MIAMI — I hear the staccato rap of the congas several blocks before I spy the salsa trio and the dancer, dressed in a canary yellow cha-cha-cha costume, who sways back and forth in the doorway. It’s not quite noon, yet brunch is teeming with revelers, several of whom have already imbibed in a twirl with the animated maraca player. I’ve arrived at the Ball & Chain Bar and Lounge in the fabled Little Havana neighborhood. It’s one of America’s legendary clubs, host to Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and, just last night, the Tito Puente Jr. Band. (Full disclosure: I didn’t leave the show until just after 2 a.m.!)
I initially encountered Miami’s cultural mélange a couple of years ago when transferring at Miami International Airport. Walking between gates, I couldn’t help but notice the diversity, coupled with the lively conversation of seemingly everyone who disembarked toward baggage claim. I resolved at that moment to follow this intriguing aggregation of Spanish dialects, Haitian Creole, and other languages onto the Miami streets at a later date. Am I glad I am doing so now!
I spend my first morning in Coconut Grove, a fitting launch point. This historically Bahamian enclave was home to the workers who labored in early Miami fields, built its homes, and provided the critical population mass for the city to incorporate on July 26, 1896. It’s considered the oldest neighborhood in Miami. “Only 300 Americans were living here at the time, and the founders needed twice that number to incorporate,” explains Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism (CHAT) guide Keith Ivory, a third-generation Miamian descended from Georgia sharecroppers who resettled here.
We’re strolling beside the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, named for the wife of E.W.F. Stirrup, a Coconut Grove Bahamian immigrant who became one of America’s first Black millionaires. The cemetery’s partially raised crypts are hardly its only distinction — the densely wooded graveyard inspired Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the most popular music video of all time. Long a cultural and creative enclave, Grove residents have included Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost as well as, more recently, LeBron James and Madonna. The arts remain at the forefront of the district’s current renaissance. The Coconut Grove Arts Festival draws more than 350 artists every February, and each June the Goombay Festival celebrates Bahamian culture.
“This area has always been culturally important,” Ivory explains. “Black performers would play at the white-only clubs, then return to The Grove and stay at the Peacock Inn. Pretty much any Black musician you’ve heard of stayed here at some point.”
Miami’s settlements, Coconut Grove, Little Haiti, and Little Havana in particular, are known well beyond Dade County. Their history represents the promise of America, and their influence stretches across the city, transcending language — Spanish is almost universally spoken here — and ancestry to fashion a marvelous multi-ethnic mural of civility and pride.
The swagger infuses the most familiar of places in the booming metropolis as well. Once an eyesore of failed businesses, Miami’s Bayside Marketplace now bustles with restaurants, boutiques, and an amphitheater hosting live music most weekend nights. This natural performance space, set among boat tour kiosks and souvenir shops, is packed with visitors swaying and dancing to a samba band, the mood as bright as the red lights illuminating the adjacent Freedom Tower, named for its role as processing facility for refugees fleeing the Cuban Revolution.
In the evening I board the Island Queen for the “Full Moon Over Miami River Cruise” with Dr. Paul George, a retired history professor and leading expert on South Florida history. George leads a range of neighborhood walking and boat-based tours throughout the year in association with HistoryMiami Museum, where he is the resident historian. His enthusiasm and knowledge seem inexhaustible — even extending to each of the eight drawbridges we pass under over the course of two hours.
“The Twelfth Avenue Bridge was built with pedestrians in mind as well as cars,” George announces. “Look back as we pass under and you will see the stairs — see there they are — that were really unusual at the time. They gave people access to the riverfront!”
He goes on to explain how the riverfront actually reflects Miami’s economic health even more so than the port, which is among the busiest in the world. “Look at how the sun is setting so beautifully on the Brickell Bridge!” he exclaims. “The sun is definitely not setting on Miami at the moment; every square foot of available property along this river has been purchased by developers. This whole restaurant row was a marine supply warehouse just a couple of years ago.”
Miami’s Bayside Marketplace is packed with visitors swaying and dancing to a samba band, the mood as bright as the red lights illuminating the adjacent Freedom Tower.
As if on cue, a large party yacht passes us en route to mooring outside Garcia’s Seafood Grill and Fish Market, a stalwart dining room from the rusting river yard days that continues to serve what many locals consider the freshest catch in the city. The city lights glisten magically on the gentle current as each bascule bridge broadens like an alligator’s jaw to invite passage toward Biscayne Bay.
Miami cuisine also unfurls as gloriously in this city, a culinary mecca for many of the brightest chefs in the Americas. The cacerolazo, the “banging of pots,” occurs here, not in traditional protest but in celebration of a future where South American spice is blended with the freedom to experiment in the kitchen.
I’m sitting in the atrium at CVI.CHE 105, Lima-born Juan Chipoco’s award-winning downtown seafood restaurant. Señor Chipoco is largely responsible for educating Miamians, and in fact all food-loving Americans, about Peruvian cuisine, specifically ceviche, raw mixed seafood marinated in subtropical flavors such as Chulucanas’ lime juice, Arequipan onions, cilantro, and hot sauces. Like the sushi revolution before it, ceviche continues to change the way home cooks approach raw seafood.
“The Peruvians create the world’s greatest ceviche,” my bartender, a Dominican, tells me, “though don’t say that to an Ecuadorian. And never discuss steak in the presence of an Argentinian or a Brazilian. It won’t end well.”
I had planned to order Pescado a lo Macho (spicy fish wrapped with seafood in a signature cream sauce), but the mixed seafood ceviche more than satisfies my appetite. Sushi has been my desert island meal for decades, but ceviche — citrus-blended squid and shrimp so fresh they perform backflips upon my palate — is definitely gaining ground.
I’m back in the park first thing next morning, this time to walk along the water just beyond already buzzing Bayside Marketplace to Maurice A. Ferré Park (formerly Museum Park), home to the Frost Museum of Science, Pérez Art Museum Miami, and, several times a year, music festivals that draw upward of 50,000 people. The park was established for the American bicentennial but fell into neglect because people were not yet returning to live and play in the Miami city center or in any other urban hubs across the country. Fast forward four decades and the park is bustling with families visiting the science center, couples nestling into giant swinging steel chairs (a sculptural installation, Netscape by Konstantin Grcic) tethered along with hanging gardens from the Pérez Museum roof, and museum goers dining at Verde, the museum’s al fresco restaurant.
“The Peruvians create the world’s greatest ceviche,” my bartender, a Dominican, tells me, “though don’t say that to an Ecuadorian.”
Next, it’s off to Little Haiti, whose focal point is the Little Haiti Cultural Complex (LHCC). Just 15 years after breaking ground, the complex receives more than 100,000 visitors a year drawn to its galleries, Caribbean marketplace, performances, and classes. The LHCC campus includes an art gallery, dance studios, and a community center. The 300-seat Proscenium Theatre and an outdoor stage feature weekly performances from Afro-Caribbean dance troupes and musicians as well as open mic and poetry slam events.
“‘Sounds of Haiti’ brings the entire community out the third Friday of every month,” says Abraham Metellus, LHCC General Manager. He also notes the Complex becomes a major tourist destination during Art Basel, when the collection is guest curated by a Caribbean artist.
Without a doubt, Little Havana,” was Dr. George’s reply when I inquired after his favorite Miami neighborhood. After just a few steps into Calle Ocho, Southwest 8th Street, I see why, the district a sublime and rarely achieved blend of nostalgia and contemporary aesthetics, often within the same space. Here are the elegant and elderly gentlemen playing dominos in Maximo Gomez Park, a 35-year tradition rarely interrupted. (When Hurricane Irma temporarily closed the park in 2017, the players set up folding tables on the adjacent sidewalk to resume their customary play.) Here, too, are the famous cigar shops where novices or connoisseurs can enjoy hand-rolled perfection on premises.
Cuban coffee, arguably the world’s best, also permeates the air. And the scents emanating from Guayab y Chocolate draw me into Futurama, Little Havana’s artist collective that houses 12 artist studios as well as numerous monthly music and art events. Katey Penner’s jazz artists, Fredy Villamil’s cubist portraiture, and Joseph Woodward’s beguiling miniature paintings offer a sampling of artistic accomplishment within the circular studio space.
Later, at Old’s Havana Cuban Bar and Cocina, a bistro bursting with joy as vivid as the yellow walls that surround us, I watch in astonishment as the bartenders set up mojitos the way I might dream of planting tulip bulbs, my garden bloom paling in comparison to the 350-plus rum-based cocktails they prepare on an average weekend night. I claim one mojito while dining on lechón asado, traditional Cuban pork that has marinated for several hours, served with yuca fries and fish croquettes. Somehow two determined couples have found a dance space in the tiny area in front of strumming guitarists. I can easily imagine how the dance “floor,” as it were, often spills past the terrace tables onto the sidewalk.
There’s minimal barrier separating indoors and outside here in Little Havana. Call it the tidal effect, that unseen pull that draws you deeper into the froth.
I always seem to forget, and therefore appreciate more, how enticing the tropical al fresco lifestyle can be. As in Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean, there’s minimal barrier separating indoors and outside here in Little Havana. Call it the tidal effect, that unseen pull that draws you deeper into the froth, in this case an intoxicating culture.
Miami’s rhythm of mambo, cha-cha-cha, and other Caribbean music affects you for days after you experience it. You stand a little taller and add some strut to your step. Your surroundings appear more vivid, canary yellow, say, and yes, your smile stretches a little wider.
Miami itself, like its music, is a thriving cultural fusion that nourishes visitors, immersing them in a multicultural celebration and drawing them always to find the next dance … and the next … and the next.
Writer/photographer Crai S. Bower seeks wilderness and urban adventures wherever he goes, from stalking Komodo dragons in Indonesia to opera, oysters, and street art in Montréal. He lives and writes in Seattle. His exploration of Miami occurred before the outbreak of COVID-19. For more, visit flowingstreammedia.net.
This article is featured in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Dancers in Miami’s “Little Haiti” Neighborhood (Courtesy Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau)