It was nearly 2pm on Saturday in Shanghai. I was still recovering from my crazy week of 36 hrs+ of domestic and international travel - plus cooking and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for 13 people (no jetlag for nasty women) - when I picked up my phone and saw the CNN notification: Castro dead at 90. As the daughter of a Cuban-exile whose Miami-Cuban roots are undeniable (I seriously cringe when I hear myself say certain words - I didn’t realize I had an accent until I left Miami!), a flurry of emotions overcame me. The joy and relief my mother and her cousin must feel; the sadness and regret that my godmother, who died earlier this year, never got to experience this day; a sense of loss that I wasn’t in Miami to join what I knew would be a very loud, ecstatic jubilee…more on that shortly.
While I won’t go further into how I feel about Castro’s death here (friend me on Facebook if you want to know my personal thoughts!), I would like to take this time to talk about what this means for Miami…and place...
For years, my relationship with Miami has been fraught and complicated. Anyone who has ever seen me giving a talk knows Miami takes center stage. I often begin with these remarks:
“This is my hometown - Weh-che-steh (which is the way Cubans pronounce the neighborhood I grew up), Mee-ya-Mee (which is how all Cubans - and Cuban-Americans call Miami) - where my most exhilarating memory is playing an ersatz game of Frogger (that old-school 80s video game where the whole goal is to safely cross a road full of oncoming traffic), as I tight-ropped down pencil-thin sidewalks, dodging cars as I crossed strip-mall lined six-lane highways masquerading as streets, all to get to a chicken Teriyaki sub.”
I go on to paint a distressing picture about Miami’s State of Place:
“This is life”
“This is work”
“This is play”
“This was our best hope for place”
“I always say the best place to find Miami's soul is within a tired strip mall along an otherwise placeless artery at the famous Versailles café.”
“This is the typical scene outside of Versailles Café window – la ventanita – where all the Cubans gather around talking about their heydays on the island.
“I don't blame them. I'd miss this place too. Miamians – Cuban exiles or otherwise – are obviously starving for place; creating it out of whatever they can.”
My personal experience with Miami’s lack of place has everything to do with why I have dedicated my life fighting for - and justifying the need for and benefits of - better places.
Which brings me back to Castro…
After hearing the news of Fidel’s death, I immediately logged onto CNN to watch live video coverage. I knew it was only a matter of time before Cubans spilled over into the streets of Miami - banging pots and pans next to, of course, Versailles and also La Carreta, in my very own “Weh-che-steh.” Despite the lack of true public space, Cubans, as they oft - and are known to - do, persevered and took matters into their own hands. They crafted their own space of expression, even though they lacked a physical place in which to do so. And thankfully, the police - probably many of them Cuban themselves - accommodated the middle-of-the-night revelries, that lasted well into the day Saturday. Of course, one cannot help to see the interesting - more aptly, sad - contrast with Cubans still in the motherland - who do indeed have access to grand public places - but lack the “space” to express themselves (but this is a topic for another post).
But despite the beautiful freedom of expression on display in Miami on Saturday, the lack of public space - true public space - was never more glaring, and disappointing, to me. While this likely did not consciously bother the celebrants, especially on a day they had been waiting for nearly six decades, we - as planners and urban designers - we know better. We failed them. We failed to provide true public space - a cornerstone of our democracy. We failed to do our part in shaping our free Republic. Public spaces have played a critical role in cultural, social, and political expression since the Roman era, serving as spaces for people to exchange both goods and ideas - then and now. During the 2011 Arab Spring, protests sparked all over the middle east, all congregated in large public spaces. In 2013, people took to Taksim Square to protest the government’s plan to pave over adjacent Gezi Park and build (yet another) high end shopping mall.
Despite Miami Cubans' improvisational, "pop-up" public space (whose ingenuity should be applauded - and accommodated - in its own right), the provision - or lack thereof - of true public space is emblematic of a government's support of freedom of speech. The presence - and free use of - of public space demonstrates that a government welcomes and supports public discourse and peaceful demonstrations. Public space is physical prose, clearly communicating that people's voices matter and that they are a part of the political process - not just spectators. Blocking off access to public space or purposely not weaving it into the urban fabric sends the opposite message, and in fact, has historically been a tactic used by authoritarian regimes looking to curb potential uprisings. Now, I am not trying to argue that the lack of public space in Miami - or other cities in the U.S. - is an intentional move to limit freedom of expression. However, we must recognize that providing public space is about more than just improving the built environment; it’s about creating a place that will encourage debate and facilitate civic engagement, which is vital to creating an empowered and informed electorate.
For my part, my laments about Miami often center around its lack of walkability - and the need to drive everywhere. But as we know with State of Place - and was clearly on display Saturday - place is more than just about walkability. Sure, one can argue that walkability - or the aspects of the built environment that facilitate walking, like convenience, safety, and comfort - is a necessary component of successful places, but it alone is not sufficient. Indeed, one of the reasons we offer a breakdown of the State of Place Index is so our customers can better understand the various urban design dimensions - like public spaces - that make up great places as well as easily identify their own assets and needs. And, so that we stop failing our citizens. Everyone should have access to better places. We promise to never stop making the (economic, environmental, health, cultural - and political) case for creating great places. I can only hope that one day I will be able to help shape Miami’s State of Place - and return the favor for having shaped my passion for place (even if it did emerge out of Miami’s lack of - physical - place).
Headline Photo: David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald