'80s Miami Life
The city and metro area were run, through the 1970s and 1980s, largely by corruption and greed, and marked by violence related to one main issue: drugs. These crimes were often perpetrated by native Cubans or Columbians.
Many people remember the Mariel boat lift (1980), when Cuba sent thousands of its criminals and prisoners to America, as a signal that crime was only bound to get worse.
Later in Miami
Normal, law-abiding families took cover in place, or moved out of the county, north to Broward or Palm Beach. My own aunt and uncle left Homestead for Davie, and then for Hobe Sound, before settling in Orlando.
The violence of that era was just too much—exemplified by the bold and indiscriminate shooting at Dadeland mall in Kendall, perpetrated by two rival drug trafficking gangs both traveling in heavily armored and stocked “war wagons.” It was the quintessential public event that spelled serious trouble for South Florida.
That environment is hard to imagine now, with the city and metro area largely cleaned and scrubbed for the 21st century. Miami makes more headlines now thanks to celebrity real estate than cartel-fueled crime stats. Its poverty and murder rates are squarely average now.
I’ve always been fascinated by South Florida. Compared to Tampa Bay, it is younger but has grown faster, is tied to global issues more than regional ones, and always manages to one-up its Floridian counterparts with drama. When I searched flickr for “miami + drama,” most of what I received were screen captures from shows like Dexter and CSI.
The area has a popular culture brand recognition that is comparable to Los Angeles and Chicago, and in many ways, other global cities like Hong Kong and Sydney.
There is simply more of everything in Miami, tangible and intangible. More development, more people, more congestion. More shopping. Take a look.
And through its history, it has been set against a serene backdrop: waterways, islands, mangroves, beaches, and wildlife; tropical living at its most accessible.
I wanted to get in the Miami mindset, so I watched a classic movie about the cocaine trade: Scarface (1983).
What a bloody mess that film is. In summary: Al Pacino shoots everyone, and a babyfaced Michelle Pfeiffer looks amazing in 80s fashion.
I sat through its violence with gruesome fascination; the next day I ordered a handful of used books on the subject: Miami: Mistress of the Americas, The Cocaine Wars, and Miami Babylon.
The first book reads like an urban studies text, building from the ancient Tequesta indian settlements on the Miami River, to the central theme of the city’s development over the last 100 years: transience. If you think about it, it makes sense.
So few people are from Miami, and if they are, they don’t live there any longer. Many of its major early stakeholders were only seasonal residents (like Henry Flagler), and that holds true today. Most of its present demographics are dominated by mobile, upper-middle-class young people and foreign nationals with multiple residences.
From its origins as a vacation spot for wealthy or retiring Northerners, to its dubbing as the second largest city in Cuba, it has evolved rapidly, never fully gaining a stable political or long-term agenda. At least until very recently.
The second book digs into the gritty, seedy details of the drug business in Miami, which was its primary industry for many years.
With miles of uncontrolled waterfront, it became a logical entry point for South American marijuana and cocaine, often via the Bahamas. The trade and network of distribution was cultivated by cohorts of the Colombian cartel, as well as by Cubans and other local players, eager to get a piece of the ridiculously good profits.
And for those, they battled over turf. A lot. See: Griselda Blanco.
At some point, they stopped caring about collateral damage, and went after whoever they wanted, including cops, prosecutors, and of course, rivals’ families.
A corollary to the drug trade was the rise in wealth of the region, laundered through secondary and tertiary professionals, like attorneys, bankers, and accountants. Luxury and high-end goods and services had no trouble prospering during a time the rest of the American economy was severely depressed.
I can only imagine 1981 Bal Harbour glamour.
Pervasive corruption of hundreds of local politicians and government officials added to the area’s rap sheet, to the horror of the rest of the country.
These phenomena devastated the efforts effectively clean up the area; few locals had any incentive to do so, for risk of losing out on the cash bonanza, or for fear of their lives.
Both books are a great read, and leave me wanting to see and learn more. I plan to start Babylon this weekend.
Aside from these stories, Miami had other pertinent, unique issues too, like the draining and development of the Everglades and the burgeoning LGBT community. Few other places afforded relative safety for gay men like South Beach. Few other places have as defined a barrier between urban and wilderness areas as Broward and Miami-Dade County have, on their western edges.
All of this was going on around the time I was born (1987). Being in comparatively quiet Tampa, little was spoken of Miami, other than that it was known as a dangerous city.
My first time there was at age 10, and we stayed on the island of Miami Beach exclusively. My impression of the town was built solely on the lobby of the Delano Hotel, and blocks surrounding it.
I loved the art-deco design and countless roller-bladers in Daisy-Dukes. And everything was so white.
If you lived through the time, I imagine it was a blur of bombshells and scandals. Depressing evening news reports…incredulous conversations around the water cooler.
As long as you weren’t a target, why not observe a real-life Tarantino movie?
One of the most damning accounts of life in Miami came out in TIME magazine in 1981. Titled “Paradise Lost?”, the question mark was mostly rhetorical: Miami was murder capital of the country. The trends of time illustrated two parallel images: sun & fun, and death.
The video in the blog post is great, too. It’s a clip from Cocaine Cowboys (2006), a documentary that tells similar stories but from a slightly different angle, one of the traffickers themselves, who neither sourced or sold the drugs, just transported them between Colombia and the US.
My friend Randy grew up in the 1970s and 80s of North Miami Beach, and he recounted the casual attitude most took toward drug use.
“Everyone had mirrored coffee tables and necklaces with little vials on them.”
I don’t mean to glamorize the time—clearly most residents weren’t having fun. Nonetheless, hindsight shows that it was a rare environment of clashing cultures.
And, though other forces were in play, much of the city’s current infrastructure can be attributed to that time. Whether or not you appreciate its role in American Intercontinental history, Miami certainly held adrenaline-inducing records and titles in the 80s.
For these reasons, I would make it a stop on my time travel itinerary.