Sunday, December 26, 2010


People who have never been to Florida often think that as soon as you cross into Florida from Georgia or Alabama palm trees and flamingos will greet you. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to see palm trees—you are likely never to see flamingos in the wild—you need to be in the Southern half of the state where the climate is tropical. I grew up and lived my young adult life on the Gulf Coast in the Sunshine State and never did I see a flamingo outside of some type of animal park where they were held in captivity. Perhaps you can see wild flamingos in the Everglades or in Florida’s southern tip but mostly the only place you see them is in captivity.

Miami is rife with green foliage. Deciduous trees—the kind that lose their leaves in the fall—are not found in the tropical climate of Miami. This means that even in December foliage is lush and green. In fact, before there were people in Miami, there was jungle. Palm trees abound in the Miami area, and there are many types. My favorites are royal palms, the tall ones with the smooth trunks and the large fronds swaying in the breeze. Some sources claim that there are 27 different species of palm tree that grow in the wild in Florida. There are palm trees that grow dates and others that grow coconuts. Some types produce hard round orange seeds, each about the size of a walnut. 

 I took this picture from my hotel window. I'm on the 19th floor, You can see the palm trees below.

 I took this picture from my hotel room. If you click on it you can see the swimming pool on the roof. Can you go swimming in December where you live?
 I know the names of MOST of the tropical plants in Florida, but the name of this one escapes me.

Everywhere you look you see green, green, and more green.

The first people to live in the Miami area were Indians. They gave the land the name, Miami, “the river with the fresh water” … its waters emanate from Lake Okeechobee to the east. Then, in the early 1500s the Spanish arrived, notably Juan Ponce de Leon who searched in vain for the Fountain of Youth. He believed that the high humidity would keep people forever young. It is he who named the land Pascua Florida, Spanish for Flowery Easter. Because of extensive Spanish exploration, many places in the United States have Spanish names. In fact, Spanish was spoken in most places that became the United States settled by Europeans prior to England gaining control the majority of the land. Had the English not settled in New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York, and then spread far and wide, we might all be Spanish speakers today. And if the Europeans had not displaced the Indians living here when the Europeans arrived, who knows which native language would be spoken today. In Miami, 65% of the total population can be classed as Hispanic, with 34% emanating from Cuba. The population is 5,000,000 so you should be able to derive just how many people here speak Spanish as well as how many have ties to Cuba.

 This fellow is Juan Ponce de Leon. The artist had to guess what he looked like because no pictures of him exist.

 This is a monument to the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon thought he found in Florida.

There was a real estate boom in Florida in the 1920s but it was short lived. When people realized how hot and humid the place is especially in July and August, few wanted to live here. Once air conditioning was developed for home use, people began to flock to Florida. When I was a child, nothing was air-conditioned, not even the grocery stores! I well remember when air conditioning came to my hometown. I couldn’t get enough of it. My friends and I begged to run errands for our mothers to the supermarket because it was the first place to be air-conditioned. None of my schools was air-conditioned and this included college. We had strict dress codes, too. Girls had to wear dresses or skirts below their knees and boys had to wear button-up shirts tucked into their pants, and belts were required. No shorts, T-shirts, or sundresses were allowed. Can you imagine that today?

Highway US 1, one of the first US highways, parallels I-95, and stretches from Key West, Florida to Maine and then into Canada. In the 1920s when the US highway road system was laid out, US 1 was designated to follow the Fall Line, the border between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Piedmont Region. It was in the 1920s that the US highway system was built to replace inferior highways and to serve the major population centers of the time.

This is a sign for US 1. Notice it is shaped like a shield like all US highways.
A bit earlier, in about 1919, the United States planned the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3000-mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the USA. It runs along the Eastern Seaboard and around the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. It allows boats a free circumnavigation route along the eastern part of the United States. This important waterway borders Miami to the east. Boats are important wherever there are large bodies of water, and Miami is no exception. The International Boat Show held at the Miami Convention Center each February is the largest boat show in the world. 

 Intracoastal Waterway--Miami

Miami is divided into many neighborhoods—Coconut Grove (called the American Riviera), South Beach, Little Havana, Brickell, Coral Gables, Biscayne Bay, etc. In all there are more than fifty defined areas, though some are more famous than others. Many wealthy people reside here including several celebrities: Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, the Bee Gees, Lenny Kravitz, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ricky Martin, among others. Other celebrities have homes here but do not reside here year round. Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony is one famous couple with a mansion in Miami. Donald Trump’s Miami home contains 40 bedrooms! Miami is also known for the many movies and TV shows filmed here.

These two Coconut Grove houses cost more than a million dollars each.

South Beach is an important area of Miami. It has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world. The Art Deco movement originated in Paris, France in the 1920s, but there is more Art Deco architecture in Miami than anywhere else. There are 17 blocks of this architecture in South Beach, an area that was completed in 1935.

These two Art Deco buildings can be seen in Miami Beach.

Little Havana is another important neighborhood in Miami. When Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba in 1959, the rich people of Cuba believed they had the most to lose. So, they fled to Florida in droves. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba and forbid Americans from traveling there. Havana is the capital of Cuba, so the Cuban immigrants named the area of Miami where they settled Little Havana just like the Dutch named New Amsterdam after their home city in Holland and the English named New York after York, England. (If you moved to a new planet, you might name places after where you live.)

My trip co-planner, Brendan, suggested great places for me to visit while in Miami. One of his ideas was for me to visit Little Havana, particularly Calle Ocho (Spanish for 8th Street) to see the Walkway of the Stars. Much like the Hollywood Walk of the Starts, this one features famous Cuban entertainers.
 Maria Conchita Alonso's star

Can you figure out what the Spanish means? Some signs are in "Spanglish" which is a mixture of Spanish and English.

When I was a child, we used to go to Ybor (ee-bor) City in Tampa where I would watch the old Cuban men hand roll cigars. These old men had come over from Cuba after the Spanish-American War. Today in Little Havana, I watched a woman hand rolling cigars. Many cigar smokers love Cuban cigars, but they are illegal in the United States, so ones made here in the same way as in Cuba are also popular. 

  Did you know that cigars are rolled by hand?

 A tribute to a Cuban cultural tradition, tobacco and cigar making

A favorite pastime of many Miami Cubans is to play dominoes. At a park in Little Havana I took photos of groups of people all very serious about the game they were playing. You can see some of them in the photo below.

 Playing dominoes in a park in Little Havana

Another important neighborhood in Miami is “Little Bahamas” which is the first black community established in the 1880s. At that time men came to Miami to work in the mansions of the wealthy people who had settled here. The oldest cemetery in Miami is in this neighborhood as is the oldest African American church, which dates to 1895.
 This house in Little Bahamas is what I call and "old style" Florida house, the kind built during the early days. The front porch was where you sat to try to get cool during the summer heat.

 This is a much newer Little Bahamas house.

This is the oldest cemetery in Miami.

What is the name of Miami’s professional basketball team? The Miami Heat? Look at the pictures of plant life in Miami on December 26th. Does your town look like this or are your trees bare of leaves? What does this tell you about Miami’s climate? Now, can you figure out how the basketball team got its name?

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