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Will Miami Transform America—Or America Miami?

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Will Miami Transform America—Or America Miami?

10 Blocks podcast March 18, 2022
The Social Order
Cities
Politics and law

Writers Oliver Wiseman and Alex Perez join Theodore Kupfer to discuss the cultural geography of Miami, how the city became an economic magnet for disaffected urbanites during the pandemic, and whether Miami will pave the way for a politically competitive urban future or become a victim of its own success.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Teddy Kupfer, an associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today are Olly Wiseman and Alex Perez. Olly is a freelance writer and reporter living in Washington, D.C. Alex is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Both of them have written for City Journal before, and today we're going to talk about Miami: where Alex lives and where Oliver went to write a story for our new print issue. Oliver and Alex, thank you very much for joining me.

Olly Wiseman: Good to be here.

Teddy Kupfer: I haven't been to Miami in a while, but I have to say I'm jealous of you both for being lucky enough to have spent some time there. Not only is it obviously a gorgeous place with great weather, food, and architecture, but it's a fascinating city whose political, cultural, and business climate have been the subject of much national commentary, especially since the pandemic. I mentioned Oliver's story in our print issue, and that was actually part of a two-article feature, with the other by Daniel Tenreiro. So let me begin with a general question: Why do you think Miami is getting so much attention these days?

Olly Wiseman: Well, I guess I'll jump in on that one, Teddy. I think there are a couple of reasons. Miami has really captured the national imagination over the pandemic. And I think the biggest reason is the pandemic, because Florida has become this avatar for an alternative to the blue-state, blue-city lockdowns, and the heavy approach to the pandemic. Miami is the most culturally salient city in Florida. So I guess part of it is that.

What I went to report on for you guys, though, was a little more focused on the electoral politics in and around the city. Florida has gone from a swing state to something approaching a red state, or sort of taken on a reddish hue. And that's really because of massive swings towards the Republican Party in Miami, which is this bulwark against Democratic gains in the state. Which I think is interesting and touches on this broader theme that is of real national importance: the question of Hispanic voters, and why they are not necessarily acting in the way that many Democrats, especially, hoped and predicted and assumed that they would.

Teddy Kupfer: Alex, I'm curious your reaction to that as somebody who lives in Miami and experienced the pandemic from the city. What has it been like? And as somebody who's in tune, I think it's fair to say, with the Hispanic community down there, why do you think this has been the political trend?

Alex Perez: Early in the pandemic, it was about one month, in March and April, that we actually shut down. And then after that, Miami opened up. It wasn't because of any political reason, any resistance to lockdown. It's just because the city probably couldn't sustain itself with the lockdown. Locals were just going to go out and have fun and party and do the Miami thing. Initially, that was the big draw for the blue-state, lockdown people: they came to Miami and Florida only because it was here. Early on, especially, there wasn't some political angle to it.

Now that we're about a couple years in, I'll be very curious to see how it plays out. I have so many friends prior to the pandemic that moved to Miami, in their twenties and thirties, and they were here for a couple years. After time elapsed, it was a question of, okay, this little honeymoon is over, and it stopped being a paradise. Now Miami is a city. I'm very curious to see if they can deal with the actual nuts and bolts of the city now that they've been here longer. When Miami was open, folks got a taste for that tropical Hispanic element that Miami has. But I'm curious to see if they can actually deal with the real Miami that I think now is starting to show itself.

Teddy Kupfer: What is the real Miami that these people are now beginning to experience?

Alex Perez: I think in the early pandemic, it was just, Miami's open. So they were able to escape locked-down cities and states. But now that the rest of the country is opening up, or is already open, before they were comparing Miami to their locked-down states. They're going to encounter things that maybe early on they thought was cute, whether all the Spanish, or some of the bad service you get at restaurants, these little tropical things that are kind of cute at first. So many of the folks that are in town came initially, were living downtown, in the Gables, some of these spots around town that you're in your little world that you don't really encounter so much of the blue-collar stuff.

But I think once they spend more time in Miami and then encroach in those blue-collar areas that it's already happening. I think that's the main question. Can they deal with it? And when I talk to regular locals who don't really know too much what's happening, if I ask them, basically, do you think they're going to stay, it's always, no. They can't deal with Miami. And I'm not sure if they're right, but I'm leaning toward that. So to me, it's a question, are they going to stay long enough to actually transform Miami and push out some of the locals? Or is Miami going to push them out before that can happen? And we're going to get to that juncture here pretty soon. We're kind of there already.

