Why We Need a Miami School of Urbanism

By Julio Capó Jr. and Rebecca Friedman

Miami is one of the most important cities in the United States and the Americas. Yet, its history, culture, politics, and overall meaning are still largely caricatured through myth, stigma, and hyperbole. These misrepresentations, often even fantasies, are all deeply rooted in the region’s layered past and relationship to colonial processes and empire. The Greater Miami area has been influential, if not centrally embedded, in many of the United States’ most significant and often controversial issues, from determining presidential elections, setting the tone for foreign policy, seeing the growth of mass incarceration, institutionalizing anti-Black violence, reporting and containing outbreaks and disease, recovering from and responding to natural disasters, experiencing the direct results of climate crises, spurring debates on immigration and detention, and so much more. Although the region and the millions of people who reside in and traverse it every year remain woefully understudied and misunderstood, community and grassroots efforts have long created, fostered, and studied local knowledges that serve as a corrective to this broader national narrative that has marginalized and underscored Miami as a site of significant cultural and intellectual inquiry and impact.

For these reasons, we at the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab (WPHL) at Florida International University (FIU), the largest Hispanic-Serving Institution in the United States, have launched a number of ambitious efforts to create and make sustainable a robust program in Miami Studies that centers the history, literature, culture, language, art, architecture, politics, and overall humanistic experiences of the diverse people of the Greater Miami area. Much like the formation of a “Chicago School” in the early twentieth century and a “Los Angeles School” in the late twentieth century, we are working to create a “Miami School” of urbanism in the twenty-first century, but one specifically designed for a multicultural city of the Americas that pushes traditional disciplinary boundaries. Miami Studies links urban studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, ethnic studies (especially the field of Latina/o/x studies), and feminist, gender, and queer studies to make a unique program that reflects the multicultural and multilingual experiences, values, and histories of Greater Miami. It partially seeks to push the boundaries of what constitutes traditional “Latina/o/x studies” by integrating all ethno-racial communities that have historically called it home.

Decorative Wall on the Obscure Twa Zom Fo Botanica Business or Organization in Miami’s Little Haiti, Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

By critically engaging the transcultural and transnational experiences of race, ethnicity, nationality, and class in Miami, this school of urbanism is especially mindful of integrating diasporic communities that are not traditionally represented or included in Latina/o/x studies programs, such as Haitians, Bahamians, Jamaicans, and Brazilians, for example. Today, South Florida houses the largest diasporic communities in the United States of Haitian Americans, Nicaraguan Americans, Cuban Americans, Bahamian Americans, and Venezuelan Americans, with large and increasing populations of Uruguayan Americans, Colombian Americans, Argentine Americans, Jamaican Americans, and Brazilian Americans. In this and other ways, Miami represents a paradigm in changing urban demographics and growth more generally, as it mirrors an increase in foreign-born and immigrant-descended people, albeit in distinct and site-specific ways. To this end, it suggests that Miami could be understood as heir-apparent to Los Angeles and the post-World War II “Sunbelt” ascendancy of urbanism.

For these and many other reasons, many often are quick to think of Miami as one of the most diverse areas in the country. While this is certainly true in many respects, it can also oversimplify the relationship between ethnicity and race, especially the histories and effects of anti-Blackness. In Miami-Dade County, 69.4 percent of the population reports as Hispanic/Latinx; the majority of them simultaneously identify as white. According to census data, Black and African American population reports as 17.7 percent. While this easily qualifies the county as one of the nation’s few Hispanic/Latina/o/x-majority regions, the notion of “minority” politics is, at the very least, fraught. Since at least the 1980s, Hispanic/Latina/o/x visions for the city have increasingly been reflected in the city’s urban power structures—including its media, politicians, judges, and law enforcement. This school of urbanism, rooted in a “city of the Americas” framework, is attentive to the slippages of ethno-racial constructions in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean and the causes and effects of racial inequity specifically rooted in anti-Blackness. 

Miami Studies has found a comfortable home within the city’s urban research university, FIU, a minority-majority campus with intimate ties to the local community, while maintaining a vision for global citizenry. In particular, we at the WPHL, FIU’s humanities hub, which insists on creating and sustaining relationships of trust within the communities of Greater Miami, have received generous support from granting agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, Florida Humanities, and the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University. Ultimately, the study of public humanities in general and of Miami Studies in particular helps prepare students to lead lives and take up meaningful careers thoughtful of—or perhaps in service to—the broader community.

