Iliveinacity: Pastelongreencanvas

March 2, 2007

I live in a city, yes I do, made by human hands.
–Malvina Reynolds

Come witness remarkable moments in the great cities we call home and the people who made them. First in a series.

I. Straight Lines and Waves

Theres something about flying into Miami on a sunny day when the brilliant color lures the eye downward. Approaching from the sea, the arriving passenger marvels at the sight of undulating, cobalt-blue ocean surface fading to lime-green at the shoreline.

By night, the eye's gaze is drawn instead toward the horizon by a seemingly endless expanse of lights from streets and highways. Among them, scarcely a curve can be found in this flat nighttime landscape etched from the grand plans of city founders and financiers.

How you see Miami just depends on when and where you choose to look

II. The Picture Conceived

They had traveled together to south Florida in 1875 as husband and wife to visit her father at his 40-acre orange grove. Her husband died eleven years later, leaving her his metal foundry. Then, in 1891, she inherited her fathers land as well. Florida must have seemed such a world away from Cleveland. But her ties had been cut. And so, after selling her late husbands business and purchasing another 640 acres of Miami River land from the proceeds, the 43-year-old widow began a new life by the remote shores of Biscayne Bay.

Most of us might be all too happy owning so much land in a rural, tropical corner of America and living a quiet life there. But Julia Tuttle instead envisioned a city, and this would-be metropolis needed a connection to the rest of the world. Of course, one obstacle lay in the way: The Everglades

Henry Plants railroad ended at Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico, separated from Tuttles dream city by hundreds of miles of the great wetlands expanse. But Henry Flaglers East Coast Railroad would do, if only she could persuade him to extend it from West Palm Beach. Then fate intervened

III. Orange Blossom Still-Life

It was cold weather that gave birth to Miami.

Popular legend holds that the widow sent Mr. Flagler an orange blossom by mail to show how her land, eighty miles to the south, had escaped the great freeze of 1895. What she actually sent were crates of fruit, and she sweetened the deal by offering him land in exchange for the railroad connection.

The line extension was completed in all of fourteen months. Three months after that, a new city was chartered.

While Julia Tuttle had managed to realize her dream in very little time, she had little of it to spare: She died not long after Miamis founding, at the age of fifty. But her legacy was to transcend the fleeting brevity of a human lifetime.

IV. Drawing a Seascape

When Carl G. Fisher first conceived Miami Beach, a resort town dredged from bay islands and mangrove swamp, he scarcely could have imagined that over seventy percent of its inhabitants would someday be Jews. One of the many developers who prospered from south Floridas real estate boom in the early 1920s, he refused to sell land to most Hebrews. Like its mainland counterpart, the young bayside city was strictly segregated, and Jews were restricted to the southern end of the island, the area now known as South Beach.

In later decades, even as older hotels still sported signs reading No dogs or Jews, pioneering Jewish architects and developers like Ben Novack and Morris Lapidus began to develop landmark hotels with equally memorable names: Fontainbleau, Eden Roc, Deauville, Doral, and Carillon. The restrictions slowly disappeared.

V. Color Schemes

Ida Ellen Johnson first arrived by steamship from Key West in 1903 with her three-year-old son, Samuel. The Bahamian mother, like the many immigrants who would follow her, surely carried ambitions less grandiose than those of Tuttle, Fisher, Novack, or Lapidus. The family settled in Overtown, near Flaglers railroad line, a district then popularly known as Colored Town. The tracks that had first connected the community with the world also served to divide it…

Samuel Hensdale Johnson would become one of the first African-American physicians in Miami. He was the first of Ida Johnsons seven children, all of whom would receive a college education. Little could his mother have known the role she too would play in the shaping of a community whose barriers to opportunity would also be slow to fade.

VI. The Portrait that Emerges

The singular story of each founder, financier, land developer and immigrant is just another American clich. In sum total, these stories are precisely how an American city called Miami has emerged on a centurys canvas. Still unfinished, this portrait remains yet to be painted in the pastel-colored brush-strokes of a million lives to come.

[ Chronicles of a town in motion ]

[ No burden for shoulders so big ]

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