Photographer: Christina Mendenhall/Bloomberg

Miami's Ever-Changing Role in American Culture And Economy: Q&A

While long-time residents of Miami are well experienced with the havoc that hurricane season can wreak, many people who now call the city home will be facing the tropical winds for the first time. Since Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of the city in 1992, Miami has undergone an unprecedented transformation into a financial and cultural capital that has drawn new residents from across the world.

To get a better sense about Miami’s recent boom and place in history, Bloomberg News spoke to Paul George, a history professor at Miami Dade College who has been studying Miami’s history for more than 40 years.

Q: How has Miami evolved since the last major hurricane?

A: Somebody once said that when you write Miami history you need to write it in short sentences because it’s changing so rapidly. And that is really true. It has long been an ever-changing city but the changes in the last 50 years, and over the last 10 years, have been just earth shaking. Becoming the huge Hispanic unofficial capital of the region is the biggest thing that’s driven it, in terms everything. Culturally, the last ten years have been amazing. Financially, the seeds for where we are today as a banking center, as an import-export area, as just a general financial center, the seeds for that were planted with the influx of Cubans in a large way in the ’60s.

Q: What have been the biggest drivers of the recent cultural boom?

A: The cultural thing is really fascinating, because the conventional wisdom as recently as 20 years ago was that Miami was a cultural wasteland. And then all of a sudden all these pieces of the puzzle came together, which is not surprising because it really was a metropolis population-wise. And the infusion of so many different cultures that came here. But it really took American entrepreneurship with guys like Tony Goldman with the Art Deco district and especially with Wynwood. Putting the arts center where it was downtown, and bringing in some pretty high-powered architects and art directors which made it more inviting for artists to come down here and to work. And it just began to flower, and then when Art Basel in the early ’00s made its move to open up a branch here in early December every year, that just really pushed it ahead.

Q: In addition to the big influx of people from Latin America, Miami has also seemed to attract a lot of New Yorkers. Is this a recent phenomena?

A: Time Magazine in a 1940 issue characterized South Beach - which wasn’t called South Beach then - as South Brooklyn. And the whole area had come on to this New York thing as late as the beginning of ’60s. There was a special on what was then called WTVJ about the tremendous influx of New Yorkers into the area and how that you could almost call this south New York. What’s happened in recent times is that Miami has become super attractive to people, a very compelling place. The art scene, the athletic scene with professional sports in particular, but also the condominium scene has made it much more attractive to New Yorkers, to New Jerseyites to Philadelphians than had been the case for the long time.

Q: With Hurricane Irma approaching, do you think the city is better prepared than it was when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of the city in 1992?

A: I remember I was doing a tour of Coconut Grove with some insurance executives back in about 2003 or 2004. I asked one guy: What if Andrew had hit downtown Miami? He said, well, it would have put a lot of carries out of business and downtown would have been closed for years.

Q: If Irma does end up being a devastating storm, could this slow the city’s recent momentum?

A: I think its better positioned to recover now because of certain building standards and precautionary measures that are being taken much earlier. If you look around, people have been buying up water a week out for this hurricane, which is extraordinary. Yet, it will take a certain amount of time to rebuild. The big question would be if people have enough faith in Miami and its future given the fact that other hurricanes could come to want to continue to come and invest. And that’s a big question that’s kind of hard to answer. But I think as time goes by they probably would.

Q: Do you think most of the people clearing out of the city are new to the city? Will those who have been here for longer stick around?

A: I would think a lot of them are probably relatively new arrivals. The old timers - there’s not a lot of us left here anymore - but the old timers, we’ll hunker down. We’ve been through this before, and that’s not bravado. I’m scared to death. But I’d rather stay here because I’m probably going to need to do things. I’m not sure what good it’s going to be up in Atlanta when my house has been beat up.

Q: How unusual is Miami’s history in the greater context of the country?

A: It’s an exotic history. It’s atypical of the American story. We live in the sub-tropics and we’ve been driven by things that have happened south of us for a long time. The conventional conversation among Miami old timers is can you believe the way this place is changing? Can you believe we now have the third most dense skyline in the United States?

(Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.)

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