Several of the grants support ongoing efforts to decolonize local archives and support community knowledge in its many forms. Through the generous support of the NEH, “Miami Studies: Building a New Interdisciplinary Public Humanities Program” strengthens existing and creates new partnerships with local institutions to help address and tackle key questions and social dilemmas that originate or have been given particular meaning in this city of the Americas. In doing so, this program in Miami Studies emphasizes and offers students training in numerous public humanities skills that respond to the needs of today’s job market, including digitization and metadata analysis, writing for public audiences, museum curation, and storytelling, among many others. The grant project funded by the Florida Humanities, “Miami Life: Unpacking Difficult Stories from Our Past,” will see the digitization of select issues of a rare newspaper from the city’s past, Miami Life, which had otherwise been thought lost to us forever. Students will curate new exhibitions using materials from the newly digitized newspaper and the WPHL will subsequently host and convene its first major Miami Studies Symposium highlighting this and other works.

In this vein, the Mellon Foundation’s Public Knowledge Division generously funded “Community Data Curation: Preserving, Creating, and Narrating Everyday Stories,” which takes as its starting point the preservation, creation, and narration of stories within a variety of historically underrepresented communities in South Florida. Through archival digitization, oral histories, exhibition curation, and public-facing writing, this project is crafted specifically to recover voices lost in the archives and have them heard and recorded on their own terms and made available for and by the community for generations to come. The overlapping communities represented span South Florida and beyond, ranging from U.S. African American and Afro-Caribbean communities to graffiti artists, the Jewish diaspora, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. In particular, the WPHL will work closely with eight community partners: 1) Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center; 2) Historic Hampton House; 3) Museum of Graffiti; 4) African American Research Library and Cultural Center; 5) Jewish Museum of Florida–FIU; 6) Vizcaya Museum & Gardens; 7) World AIDS Museum and Educational Center; and 8) Stonewall National Museum & Archives.

As all of this suggests, the very formation of Miami Studies, and the role of the public humanities more broadly, is radical in its rootedness in social justice work and its vision to dismantle power structures and hierarchies that reify inequities. A separate grant generously funded by the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative, “Commons for Justice: Race, Risk, and Resilience,” finds the WPHL partnering with a number of programs at FIU, led by the Extreme Events Institute, and several community partners. This work focuses on six Miami underserved neighborhoods, predominantly communities of color, to better understand strategies of resilience in vulnerable environments with an emphasis on how differential disaster risk and resilience problems “layer” on―and interact with―other forms of racial and ethnic injustices. With a combination of storytelling and oral history gathering, qualitative studies, artists in residence, curricular innovation, and other initiatives, this project seeks to understand risk and resilience strategies within Miami’s communities of color in order to ultimately work with our partners to understand and mitigate the worst impacts of climate crisis on the region’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

While some may be tempted to say Miami Studies is long overdue, we suggest a counterpoint: it has long since existed. After all, community organizations and cultural institutions both within and outside of the region’s borders have valued, preserved, cultivated, and narrated local knowledges for generations. Join us in respectfully listening, supporting, and growing this work as a means to reckon with the past, affect change in our present, and move towards a more equitable future.

Julio Capó Jr. is Deputy Director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab and Associate Professor of History at Florida International University. A former Miami-based journalist, he is also the award-winning author of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 (UNC Press, 2017) and curator of several exhibitions, including Queer Miami: A History of LGBTQ Communities for History Miami Museum.

Rebecca Friedman is Associate Professor of History and Founding Director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab at Florida International University. As a faculty leader at FIU who serves as provost faculty fellow, she bridges the divide between faculty and administration. In this role, she spearheaded the effort to elevate the humanities on campus and build community partnerships, resulting in the founding of the WPHL. She is a scholar of urban history, culture, gender, and temporality in the Russian/Soviet contexts and author most recently of Modernity, Domesticity and Temporality in Modern Russia: Time at Home (Bloomsbury 2020).

Featured image (at top): Giant “MAGIC” Sign in Miami’s Little Haiti, Carol M. Highsmith, 2020, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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