Welcome to Miami

‘Having climbed halfway up a lamppost, a homeless guy in a pink skirt and a low-cut white blouse starts to hump it’

Immigration Modern Life North America Satire Urbanism

Many of us write about Miami. Tom Wolfe’s new novel (working title Back to Blood) is set in the city as he has pronounced Miami “the city where America’s future has arrived first”.

It’s no discredit to him that he lags behind several British writers, myself and Irvine Welsh included (he is getting on a bit). Indeed, it’s heartening that the master trend-spotter has endorsed our presentiment that Miami is undergoing a strange and fascinating efflorescence.

So, what does the future look like? At the moment, mostly quiet. Miami and Florida were at the forefront of the property boom and now there are several patches of towering condos that are so ugly they could have been built only during an era of unbridled construction and whose lack of light at night shouts out vacancy. If you want a bolthole in the sun, now is the time to buy.

One area that is always lively, however, is South Beach. Having climbed halfway up a lamppost, a homeless guy in a pink skirt and a low-cut white blouse, starts to hump it, earning cheers from onlookers (I don’t think he was a transvestite, as I saw him later sporting a demure tracksuit – he was just shaking things up a little).

Walking around Lincoln Road on New Year’s Eve, I found no evidence of economic disaster. On the contrary, the crowds and the commerce were such that I reflected that while Malthus might have been wrong about the number of people our planet could support, it’s much more pertinent to ask whether it’s worth living with such numbers.

The most American of cities in its extreme contrasts, Miami is at the same time the most un-American in that it has more immigrants than anywhere else. The fittest and the fattest are all on display on Miami Beach, and you don’t need the official figures to know that the greatest income discrepancy in the US is to be found here. Miami Beach is a magnet for the European and Latin American mega-rich but also the veteran panhandlers of the US. Lamborghinis lazily weave around vagrants whose bodily odour could be classed as a weapon.

This contrast exists in New York or Los Angeles, but not as sharply as in South Beach, where on Lincoln Road the models and the polo-players are channelled against those whose last meal was foraged from a bin. South Beach has New York’s sass and rudeness, it has a dash of LA’s superficiality and it can match St Tropez’s love of opulence, but above all it is a lesson in transience.

There is always a bar, restaurant or a hotel of the month in New York or LA, but there fashion is only a ribbon in a maelstrom of other life. South Beach is a large village, where vogue counts for nearly all. This is a place where a pizzeria will trumpet its establishment ten years ago as if that puts it on a footing with Westminster Abbey.

A hotel can be renovated at a cost of hundreds of millions, but it will be the target of serious cool-gatherers for only a year or two at best. It’s an amusing game, watching how the hipness hops around the beach. This season there is a tug-of-war between the Gansevoort South (which has a shark tank in its lobby, although the shark is tiny) and The Fontainebleau, which reputedly had a billion-dollar primping (this is where James Bond had the poker game with Goldfinger).

Miami has its own writers, too. This is a city where crime pays. It’s unsurprising, given the cocaine industry and the continuing tradition of senseless violence and murder (although rarely on the well-policed South Beach), that Miami has many thriller and noir writers such as former private eye Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Vicki Hendricks, Les Standiford and the reclusive lord of darkness, Thomas “Hannibal” Harris.

The biggest book fair in the US takes place in Miami. It has a thriving cultural life. In the ’70s, it was a very sleepy retirement town. Now, it hosts the Art Basel fair every December, the largest contemporary art bash in the US, and this has produced an archipelago of art dealers throughout the city and an explosion of homegrown talent.

However, the Wynwood Art District (a very neat marketing trick) and the nearby Design District have lots of new buildings, either empty or eerily quiet. Waiting. Waiting for people and money. Will they come?

The current fiscal misery has iced Miami’s growth. Its history is one of spectacular boom and bust, but the question is this: is the present stagnation just a hiccup? Will the city continue its recent prodigious enrichment to truly rival LA or New York, or will it sink into Monaco-dom, and just be an affluent, glitzy resort?

Either way, I find it ironic that Lincoln Road (which you might argue has also become the most popular haunt in all Miami) is the most European chunk of the city: an area where a car is a nuisance, where everything you want is just a stroll away.