Life

Why The ‘Other’ Miami Might Just Be The Coolest City In The Nation


A city’s brand is always less about what’s actual and more about what’s imagined. It’s a collaborative recipe — made with a dash of history, a twist of bad habits, and a pinch of pop culture. It all depends on who’s crafting the narrative. Some cities are known as progressive havens, others love to be defined by their sports teams, and a brave few still cling to fantasies about the “American heartland” and whatever Hallmark paint-by-numbers portrait makes their town seem the most idyllic.

This goes the opposite direction, too. Cities get labeled as “crime infested” or “corrupt” or “backwards.” Sometimes these splashy stories reflect reality; sometimes they don’t. Think about what your town or city is known for and consider if it’s actually true or not.

For the city of Miami, its most recognizable #brand goes back at least 25 years. It’s a warm weather paradise where escapism rules and excess is celebrated. The clubs, the parties, the chic hotels… It’s the American Riviera where guys with unbuttoned shirts pour bottles of expensive champagne on the decks of sports boats. It’s vice. It’s wild.

If you’re really looking for those things, you can probably find them. But the “other” Miami is a functioning city in which the majority of the people get up and go to school or work, just like anywhere else. People aren’t always cruising Collins Avenue; sometimes they’re just in line at Trader Joe’s. Slowly, the Miami brand has changed to accommodate the city’s broader horizons. As evidenced by the fact that these days, the city is often first thought of as home to art shows.

Miami’s modern cultural renaissance got its start way back in the ‘80s when philanthropic dollars poured in as a way to change the city’s drug-fueled narrative. In the years since, the area has slowly built a creative community, one that differs from other cities in a distinct way: This era’s buzzword du jour, diversity, is already baked into Miami’s ethos and doesn’t have to be outsourced or rushed into existence. Miami and its surrounding cities and towns are home to a potent mix of local and international artists. Many of them with Caribbean, Latin American and even West African influences. Coupled with warm weather and a vibrant nightlife, the area has become a draw for those with eclectic taste. Whether you’re a painter or a sculptor, architect or photographer, a performer or something else entirely, there’s a place for you.

So don’t fret if you missed Art Basel this year. The city is teeming with places to go and things to see. You just have to be willing to leave South Beach.

Attractions

For me, the perfect Miami trip starts with The Perez Art Museum . The first thing you notice is the location. The Perez sits on Biscayne Bay, where dolphins and manatees regularly swim by. Just in case you forgot, even for a second, that you’re basically in the tropics.

The museum feels like a living, breathing art history doctorate course. You will feel challenged and you will see beauty. There’s a concentration of Caribbean and Latin American art on display and collections from people like John Dunkley will stop you in your tracks. Nothing is watered down or made simple. It feels like your favorite artist released an underground album for the fans only and said “screw the radio.” There is no hook, no bridge to sing along to. It’s just power put upon your soul. Even the ways the exhibits are laid out speak volumes. This place isn’t built for those with middling interests in art museums. You’ve been warned.

Also worth mentioning is The Wolfsonian Museum if only for its provocative takes on 20th Century geopolitics. Much of it feels strikingly relevant, almost like an eye wink from the curators. It houses over 180,000 objects and also functions as a research facility in conjunction with Florida International University.

There’s also a vibrant stage community in Miami and facilities such as the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (where I watched the Miami City Ballet perform in all its highly-coordinated glory) produce quality programming in state-of-the-art confines. This isn’t some humble theater where locals are clumsily playing out Macbeth. No, these are top-notch endeavors, and they do everything here from jazz tributes to Broadway shows like The Book Of Mormon to a hip-hop version of The Nutcracker.

It would be negligent if I didn’t’ mention the performances by the Miami Symphony Orchestra at Palm Court in the Design District. Maybe it’s because these performances are held outside, but the energy is so much different from most orchestras. It’s louder than any orchestra I’ve experienced and the instrumentality, seemingly freed from the staid normalcy of some revered musical hall, has an ambitious style to it.

Additionally, for mural lovers, the Wynwood neighborhood has a vast array of sparkling visuals, buoyed a passionate group of local artists. There’s so much to see and many of the murals feel like personal journeys.

Food

Miami’s reputation as a food destination is well deserved. With access to the Atlantic Ocean plus the cattle farmers of South America, the options are plentiful. It’s a hub for global flavor profiles and so it offers a bit of something for everyone. Trying to do a list of the best places feels like a reach, but I will share a few spots that raised my eyebrows.

Lil’ GreenHouse Grill impressed with its updated take on classic American cusisne. Comfort food wasn’t something I necessarily expected. Sure, Miami is technically “the South” but not in that Jesmyn Ward kind of way. Still, this cozy spot has really good energy, a large menu and a friendly staff. Go for the succulent baked mac and cheese and fried chicken, but make sure to return for the veggie burger. Generally, I ignore vegetarian options in places that don’t specialize in it, but this was moist and flavorful and absolutely worthy of the mental slow-clap that I gave it.

