Approaching an Impossible City

By N. D. B. Connolly

I sometimes recall a chance conversation from the early 2000s that feels increasingly unreal with every passing year. I can’t remember if it happened at a conference in Tempe, Arizona, or Portland, Maine. I do recollect that I was a graduate student on the very front end of a dissertation, and that my conversation partner, whom I still know pretty well, was an eminent U.S. historian with several books to his name. Owing perhaps to that difference in professional position at the time, my new friend leveled a memorable assertion draped in equally unforgettable confidence. “It’s impossible,” he said, “to write a book-length urban history on Miami.” 

Let’s leave aside the obvious – that, over the last fifteen years, there’ve been several incredible books written about Miami (and, as you read this, still more being written). Circa 2005, his argument felt frighteningly plausible, at least given what scholars tended to assume about archival research and your typical urban history book.

Apparently, by conventional measures, Miami lacked the archives to sustain a monographic “urban history” treatment. Its poorly organized municipal repository offered little. Historical societies were few and under-endowed. Local universities boasted only modest archival holdings. 

And the published record seemed to offer few leads. Certainly, through the 1980s and 1990s, sociologists and political scientists had their go at the city’s ethnic politics.[1] But real “urban history”? Anything worth telling, my colleague assured me, had already been told, and quite ably, in articles by our mutual and now dearly missed friend, the late great Ray Mohl.[2] Indeed, if memory serves, in the early 2000s, Ray might have been the most prominent name urbanists associated with Miami at all. The city boasted no Robert Moses or Jane Jacobs, no equivalent to iconic mayors like Richard J. Daley or Fiorello La Guardia. Without a larger-than-life political figure, Miami was left without its great urban biography.

And what of the landscape itself? “Meh.” What we might consider the standard features of a modern city – urban grids, neighborhood culture, a working municipal bureaucracy – didn’t really emerge until the 1920s. Essentially a child of the twentieth-century, Greater Miami, I was reminded, remained quite young and, presumably, under-documented, especially when compared to cities born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What was Miami placed against the history of New Orleans, New York, or Chicago. And architecture? “Please.” Apart from beachfront Art Deco or, perhaps, an occasional quaint house made from coral rock, the legacy of South Florida’s boom-and-bust built environment approached the sturdiness of papier-mâché

A pasted together pulp of motifs and people borrowed from elsewhere: that was Miami.  My more senior counterpart wished me well, and we parted ways.

Now, there’s an important link between that conversation, my graying memory of it, and the still glittering scholarship on my city. As the richness of this forum attests, there’s little that’s actually impossible about researching Miami. That is, if one knows how to place it. If you approach Miami as if the bulk of its history can be found in one or two major brick-and-mortar archives, you’ll never find the place. If you look for it among consolidated and catalogued papers alone, you’ll never see it. Greater Miami’s a Caribbean city.  It’s history dwells on a series of islands. The Bahamas and Cuba, if you can get there, sure. But Miami’s past also lives on islands separated by social hierarchies, seas of asphalt, and historical practices of residential segregation. 

I argue, in fact, that Greater Miami is perhaps best knowable via “island hopping,” by employing the range of historical methods used by Caribbeanists. The existing urban history library on Miami reveals the value of ethnographic field work, of border crossing, and of understanding Greater Miami as part of – and made from – an archival archipelago. The emergent Miami urban canon of books by John Stuart and John Stack, Melanie Shell-Weiss, Chanelle Rose, Thomas Castillo, Julio Capó, and others have taken the fragments of conventional urban history and completely changed what counts as the history or architecture, labor history, civil rights history, immigration history, queer history, and the history of capitalism. And those many books – young like their city – have prepared a soft and study landing for a parade of new dissertations and monographs in the pipeline, exploring everything from Miami Bass (Alexandra Vazquez) to mass incarceration (Alec Stephens) to climate change (Mario Alejandro Ariza) to Miami’s black diaspora in motion (Sharony Green) and diaspora in print (Donnette Francis). We’re finally getting a project that I’d hoped to write when I first embarked on my own dissertation: metropolitan Miami as an outpost for fresh forms of American imperialism (Emma Shaw Crane). 