Teddy Kupfer: As I see it, Miami is a contrarian place. It's a major driver of three important trends that seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about the future of the United States. First, obviously, is the city's political trajectory. As Hispanics in Miami pulled the lever for Republicans, Florida, as Olly put it in his article is, "growing less white and more conservative." And that challenges the sort of emerging-democratic-majority thesis, according to which the diversification of America would deliver enduring electoral advantages for Democrats. The second trend, I think, is the city's business scene. And so, led by mayor Francis Suarez and a group of exiles from New York and the Bay Area who came down in 2020 and 2021, Miami is seeking to become a hub, self-consciously trying to draw and attract the innovative and disruptive businesses over which those areas currently have a duopoly, whether it's tech or finance. And then the third trend is the city's attitude toward freedom. Americans have been asked to submit to the dictates of the public-health bureaucracy, but Alex, as you mentioned, besides March and April, Miami really hasn't seen mass mandates or significant lockdowns. And while Florida does depend in large part on government provision of healthcare, it's also an exceptionally free state in terms of taxes, regulations, gun rights.

As I look at these three trends, I wonder if you think they're related. Does Miami represent a counterweight to a society that's grown decreasingly tolerant of risk—whether you define risk as voting Republican or starting a cryptocurrency business or going clubbing during a pandemic? And if that's the case, what are the cultural roots of this swashbuckling, risk-friendly spirit?

Alex Perez: I think if you were a young person back in the heyday of America, you would go west. Go west, young man. Before the pandemic, we'd lost that vibe, that feeling. You have all the young people who are regimented and follow orders. But the pandemic shook everything up so much that it did wake up this spirit in some people. But obviously, you can't go west anymore. So Miami became that spot. And the mayor realized this, and people started to come here.

One reason is that there isn't any concept of wokeness. When I read about Miami, writers have to use those words, but there isn't any concept of that here. If you're a young person trying to escape those ideas and you go to other major cities, you still will encounter those concepts. In Miami it's very, very hard to find somebody who knows what that is. Unless they're a small little sect of people who are adjacent to indie bookstores, that kind of thing. That's a very small group of people. If you really want to escape that woke thing that's been happening, you'd come to a place where it isn't even a factor. It's very hard to go to a working-class bar or restaurant in Miami and even speak English, sometimes, so you're not going to encounter that.

That was one of the major draws and obviously that aligns with the tech scene as well: they want that freedom to operate on the fringes, on the margins. And Miami's known as a place where if you want, you can walk that thread between legality and illegality. All these people want a space where they can operate in this non-American way, but still be part of the American mainland.

Olly Wiseman: I think there's a couple things in there that are interesting. You talk about wokeness, Alex. The title of my piece for City Journal, which was a quote from someone I spoke to about the city, was, "The Least Woke City in America." And obviously that might seem surprising, according to a certain set of assumptions about wokeness, given how diverse Miami is. But of course it's exactly because of Miami's diversity that it's so unwoke, right? One of the really powerful things Miami has become, and actually maybe this is underdeveloped in the national imagination about the city, is this way in which when somewhere is that diverse and has that many different communities with different national backgrounds, not necessarily racially—race isn't really the issue here, it's country of origin, right? Miami is this really powerful counter example to the default-left view that the world is best understood as a coalition of non-white, non-male, non-straight people, against this monolithic sort of whiteness. And in Miami, there's just such diversity that that just seems nonsensical. It seems like an unrealistic and strange way to view the world.

To bring that back to everyday retail politics, I spoke to a lot of Republican activists in and around the city. When you talk about different demographic groups in politics, there's a tendency to talk about—you go to a panel discussion in D.C. about Hispanic voters for example, and everyone on the panel will say, the first thing you need to understand is that these voters are not a monolith. There's a range of views here. And then they proceed to talk about the group as a monolith, and talk about a block of voters with the same set of priorities. One of the things I think that, on a retail politics level, has been very effective down here is this understanding that different groups have different priorities. Everyone is treated as an individual and as an American citizen by a Republican activists, but also there's a sensitivity to the specific national- and community-level concerns, which on the Democratic side involve big assumptions about what people of color would think about a given issue. That's an important aspect to the political dynamic in the city. And that's why there's been some better performance for the Republican party.

Teddy Kupfer: I'm curious what creates this distance between Miami and the rest of the U.S. Is it the city's different cultural memory? Of course, for the population of Cuban-Americans who came in the twentieth century, revolution and communism aren't distant relics of the past, but things that have happened relatively recently. Is it the geography of being tropical? It's a place where spending your time having fun isn't frowned upon—maybe that puts a damper on the sort of careerism that you see in other Eastern Seaboard cities. How much of a role do these factors play in the city's unique character?

Alex Perez: A good way of describing Miami is when there's a massive hurricane coming, there's a massive storm coming in, and you know it's coming probably to Miami, and you watch it. Days pass, a week passes, and it's getting closer. And everybody will tell you, "Oh no, don't worry. It's not coming. It's not coming." Then you see the map and this massive storm is on top of Miami. At the possible last second, people will start to finally prepare for the storm. And still, when it's about to hit us, everybody says, "Oh, don't worry. It's not going to hit us." And thankfully, most of the time, it doesn't hit us.

