” and Brendon Urie may say “the dirty,” while Only in Dade would say “the funny“). It’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows everywhere; sometimes, we’re left to deal with traffic backed up on that left turn right next to Taco Bell at the center Westchester, crazy Miami drivers, fruit thieves (both animals and humans), those *special* neighbors who have their front lawns riddled with feral cats, pet feces left uncollected, stolen shopping carts abandoned on random corners, Santeria sacrifices left on the last curbs you’d expect them to be, as well as steroid scandals causing street names to be changed back to what they used to be before it all went wrong. Miami Herald can actually corroborate some of this in their article “Miami has some of the worst neighbors in the country, study says. Duh, says everyone in Miami.” Overall though, it is a decently great place to live, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.