An Everglades Christmas

Posted in: Blog- Dec 16, 2012 No Comments

As a child I was disturbed by images of Santa Claus on a beach. I was not amused by Santa in sunglasses sitting under a palm tree, out of uniform, with a cold drink in his hand. My secular liturgy required Christmas to be winter white with sleigh bells somewhere in the snow, Jack Frost nipping at noses, and frozen landscapes hung in breathless silence. Violation of this orthodoxy offended me in the way Allah’s Facebook page might infuriate certain fundamentalists but fortunately we shed some useless ideas as we mature, which is lucky for me because when my family moved to Miami I had to get use to trimming the Christmas tree with an air conditioner blowing.

Over time new traditions replace old ones. Several years ago my wife and I started a tradition of visiting the Everglades the day before Christmas as a way to elevate the spirit and incite our sense of wonder at a time of year when commercialism just bludgeons the sublime into submission. In 2010 we drove out to the Everglades without any expectation of partridges, swans, geese or other traditional Christmas fowl but that’s not to say it was a visitation without its own wonder and surprise. The weather had changed dramatically two days earlier, and temperatures dropped into the 30’s which is almost unheard of this far south. Plants and animals not built for freezing temperatures were devastated, the produce industry was hammered, iguanas and pythons froze to death, and millions of fish died and floated to the surface. There were some good little vulture boys and girls however who were about to be rewarded by Santa this Christmas with an all you can eat buffet of frozen fish and reptiles.

The best time to visit the Everglades is during the dry winter months when animals are more visible and mosquitoes less bothersome. We leave before dawn as the sun rises and we pass the downtown high-rises, along leafy winding roads through neatly trimmed suburbia to the rural farmland in Florida City at the southern end of the county. Green sprouts poke through red dirt fields in perfect rows, giant sprinklers paint wet rainbows in the morning sun and groups of migrant laborers gather at crossroads waiting for work to begin. Once past the barbed wire of the South Dade Correctional Facility all traces of concrete fade away as we enter the southeast corner of the Everglades. The road stretches forty miles to Flamingo where the land dips into Florida Bay but that morning we only drove a few miles into the park to the Anhinga Trail, one of the best and most accessible wildlife viewing areas in the park.

The day was crystal clear. Two deer bounded across the road and quickly disappeared into the sawgrass. All around us white and blue herons, ibis, hawks and wood storks hunted for breakfast along the edge of Taylor Slough, a deep trough in the limestone where wildlife like to gather during dry periods. We pulled into the parking lot and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock film with groups of large black vultures perched on the roof of the visitor center, squatting on top of cars, flying around overhead and gathered together on the ground in large suspicious looking groups. Accompanying the scene was a very foul odor unlike anything we had ever experienced before that made everything even more bizarre. My darling spouse was slightly apprehensive about even stopping the car but I assured her that there was nothing to fear from these ugly beasts as long as she kept breathing. We cautiously parked as far away from them as possible, crossed our fingers, got out, and walked toward the trail.

These bald, wrinkled, carrion eating scavengers can be intimidating. They stand two feet tall with five foot wingspans and have some offensive behavioral characteristics like regurgitating toward predators when disturbed, defecating on themselves to cool off and as we observed that morning, stripping rubber molding from cars with wanton efficiency. Their curious appetite for windshield wipers, sunroof seals, door moldings and other rubber and vinyl vehicle parts puzzles scientists, park officials, and insurance adjustors who struggle to even figure out how to code the vandalism for insurance purposes. The birds aren’t nibbling because they’re hungry. After tearing out the rubber they typically discard it, eating little or any of the material. The birds, usually black vultures native to the Southeast, join the year-round local buzzard population during cold months and normally do very little damage but once they get going, the destruction can be extensive and shocking. Vehicle owners return to see their cars covered with dung and every piece of rubber and plastic ripped from the sunroof, windows and hood. Park officials have tried yelling at them, squirting them with water, even dangling dead vultures upside down in trees as a warning but these winged thugs aren’t intimidated. These days park officials have shifted to purely defensive tactics against the vultures, by loaning visitors anti-vulture kits consisting of blue plastic tarps and bungee cords to cover their vehicles while they’re visiting.