That ethos is probably the actual ethos of the entire city. We have our own little world, and even natural forces are not going to knock us off the orbit. Miami is so insular in and of itself that even just a hurricane will not knock us off the orbit. If you ask a local, "Are you from Florida?" They'll say, "No, I'm from Miami." I think it comes from that, we're this little tiny place here on the tip of the country, that's kind of its own little world.

When you mix all these different people and you put them together, it's really hard to create some flattened place. So much of modern politics or ideologies are about creating this flattened place or view of things, so we can understand them. Here in Miami, it's impossible to create a flattened place because there's just so many different people. Even Cubans are all different. You have Cubans that came early in the sixties, others that came recently. And those people even fight sometimes. It's really impossible to create this flattened locale here. I think it can't happen. That's the main reason why you have this attitude.

Olly Wiseman: We've boxed around this a little bit, but one issue here too is that the way we're talking and thinking about Miami is also partly a reflection of how the rest of the country has changed as well. Because the interesting paradox—and Alex has explained some of this to me, I spoke to him for my piece and he has written about it as wel—but the joke about Miami was that it was like a foreign city even though it was in America. Yet somehow the changes in the rest of the country have conspired to make Miami feel more American than America, as it were.

You really feel that here. There's a combination of that dynamism that we see with some of the economic developments and business developments in the city and, also, I would add to that a kind of unapologetic and unabashed patriotism and confidence in the American dream and so on. That is really a flavor that you can't not taste when you're in the city. And on that note too, there's actually an interesting contrast to draw. The Hispanic, Republican voter in Miami feels very different to the voter who may still be wearing the same red cap, shall we say, but is a Rust Belt Trump voter, who we think of as a sort of left-behind victim of globalization disillusioned with the American dream.

You could broaden it out a bit. There's an interesting dichotomy of the Sun Belt-versus-Rust Belt modes of conservatism. Miami and Florida are generally the best example of the Sun Belt version of that, if you see what I mean.

Teddy Kupfer: I want to know a little bit more about the cultural geography of the city. It's obviously a very ethnically diverse place. To me, the Cuban presence seems to render our national obsession with black-white divides almost irrelevant. Miami also has an evolving economy with plenty of service and healthcare workers. You mention this blue-collar orbit, but it also has a burgeoning circle of fintech entrepreneurs. There are retirees, but there are also people who go clubbing several nights a week. And as you've noted on Twitter before, there is also an art scene whose politics would sometimes seem more at home in Manhattan or Seattle, in one of these deeper-blue cities where educational credentials still carry lots of cache. So with all of these contrasts, how can a city like Miami develop a coherent spirit? Or do you think it's this multiplicity, this interaction among all these different groups that helps define Miami?

Alex Perez: I think right now that's the question. Can Miami come together and cohere? And if it coheres, will it lose that Miami thing that makes it Miami? And now for the first time, we're starting to see some of those outside groups that came into town in the pandemic crash up against more of the locals. Because now recently in the last few months, rents have been shooting up, not just in cool parts of town, but now also out in western Miami. If I would've asked a local seven, eight months ago, "Do you think they're going to stay? Or do you care about them?" They're like, "No, they're going to leave. They're not bothering us." But now that newcomers are starting to encroach and the rents are going up in parts of town that aren't really considered the hipper parts of Miami, now it's the first time that one might say there is going to be some battle for the soul of the city.

Hialeah is a part of town that's heavily Cuban, heavily blue-collar. If you go to Hialeah, there's basically no English, you're basically almost in Cuba. Recently, this new development is coming into Hialeah, this new luxury apartment. The rents are going to start at $2000 in a neighborhood where they'd go for $850 prior to the pandemic. That was the first time I think that locals really actually woke up to the changing city. Now I'll talk to buddies of mine who are having to move. They had to pay two grand for an apartment, but now it's going to four grand all of a sudden. Are newcomers going to stay? I think more are going to stay than I thought earlier on. I could have sworn that, by now, we'd be seeing some of the outsiders leave, but now they're actually planting roots and they're going to try to make it happen in Miami.

That's good in a sense, because I think the city can use some of that new energy. But it's obviously going to be difficult for people who've been in town for a very long time. They're going to be pushed out of the neighborhoods. I never thought that would happen in Miami or, if it did, I thought it would've happened 20 years from now. But the pandemic obviously just accelerated so much.

Olly Wiseman: When I was doing the reporting for this piece, I went back and read some of the newspaper clips from when the first waves of Cuban refugees came over, about half a century ago now. And it's very funny to go and read, and it's an interesting reminder of how the city has changed and continues to change. You basically have these reports from the New York Times saying, Could you imagine anything weirder than Cuban refugees from communism pitching up in Miami, this playground of kings? What a strange thought. And now that's just what we think of when we think of Miami. So the Miami we know and are talking about now is pretty young. As Alex says, it's a very open question sort of where the city goes next.

Alex Perez: It's funny because my dad came from Cuba—I think was it 1970. That was not very long ago, but he talks of those days like it was some golden age of silence and peace. So yeah, Miami's been changing very, very fast. So what's happening now is still Part I, I guess, of the beginning of that Miami. But if you talk to my dad, he'd tell you about how you could just bike around. There was nobody here. There were still all the white people. It was quiet. He loved it. And now he's amazed by what's happening now because it's happening so fast. But it is still pretty early here in Miami's history.

Teddy Kupfer: So Olly, you became deeply familiar with the city's recent political trajectory while reporting your story. Not only did Donald Trump double his vote count in Miami-Dade County between 2016 and 2020, but the city seems to be at the vanguard of a national trend in which the Hispanic vote, as you mentioned, is increasingly up for grabs. This is obviously a hugely consequential story as far as American elections are concerned. But I wonder what else it says about the future of urban politics in America. In certain senses, Miami is a special case. It has a weak mayor/council system, so Suarez's power is circumscribed. And the city encompasses an unusually small portion of the broader metro area. But Miami has managed the vanishingly rare feat of being a major city with cultural cache that is also politically competitive. So what lessons does Miami hold for the country's political future: both for national politics, but also for Americans who have been failed by urban misgovernance in blue cities?

Olly Wiseman: So I think there's a couple things to say. Firstly, I think it's important to remember in our conversation, if we haven't explicitly pointed it out yet, that Miami-Dade still voted for Joe Biden. So it's not a red city. But the point is that it is a lot redder than most cities, right, which are our deepest blue. It's just important to add that caveat, before we get too carried away with Republicanism in big cities.

To observe the dynamic here in the city and then compare it to the rest of the country, one interesting thing is that here, there's a big Republican family. Suarez is at the moderate end of the spectrum. And then there's a far more conservative end of the spectrum too. To go back to that Florida-versus-Ohio comparison, for whatever reason, the family rows within the Republican Party down here just don't seem to be as bad-blooded and winner-take-all as the family rows in, say, the Rust Belt. That's partly because these parties are built around community ties rather than just a straight battle of socioeconomic interests. I don't think I got to the bottom of that mystery in my piece, but I think it's an interesting dynamic.

And then the broader thing to say about the lessons for the rest of the sort of urban politics nationwide is this. The complacent Democrat might look at Miami and basically just say, Cubans have their hangups about the Bay of Pigs invasion and communism, so Florida's going to be tough for us. But I think one of the lessons—and this goes back to my point about not treating Hispanic voters, or any voters, really, as these homogenous blocks, and making woke assumptions about voters of color—is that every community has their hangups. Every sub-set of Americans, however you slice and dice the population, has the same sort of stuff that the Cubans have about their old country's history.

If Republicans can take lessons from somewhere like Miami, first, to actually take these cities seriously, treat them like they're places where they can pick up some votes; and if they can provide a sharp contrast with a Democratic Party that goes to this default setting in which coalitions of people of color all have the same interests at heart, and can instead speak to people in a far more realistic and down-to-earth way: then I think it'd be very risky for Democrats to just think cities are always going to be blue.

Alex Perez: So much of the reason that the Hispanics and Cubans have shifted has to do strictly because of the failures of the Democratic Party. It's not necessarily anything that the Republicans have done. So I'd be curious if the Right can capitalize. So much is based on this resistance that Hispanics and the Cubans have to this identity politics and wokeness that they might not know was around two years ago. A year from now, two years from now, how will Republicans actually talk to Hispanics?

Olly Wiseman: It's definitely true there's a risk of Republicans over-interpreting what's already happened, and seeing this as a done deal rather than an opportunity. I think you can easily lose sight of the headline numbers. It's not like every Hispanic American is a Republican all of a sudden. But while I agree with you nationally about this is a reaction to democratic politics, Miami is the exception. The big difference is that Miami, because of its history, had a Republican establishment in the city that had not been completely hollowed out in the way New York's Republican Party infrastructure has. In Miami, party activists in the city could maximize that opportunity in a way that I think we did see in the results in the last election.

Teddy Kupfer: Well, struggling to capitalize on the gains made in opposition has been one of the enduring challenges of American conservatism. So on that note, thank you very much, Olly and Alex, for joining me. Listeners, don't forget to check out Olly and Alex's work on the City Journal website. We will link to their author pages in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_MI. Alex and Olly are both on Twitter as well, and we will link to those too. And as always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a five star rating on iTunes. Alex and Olly, thank you very much for joining me.

Olly Wiseman: Thanks Teddy.

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Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

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