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A Red Light in Miami

Post #1719 • August 21, 2014, 3:54 PM • 1 Comment

[Image: It is a silly place.]

It is a silly place.

There's a stretch of Third Avenue in Miami that extends southward from Downtown to a bend that turns it into Bird Road. A wide median between the northbound and southbound lanes is lined with banyans, which drop roots from their branches that over time turn into trunks, forming lush canopies unto themselves. It's a beautiful drive. Unfortunately, one evening in 2005, I was trying to drive across it, not along it.

The light turned green. I rolled forward. A southbound car running the red light missed my front bumper by six inches. At the same time, a northbound car on the other side of the street running the red light the other way swerved to avoid the driver coming into the intersection and landed in one of those lovely medians, ripping up the grass as he stopped a few feet short of whacking a banyan. In the flurry of automotive mayhem a thought flashed brightly through my mind: I don't want to die here!

Here, in this case, was Miami.

Recently a New York Times essay by Pamela Druckerman, who left Miami for Paris, characterized her former city in less-than-kind terms. While acknowledging some improvements since her expatriation, such as its buzzing new arts scene and some thinkers scattered around town, she concludes:

...I struggled to have conversations that weren’t about real estate or consumption. There was a lot of pleasure in Miami, but not enough surprising interactions and ideas. Miami may one day be the city for normal-looking people with semi-intellectual aspirations and a mild social conscience. But it’s not there yet.

I have a friend who divides her time between Dorchester and Miami Beach. She was the lone soul I knew in Boston when I moved here in '06. She also told me almost exactly the same thing ten years ago. She used to work in catering, and when she did jobs up here, her fellow prep cooks and waitrons passed time with conversations about the state of the world and their artistic projects—this one was working on a novel, that one was a flamenco dancer, and so on. When she did the same gigs down in Miami, her coworkers would chat about clubbing. And only clubbing. When she admitted to them that she wasn't into clubbing, they made her a pariah.

Nevertheless, outraged Miamians leaped to defend the city from Druckerman's rather mild criticisms. A pseudonymous blogger described her as the self-hating Miami woman who recently wrote a xenophobic smack down of her hometown in the New York Times. Kyle Munzenrieder called it stunningly inept, if not downright classist. Carmen Pelaez doubled down on the xenophobia accusation. All of these missed the point in some way, but Rebecca Fishman Lipsey missed it spectacularly:

Many tease Miami for being a city devoid of intellectual power. Aside from being completely asinine, that is rooted in a very old-fashioned understanding of what a strong education system is all about. In the previous century, perhaps a city's educational prowess could be measured by the number of elite universities it housed. In an era where the democratization of information is happening faster than universities can catch up, the number of PHDs in a city just isn't as lustrous as the likelihood that everyone can achieve opportunities. ... Instead of taking jabs at our intellect, perhaps others in the nation should take cues from our educational leadership.

The point missed here is that a city's intellectual presence relies on the existence of a culture that nurtures curiosity and values the discussion of ideas based on their merits. The outrage expressed above is what moves into the intellectual vacuum in Miami. This isn't true of other non-intellectual cities I've been in, such as Honolulu, which radiates a gentle vibe. It has nothing to do with how many ivy-clad, centuries-old colleges you have in town, and everything to do with how entitled you feel to your views about this and that. Miamians are some of the most entitlement-saturated people on earth, and boy, are they angry.

The kind of abuse that was hurled at me for writing critically about local artistic darlings like Hernan Bas or Bert Rodriguez (now based in Detroit and Los Angeles, respectively; go figure) was consistently surprising as well as amusing. It was as if the hot winds of vented viscera picked up some loose words along the way and blew them in my direction. Some of them emanated from professional writers. But it wasn't just over my art writing. There was a woman in Miami whom I loved as a friend and went through a certain amount of trouble to support as an artist. Her reaction to this post (oh, how man plans, and God laughs) was to deface the top of a stack of cards left out at a gallery with some scrawled rudeness. She then harangued me about all the racists in western Massachusetts (I had let on that I was thinking of moving to Boston, in eastern Massachusetts) and to this day I don't really know what her objection was.

I connected with other like minds as best I could, and continue to enjoy friendships with quite a few Miamians considering how long I've been gone. The circles I ran in down there were really la crème and I miss those people terribly. But the longer I remained, the less home felt like home. Leading an intellectual life in Miami is like trying to be an observant Jew at a pig roast. You may figure out how to get along, but you'll never quite fit in. You'll be the guy eating the coleslaw while the pork gets passed around.

That said, I live somewhere about which Paul Graham said,

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. ... What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

This is true. Shortly after I moved here I was having lunch at a local bakery. A young man came in to chat with the guy working the counter, and in five minutes their conversation had turned to supercomputing and protein folding. A few weeks ago I attended a talk about teaching programming languages that took place in a park on the waterfront, where I went up to pet a woman's Newfoundland and learned in conversation with her that she had helped invent the Scratch programming language.

In Boston, if I want to learn how to program a Raspberry Pi controller, I can take a class at Artisan's Asylum. In Miami, the Linux café just shut down.

In Boston, we have an Institute of Contemporary Art with an active, respectable program and tons of community support. In Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art has closed amid lawsuits and squabbling, and the staff plans to reopen in the Design District as, get this, the Institute of Contemporary Art.

In Miami, I had a neighbor who used to walk his idiotic and badly trained Shar Pei by my fence for the purpose of siccing him on my cats. In Boston, my neighbors leave candy on my doorstep on Valentine's Day, Easter, and Christmas. For that matter, I have more ethnic, gender, and religious diversity within a thousand feet of my house than I used to have in my entire ZIP code in Shenandoah (and despite my erstwhile friend's suspicions about me, I love it).

A few years ago I got rear-ended on the BU Bridge, and I'm now friends with the faulted driver—he actually just tried to set me up with a teaching gig last week. Intellectual life isn't just about having some cultural organizations to point to, but maintaining a mental view positioned on the mountain of reality rather than in the ditch.

I believe Druckerman when she said that she wanted to fall for Miami. I did too, and I tried a lot harder and for a lot longer than she did. Also, I had a better shot at it. As a painter, I can tell you that the light of South Florida is unlike any outside of the Greek islands. She mentions Camming Con and the bathing-suit fashion week as net minuses, and I think that sort of stuff is hilarious. When I had a studio on Lincoln Road, I used to watch old Cuban guys pedal adult tricycles around with a radio tuned to a salsa station and some coconuts gathered from the street in the basket. They flirted hopelessly with girls who laughed and called them abuelito. I think that is a genius way to spend your old age.

But this fall in Boston is going to be amazing. In two weeks I'm taking my students to a talk on Javascript art. Not long after that is the Boston Festival of Independent Games. Herbie Hancock is headlining the Boston Book Festival, I'm tabling at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, I have tickets to Pamplemoose, there's major Calder show coming to the Peabody Essex, and I'm forgetting a half dozen other things.

So ask yourself, Miamians: What message does your city send? Truly? I think it's this: Run that red light, it doesn't apply to you. And in that, Druckerman isn't altogether wrong.



John Link

August 21, 2014, 5:56 PM

This is just damn interesting to read. Thanks.



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