We practically had to kick the birds out of the way on our yuletide walk, but they cleared a path as they hopped aside, flapped their wings and woofed like little dogs. Kathy became more relaxed around them and began to refer to them as cute. Their little faces resemble Venetian Carnivale masks with distinct personalities. Vultures perform a critical sanitation function in the ecosystem by disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for bacteria and disease. They are gregarious, mate for life, have close family ties and groom each other to build relationships.

We might feel better about them if it weren’t for their gruesome reputations reinforced by stories such as the vultures of Gettysburg Pennsylvania. For over 100 years 1000 vultures have gathered near the Gettysburg battlefield each year. The first birds appeared on July 1st, 1863 the final day in a battle which saw 50,000 men and horses die. The men were buried, but the horses were left lying on the battlefield. The vultures arrived and gorged on the feast even remaining through winter to scavenge on the frozen carcasses. Twelve months later the vultures returned. Something they continue to do to this very day.

Many visitors might view the vultures as ugly nuisances in a park filled with elegant wading birds, roseate spoonbills, soaring ospreys and eagles but they are indeed a useful part of the ecosystem. A maintenance worker at Flamingo said he has come to appreciate the role they serve. When an alligator was killed along the main road a few months ago, he pulled it off the road and natures clean-up crew quickly took over.Within two days, they’d picked the gator clean from the inside, he said.These are the cleanest roads in America.

When we returned to the parking lot all the vultures were gone. More and more visitors had started to arrive including a Chinese family with two young boys about three and six years old who were kicking the tires of a mobile camper with the energy of lumberjacks chopping down a tree. Vultures aren’t the only things to be careful of at Christmas time.

Little Havana

Posted in: Blog- Nov 16, 2012 No Comments

Julia Tuttle, who convinced Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to Miami in 1896, believed that Miami would one day be a great city for international trade. It’s hard to imagine she could have envisioned the path it would ultimately follow but she clearly realized Miami’s potential. Miami’s metamorphosis from parochial tourist town to international city was unexpectedly hastened by political events in Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista. Many Batista supporters escaped to Miami and as Castro’s communist intentions became clearer, thousands of Cubans followed. Upon their arrival in the US they were welcomed as political exiles, freedom fighters, and allies in the ideological Cold War with Russia. These reluctant expats realistically expected a short exile in Miami until Castro would be deposed and they’d return to their beloved Cuba. But as geopolitics erased that possibility, many settled in the modest neighborhoods west of downtown and Little Havana was born.

Cubans had an overwhelming influence on Miami, a city that was ripe for cultural fertilization in the 1960s. Along with music, literature, food and arts they brought political savvy, business acumen and an incredible shared sense of identity called Cubanidad. From banker to truck driver, cigar roller to politician there is an unwavering allegiance to their Cuban roots that has allowed them to succeed spectacularly as Americans without surrendering their Cuban identity. To experience this cultural phenomenon one only needs to take a short trip to where it all started.

Some visitors to Little Havana have expectations of Old Havana, colonial architecture, and scenes of life as it was on the island. What they find are middle class neighborhoods from the 1920s and 30s with Bungalow, Mission, Art Deco and a large number of distressing, uninspired post war buildings along a very busy street called Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street). It’s not particularly quaint or charming and many tourists take a quick photo and move on. What a mistake.

Take your time when you visit. Notice the hand-painted murals, Spanish language signs, Cuban flags and monuments to fallen heroes who fought for Cuban independence. Sit for a while, watch and listen to dominoes mix with animated conversations of men arguing politics, the news of the day and the last unfortunate domino played. Order a coffee at a walk up window and enjoy the conversation with the waitress who speaks even less English than you speak Spanish. Buy a guyabera to add to your wardrobe. Stop in a music store and find a Benny More CD to listen to on the drive home. Visit a cigar shop, breathe in the strong aromas, watch a master roll a cigar and learn about the poetry and process of cigar making. Have a meal in Exquisito or El Pub and order Arroz con Pollo or Cuban Pot Roast enjoyed just the way it’s served. Memories of pre Castro Cuba are devotedly preserved in an important library and art collection at Cuba Ocho, there is live Cuban music at Hoy Como Ayer and Kimbara Cumbara and everywhere are people who know the pain of Castro’s prisons, have lost loved ones in this 50 year war of attrition and have started to fear that the country they once loved may no longer exist.

Once with a group of African visitors we heard a Cuban Rumba in the air and were compelled to shake something. An elderly Cuban gent stopped to demo his own moves and then a guy carrying a Chihuahua meandered over to shake his thing. No words were spoken but with gestures and smiles no words were necessary. If you bring your sense of discovery and take the time to listen it won’t matter if you can speak a word of Spanish or dance a single step.

Polly Lux de Hirsch Meyer

Posted in: Blog- Oct 16, 2012 No Comments

The sun moved above the horizon, a small group of ibis poked around in the wet grass and green parrots chirped in the coconut palms overhead. Homeless residents of the park worked hard to sleep for a just few more minutes while Nikes tapped past their heads on early morning jogs. Cafes on Ocean Drive served the first customers of the day and a small group of tourists in Lummus Park studied the architecture in the warm morning light. They were curious about how so many buildings were built during the Great Depression when by all accounts it seemed everyone in America was broke. And what had happened to all the buildings that were here before the deco buildings The answer was part weather, part economics, industrial design, social trends, capitalism and a group of individuals who built something that had survived beyond all expectation and continues today to shape 21st century Miami Beach today.

In the 1930s Miami Beach was full of opportunity for anyone with the means and the confidence to act. Miami Beach had suffered a double dose of trauma with a major hurricane in 1926 followed by the stock market crash in ’29 providing a one-two punch that first wrecked the city and then ruined the financial ability to rebuild it. But from 1935 to 1941 a group of relatively unknown architects and opportunistic businessmen collaborated to produce hundreds of new buildings with a sleek modern look that re-defined Miami Beach and re-launched the tourist industry. Today these buildings comprise the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world and the district itself has become a cultural icon synonymous with South Beach. So who were these intrepid entrepreneurs with the means and the courage to rebuild Miami Beach?  One of them was Polly Lux de Hirsch Meyer, a trailblazing woman whose life embodied the American experience of the 20th century and whose creativity, adventurous spirit and generosity shaped her life and touched the lives of countless others.

Born in Pittsburg in 1900, Pauline Lux, or Polly as she preferred, dropped out of grade school, found her way to New York City and utilizing her god-given assets, became a model, actress and Zigfield Follies showgirl. She quit show business and opened the Lux Shop, a lingerie boutique on Broadway, marketing some of her own designs. She sold the business and moved to Miami Beach in 1934 with her mother and brother and began a career as a hotel owner, landlord and builder. Polly Lux became the first licensed woman building contractor in Florida and only the second woman in the United States to become such. She founded Lux Construction and was responsible for dozens of properties on Miami Beach including the Majestic and Imperial hotels on Ocean Drive, the Trianon on Collins Avenue and the Royal on Washington Avenue. She established a reputation as a smart business woman with reliable wit and disarming feminine charm. She married the love of her life, Baron de Hirsch Meyer, an attorney, banker, businessman and city council member and together enjoyed great success. They then used their fortune to benefit philanthropic causes in the community donating over $40 million dollars to notable local institutions including Jackson Memorial Hospital, the University of Miami, Camillus House, St. Patrick’s Church and Mt. Sinai Hospital where the main tower of the hospital is named for them. Polly Lux de Hirsch Meyer died in 1998, just one year short of witnessing every day of the 20th century.