The point: Miami’s urban historiography is methodologically promiscuous, mindful of interlocking polities, and, like all good Caribbean work, recognizes that, for almost any story, the very fact of a story being told itself serves a historical fact. And that’s true even if the story be a lie, understatement, exaggeration, or merely, in my case, vaguely remembered.

As I recall, upon returning from Tempe-Portland, I took the announcement of my project’s impossibility back to work. And I continued as I had begun, very much under the influence of Caribbean anthropology. Since at least the 1930s and, especially, from the 1970s on, scholars of Caribbean had unlocked the history of their region by accepting its fragmented and archipelagic geography. They often excavated and assembled links and chains of memories and storytelling that, among Caribbean people, gave historical shape and coherence to the Antilles as a region. Ethnographic work by anthropologists like Zora Neale Hurston, Sidney Mintz, Richard Price, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot proved key for finding my Miami. Each had explored how history gets reproduced in popular narratives. Hurston’s Tell My Horse or Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, Mintz’s Worker in the Cane or Price’s Convict and the Colonel – even now, these stand among a legion of books, too many to mention, that find history first in street conversations, church pews, community theater, or at the dinner table. And often, the ethnographer concerns themselves only belatedly with what brick and mortar archives have to say about any of it. “Pheoby,” writes Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Yuh got tu go there tuh know there.” The ethnographer’s archive is embodied, with the researcher’s own mind and physical person serving as a portal of sorts between parts and wholes.

Scene in African Square Park in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Called “Model City” by the city government, the district was a lightly populated area that grew in the 1930s with the building of Liberty Square, the first such government-subsidized public-housing project in the American South. Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Archival research, for me and many of my fellow Miami urbanists, includes what academic vernacular at one point called “participant observation.” I personally sought out Miami’s history through just sitting among elder black Miamians. I frequented convenings of local historic preservation groups like the Dade Heritage Trust, Historic Hampton House Trust, or the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. These were all groups of organized black seniors, with a couple white allies, actively fighting against the erasure of their communities. Storytelling was their weapon. And, by warring with their stories, they’d eked out many fragile and temporary wins along the way.[3] 

At these meetings, I learned that people still carried Miami’s archive in their purses and in photo boxes at their homes – just in case. So much about the Jim Crow city existed in such stories, stories never committed to the published or catalogued record. “They shot her where?” “Wait, how could they carry the whole house away…?”  Among these venerable narrators and talebearers, much within U.S. urban historiography rang like empty prattle. Away melted the lines between labor and capital, immigrant and citizen, liberal and conservative, past and present. New lines, hazy but real, came into view – those between possession and dispossession, land and power the sharpest among them. I took on the clerical work of keeping meeting minutes or giving members rides home. From the words uttered and the small whispered parts, I listened for wholes. What does a passing memory or compulsive utterance tell us about the British empire or the Caribbean post-colony now living in Miami? What’s the historical fact hiding in that shell of wisdom passed from parent to child? 

I couldn’t hope to find any answers to these or related questions in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, or even the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee. Rather, I needed to be prepared, when asked (and with a smile), to furnish my last name, so that Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so at today’s meeting could find my family tree among those known to have sustained Miami’s black community. A transplant myself from “Up North,” I had no such roots. Failing – or in addition – to that, I needed to be ready to present early research findings and documents, if needed, at zoning or appropriations hearings at the Miami City Commission (the city council). After all, among this different group of new elder friends, my hoped-for “urban history” didn’t matter just because I was once told it was impossible. It had to pick a side in fights against developers or gentrifiers, those who regaled city commissioners with competing stories. Those meetings reminded me that the fact – and force – of the story happens in the telling.

The simultaneity of distance and proximity represents another fact of Caribbean life, and by extension of Miami’s history. In the colonial Caribbean, one could see, from high enough ground, a neighboring island and, with it, many times, an entirely different empire.[4]  At the very same time, the remnants of some previous, indigenous civilization lied buried under your feet, but a world away. 

For me and so many others, writing Miami’s urban history has required a kind of excavation. One has to bore down into non-archived networks and present-day political contests to find, for instance, the old settlement of Lemon City sedimented under Little Haiti. The same work is required, perhaps to no surprise, to now prevent Little Haiti from being buried by the Magic City Innovation District. And all the while, any historian hoping to make sense of even the most localized struggle has to cross the expanses and spatial barriers between Cubans, Miccosukee, Bahamians, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Haitians, and Northern white snowbirds.  They have to take account of the countless Florida offspring with origins in the British, French, Spanish, and U.S. empires. After all, one cannot write a desegregated history with a segregated method.[5]  (That would be impossible.) 

