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Miami's Metamorphosis From Fishnets to Glitter

In its centennial year, the city celebrates its fascinating past and newfound resurgence

Most people wouldn't link Miami with history. But the Magic City's centennial this Sunday marks a record-setting makeover of a mosquito-ridden swamp into the now-glittering Gateway to the Americas.

A huge birthday party at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami celebrates the occasion, kicked off back in January at the centennial-themed Orange Bowl parade. In February, 1,000 guests dressed in 1896 attire danced the night away in the parking lot where Miami's first grand hotel, the Royal Palm, once stood.

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"I've always said that in Miami, you can't just be a historian - you have to be a missionary," says Arva Moore Parks, historian, author, and co-chair of Miami Centennial '96. "You have to convert people to the idea that Miami has a history."

A variety of people

In fact, Miami's past is fascinating, spanning back as far as 10,000 years to paleolithic Indians and wooly mammoths, and including Tequesta Indians, Spanish conquistadors, Seminole Indians and runaway slaves, British loyalists, Bahamian fishermen, Southern planters, Yankees, Chinese and Jewish merchants, African-American laborers, and Cuban exiles. The variety of people that made up Miami increased exponentially each year to become the polyglot of today.

Modern Miami got its start when Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway down from Palm Beach in 1896. He built the Royal Palm Hotel on an ancient Tequesta Indian burial mound, simultaneously making history and destroying it - a deed that has become something of a theme in the city's build-it-quick, tear-it-down tradition.

Ever since, speculators and sybarites have chased fantasies in the subtropical burg. But the carefully planted, palm-tree-heavy landscape familiar to tourists is a complete fabrication. Miami the "tropical paradise" replaced a totally different landscape of pinelands and hardwood forests.

The narrow coastal ridge on which the older part of the city was built was populated mostly by panthers, deer, crocodiles, alligators, and mosquitoes. Pioneers fished, hunted, farmed, and made turpentine out of the pine trees and starch out of the root of the fern-like comptie plant.

They were also shipwreckers, thanks to groundings on the treacherous reef. Settlement was sparse: With a shallow bay on one side and the trackless Everglades on the other, the future Miami's coastline was once almost completely fortified by impenetrable stands of coastal mangrove trees.

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Only after it was cleared, dredged, and drained was the area fit for habitation by a large number of people. From the late 1800s on, adjustments were made to the natural environment that rivaled those in the Netherlands in scope.

Though Miami's warm climate initially attracted visitors and new residents, the hot and humid summers discouraged year-round living on a large scale. The most important innovation of all, air conditioning, helped make it become the popular city that it is today.

Geography transformed Miami from a fishing village into a major urban center, with banking, commerce, and tourism as the mainstays of the economy. Merrett Stierheim, chairman of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, "It's amazing that for a city so young, we have established ourselves very strongly in the international scene."

The dark side of the sun

Tremendous growth has come with a price. Mayhem has traditionally stuck like glue to the capital of boom and bust, what with shady real estate schemes, liquor smuggling during Prohibition, and outlaws like Al Capone setting up house. Much of Miami's allure hinges on the worldwide notion that things are more mysterious, exotic, and decadent here than anywhere else.

But the events of the early 1980s were not glamorous, and they sent the city reeling. A Rodney King-like race riot; the Mariel boatlift of thousands of Cubans, including convicted criminals; and a sunken boatload of Haitians who washed ashore in front of exclusive hotels and rampant drug-smuggling activities inspired Time magazine to write a cover story entitled, "Paradise Lost?" The violently stylish television series, "Miami Vice," cemented the city's lurid renown.

Coupled with its tradition of disaster is Miami's resilience. Hurricanes are the clearest example of setbacks that, like earthquakes, reinforce the will to survive and even prosper in the path of nature's fury. After the 1926 hurricane, which destroyed Miami Beach and much of downtown, Miami's Depression started early as investors pulled out and scores of people left.

In only a few years, though, the city bounced back, ahead of the rest of the country. In 1992, hurricane Andrew brought out the same spirit of camaraderie and strength under pressure. With that kind of refusal to back down, it's not surprising that tourism has increased 7 percent since the tourist murders of 1993.

"After several challenging years of tourism promotion in Miami, visitation is on the resurgence," says Philip Blumberg, vice chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. "The city has been galvanized to confront the issue of tourist crime."

Through safety initiatives like better highway signs and increased security, crimes against tourists have decreased by 75 percent. "We are a major international city," says Mayco Villafana, director of Communications for the Chamber of Commerce. "We know we will never reduce the number to zero."

Heritage tourism

While "sun and fun" remain Miami's calling card, unique features of the city have been drawing visitors from all over the world. The most popular attraction in recent years is Miami Beach's Art Deco District, the National Register of Historic Places' first 20th century designation. Small, eccentrically detailed pastel hotels built during the Depression and their street-level restaurants and night clubs make for picturesque nightlife.

Other architecturally interesting locales are Coral Gables, one of the country's first planned communities, built in the 1920s. Anchored by the extravagant Biltmore Hotel, which provides historical tours, the "City Beautiful" is predominantly Mediterranean in design. Its streets have ornamental gates, fountains, and liberal plantings of beautiful live oak and royal poinciana trees.

Coconut Grove is the oldest part of the city, predating Flagler's instant railroad community by 20 years and retaining its old-school charm. The Barnacle State Historic Site, a naturally air-conditioned home of native Dade County Pine, was designed by a boat builder and illustrates the way things used to be in the unhurried days when boats were the only way to travel.

History can be found in Miami for those willing to look. The Historical Museum of South Florida has a permanent exhibit, and dozens of exhibits and special events are taking place this centennial year. "There's been a traditional sun-and-surf, fun-and-games view of Miami that's part of a kind of bias," says Arva Moore Parks.

"Miami's centennial gives us a chance to show our history before the '80s, which were the beginning of our so-called tainted reputation," says historian Cesar Becerra, publisher of The Miamian, a weekly newsletter. "What people see on TV is Miami at its worst, which is not necessarily the way it really is."

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