It’s natural for people to overlook the everyday beauty of ibis poking around in the grass and sunlight reflecting off buildings when they’re surrounded by it every day but how sad that they don’t have the tourist’s curiosity. The things they could learn about this marvelous place that attracted them here once upon a time and provides such a colorful backdrop for their everyday lives. And they could learn about the people who came before them who set the stage for their moment in the sun. And thank those like Polly Lux de Hirsh Meyer who worked to serve the community and inspire us to serve those who will surely follow us.

A Stroll Along the Miami River

Posted in: Blog- Aug 16, 2012 No Comments

In some ways Miami is beginning to mature as a city for the very first time. Gone is the narrow parochial image of a southern city at the end of the world where they raise alligators and oranges, and where old people go to retire. Miami’s new image is energetic and sophisticated, with a blend of international commerce, cultural diversity, informal lifestyle, and perpetual warm weather that makes the rest of the world seriously consider relocation.

Befitting the city’s evolution has been the re-emergence of downtown with a brilliant new skyline, museums, public transportation, and thousands of new residents who long for urban living. But beautiful as it is, there is little evidence of the historic events that created Miami and that is truly unfortunate.

If you’re one of the many who has never actually walked downtown, then a short stroll where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay will deliver you to the spot where Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, African slaves and resolute pioneers once walked before you. Driving in your car doesn’t count. You need your feet to touch the street. You can start anywhere, but let?s assume you start in Bayfront Park in front of the Intercontinental Hotel.

Bayfront Park opened in 1925 when Miami was in the midst of the great real estate boom of the 20s. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to speak to a crowd of 4000 people during the Great Depression, while lurking in the crowd was a disgruntled Italian anarchist named Guiseppe Zangara carrying a 32 caliber pistol. Moments after Roosevelt concluded his remarks, six shots rang out wounding five people including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermack. Roosevelt was unharmed but when Cermak died three weeks later Zangara was executed in the electric chair just thirty five days after the shooting. An unrepentant Zangara cursed and raged against the capitalists to the end. A plaque commemorating the event can be found in the park.

Walk along the water past the Intercontinental to the mouth of the river where the Miami Riverwalk begins. A monumental blue sculpture “The Lady of Miami” is Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrie’s double-headed god that speaks to paradox and perhaps the existential contradiction of exile. At the other end of the walk is Cuban artist Jose Bedia’s sculpture “Dueños de las Estrellas” with the silhouettes of a woman, a man and a soaring bird staring optimistically skyward.  Today you might see manatees or dolphins swim by or a couple of tug boats guide a ship up river but take time to witness the significance of this most hallowed spot in Miami history.

This was the site of Miami’s earliest settlements.  Indigenous people called Tequesta lived here 1700 years ago. After the Spanish arrived in the 1500s they established a small mission on the north side of the river. The United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821, a slave plantation occupied the site in 1830 and later FortDallas was built where the Hyatt Hotel stands today. In the 1870s pioneers like William and Mary Brickell and Julia Tuttle built homes and trading posts on the river laying the groundwork for Henry Flagler to bring the railroad in 1896. Flagler transformed the frontier into a city and chose this very site to build his magnificent Royal Palm Hotel with 400 rooms and a sweeping veranda, the length of two football fields. Sadly all evidence of these early events is gone with the single exception of the Miami Circle on the south side of the river.

Walk across the Brickell AvenueBridge, past the carved bronze Tequesta column, and down to the small park at the waters edge where the Miami Circle is preserved.  The Circle is a 2000 year old archaeological artifact carved into the limestone that marks the presence of the Tequesta Indians on this spot around the time of the Roman Empire.

Admire the natural beauty of this place, imagine those who came before, and contemplate the confluence of events that led to this moment in downtown Miami.  Miami is infinitely more interesting when the ghosts of history aren’t completely overshadowed by skyscrapers…  interesting enough to even get out of the car.