Neither can one avoid crossing between local lore, public history, and national historiography. Staying within the professional empires of “The Academy” represents the first step on a fool’s errand. Miami’s urban history, however, has become not only possible but prodigious from a boatload of work built upon the scholarly and curatorial efforts of local heroes, librarians, and legends, including Marvin Dunn, Paul George, Seth Bramson, John Shipley, Arva Moore Parks, Edith Pinkney, Dawn Hugh, Vicki Silvera, and Timothy Barber.  Indeed, contrary to previous assumptions about even the most conventional archival research, Miami is archivally rich in its own right. More, it anchors an entire archipelago, stretching north and south, of documentary evidence. 

Mural in the Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Bulldozers, hurricanes, and rising seas be damned, the living history of Miami includes an inheritance of stubborn archival preservation. Beginning in the late 1970s and into the 2000s, Dorothy Jenkins Fields built the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc., into one of the most expansive repositories of black American and West Indian life available. Erica Williams Connell, a longtime Miamian, is also the daughter of the famed historian and Trinidadian Prime Minister Eric Williams. She built the Eric Williams Memorial Collection housed today at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, campus. From South Florida, today, she still presides over much of its preservation. For over forty years, Dorothy B. Porter Wesley built the collections at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library, becoming, by many accounts, the most important librarian in the entire twentieth-century Black World.[6] She spent her final years in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and, thereupon residing, provided the foundation for collections at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center. This repository of Pan-African heritage stands essential for any future work on black South Florida and the wider politics of black self-determination. 

Miami’s preservation tradition continues on still more islands.  It’s in the curatorial work of Joanne Hyppolite at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.  One finds it through the many efforts of historian Robin Bachin at the University of Miami, with her current work being to document for future generations the neighborhood-based impact of climate change. Miami’s future archives can be found, too, through the black-life reportage of Isaiah Smalls and the community storytelling projects of journalist/activist Nadedge Green.

Miami’s emergent urban history canon has relied – indeed, had to rely – on modes of intellectual survival suited to the Caribbean. A Caribbean method has saved a city under near-constant redevelopment, under fading and fragmented memories, and with a racially fractured geography. Yet, continued environmental collapse means that Miami’s residents may yet lose their long battle against erasure. Islands can be both resilient and fragile places. It may now be hard to imagine urban history’s future without Miami. But it’s far from impossible.

N. D. B Connolly is Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University, where he occupies the Herbert Baxter Adams chair and directs the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship. Connolly’s 2014 book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, received awards from the Urban History Association, the Southern Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians, among other organizations.

Featured image (at top): The colorful Mache Ayisyen Caribbean Marketplace in Miami, Florida’s Little Haiti, long a neighborhood populated by many Haitian exiles, which in the early 21st Century became home to other Caribbean immigrants and Hispanics from elsewhere in Central and South America. Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick, City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (University of California Press, 1994); Guillermo Grenier, Alex Stepick, Max Castro, and Marvin Dunn, This Land is Our Land: Immigrants and Power in Miami (University of California Press, 2003).

[2] Roger Biles and Mark H. Rose, “Tribute to Raymond A. Mohl, 1938-2015,” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 3 (2015): 360-367. The work of Deborah Dash Moore also seemed glaringly overlooked in this conversation; To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (Harvard University Press, 1994).

[3] Gregory W. Bush, White Sand, Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami’s Virginia Key (University of Florida Press, 2016).

[4] Thank you, Julius S. Scott, III, for this insight.

[5] N. D. B. Connolly, “Notes on a Desegregated Method: Learning from Michael Katz and Others,” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 4 (July 2015): 584-591.

[6] Avril Johnson Madison and Dorothy Porter Wesley, “Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley: Enterprising Steward of Black Culture,” The Public Historian 17, no. 1 (Win. 1995): 15-40.

One thought on “Approaching an Impossible City

  1. Wonderful perspective on Miami’s Urban History.
    Hope to get to one of your lectures one day soon.
    Meanwhile I rely on your Mom continues to post your brilliant contributions.


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