The Faena Hotel’s Los Fuegos brings Argentinian flavors in unabashed levels. If you like your food cooked over an open flame and seasoned to perfection, you’ll love it. There’s grouper with cilantro cream, crispy artichoke with garlic and potato puree and about eighteen different kinds of short ribs and waygu strip steak to sample. Everything is good, but I demand you try the tomato soup. You’ve never had better.

With Estefan Kitchen you already know the legendary last name and so of course the music was top-notch. The crowd however, is what really stands out. These people are attractive, like… award show VIP attractive. The kind of place that Rihanna might saunter into and nobody would feel insecure. It has special occasion electricity to it and that was underlined by the several birthday celebrations that I personally witnessed. It should be noted that this restaurant isn’t just some excuse to slap a famous name on a business for profit. It’s obvious that the menu is taken seriously. The food is an intriguing mix of Latin American and Middle Eastern flavors.

Try it all, it doesn’t matter where you start, but please finish with the Pudin De Pan, a rum raisin Cuban bread pudding. It’s so decadently silky that I had to ask the server if he had mistakenly brought cheesecake. He said no, but I’m still not convinced.

Local Insight

Little Havana is famed for its dedication to Cuban traditions and to be amongst the beauty and energy of the neighborhood is absolutely worth your time. Without the constant clicks of smartphone cameras, you might actually believe you’re in the ‘60s.

Other areas such as Overtown and Little Haiti are less known, but no less important in what they bring to the city. What makes Miami great is that everyone throws something into the civic pot and what comes out makes up the engine that keeps everything going. How long that lasts is a point of consternation for many people. As urban renewal projects push further into core city areas, fears of displacement have take over the narrative. As is the case in places like Oakland, Brooklyn and D.C., long-established working class and middle-class neighborhoods face an onslaught of pricey developments.

Gentrification will always be a complicated thing — because it takes home ownership and local traditions, wraps corporate money around them, drenches it all with race and class stuff and then uses fear to light the fuse. Little Haiti’s proximity to Miami’s posh Design District makes it an attractive spot for condo construction. A simple glance in any direction reveals just how many new buildings are coming up in the area. We all know what happens when companies push their way in without the home community finding a way to take advantage of the influx of dollars. The company wins. These areas are flush with local artists—both Little Haiti and Overtown are dotted with several gorgeous murals—and pushing them out will take away from the area’s viability. Developers would be wise to note that communities like these are vital to the social currency of city and there’s no way to replicate them once they disappear.

Supporting these local artists is a great way to ensure their survival. Touring companies like CHAT (Cultural Heritage Alliance Tours) give these talents exposure and financial flexibility. These less publicized parts of town have much to offer visitors who may want to experience the local texture of Miami. Be prepared for things to get deep however. The tour guide’s accompanying stories are fun, but sprinkled with serious bits about Miami’s segregated past.

Lodging

South Florida’s hotel market is extra competitive, so you better have a calling card. You better have something you offer that’s noticeable because eat or be eaten is the unofficial tag line. If you’re staying away from South Beach and hoping to peek behind the curtains of other parts of the city, you’ll find all kinds of options. Here are a couple:

The Sonesta Coconut Grove has a vibe that’s understated, kind of similar to a private retreat. It’s not slick, but if you’re staying in this part of Miami, slick probably isn’t on your radar anyway. However, just because it’s not a fancy boutique doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome. Coconut Grove is centered with close proximity to the University of Miami, the business district, Coral Gables and Key Biscayne. The hotel lobby is smartly decorated with paintings and artwork. The hotel has all the standard amenities plus squash courts (yeah, that’s right, squash isn’t just for 1% percenters anymore). The rooms are spacious and offer killer views in every direction. They also have kitchens. Not kitchenettes, I’m talking legitimate mini-kitchens with a range, microwave and sink. Why? Because people want options, that’s why.

With the money you save by making your own breakfast, you can frequent the many cool shops in the area. Or go check out Shake A Leg Miami, a boat tour company led by two grizzled old men who look like stand-ins for James Brolin. They’ll tell old school stories of Miami’s crazy early years and the gorgeous views will turn your Instagram page into a location cheat sheet for the next South Florida based TV show.

The SLS Brickell is just so cool. This is one of those…”only built for certain kinds of people” spots. It’s not overrun, like some of the beach hotels, or trying to go viral by any means necessary like its competitors. It’s relaxed and the clientele is sophisticated but without the fraudulence you might expect. This isn’t the place where you’ll find a bunch of guys sitting around holding unlit cigars in their mouths. Visitors here are earnest and the hotel staff flows in the same direction. The rooms are ambitiously decorated, with an emphasis on aesthetics. From the artwork on the walls to the balcony overlooking the city skyline to the incredible SAAM Lounge on the 2nd floor — it all works.

I don’t care what you’re in town for, you’ll feel important staying here.

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