Friday, January 1, 2010

A Very Short History of a Very Short History

Coral Gables City Hall
I always thought of South Florida as a place that worships the new—sleek new buildings, fancy new cars, new gated communities. And I thought of the people who live in South Florida as old—retirees wanting to spend their "golden" years in the sunshine state. Since I began spending time in Miami, though, I've been pleasantly surprised to find myself living in a vibrant part of the state with no more retirees than other parts of the country. And I've been struck by the pride that residents take in preserving their history.

Just to the north of Miami, in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, older people do make up a larger proportion of the population. But the demographic of Miami-Dade County  resembles that of other metropolitan areas—families, young professionals, empty nesters, retirees, and college students. The number of local colleges and universities has also surprised me. I knew about the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, but I had never heard of Florida International University before moving here. Nor did I know about Miami Dade College, which educates 170,000 students on eight campuses, making it the largest institution of higher education in the United States.

Until the twentieth century, little development took place in Florida. Large-scale building started in Coral Gables during the 1920s and in Miami Beach during the 1930s. I hadn't expected people to cherish buildings erected so recently, but I was wrong. The very lack of a long history seems to have made those places with any historical significance all the more important to residents.

My first revelation was South Beach, where preservation efforts in the 1980s led to restoration of the marvelous Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture that make the neighborhood distinctive. Since then, I've grown to love Coral Gables, known to its residents as the City Beautiful, which was developed during the land boom of the 1920s by a local entrepreneur, George Merrick. The Gables' achitecture is almost entirely Mediterranean Revival Style and the character of the community is rigorously safeguarded by its Historical Resources Department.

In Miami-Dade County, where so much is so new, residents take their history surprisingly seriously and work hard to preserve it. The effort not only creates a sense of connection to Florida's past but provides the area with beautiful and interesting neighborhoods.

N.B. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Tequesta Indians inhabited the area now known as Miami-Dade for a thousand years.

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