Viva Flagler!

It's downtown's swirling kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells. Where the Latin mercado meets the American enterprise. Where commerce thrives and clerks cut deals. So why would urban planners want to kill it?

The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
On the red-brick sidewalks of Flagler Street, that downtown paradise of low-cost plunder, shoppers - Americans, Haitians, Japanese, Europeans, and Latinos, Latinos, everywhere - seek cover from the raindrops pelting the pavement. Huddled under grimy canvas awnings, they plot their next forays into the tangle of clothing outlets, electronics stores, jewelry boutiques, and shoe shops. Sales flyers strewn on the asphalt tatter under the watery assault, wash into the gutters along with black-olive leaves and soggy tamale wrappers and hot dog buns. Steam rises and swirls through the vast sea of legs, wafts the aroma of croquetas, fried platanos, and arroz con frijoles toward the top stories of the historic old buildings staring stoically over downtown.

Two Hare Krishnas with tiny brass cymbals punctuate the rainstorm with a steady cha-cha-cha-cha-clang, cha-cha-cha-cha-clang, as Celia Cruz's salsa blares from storefront speakers. A young Haitian woman leans out a car window, yells something in Creole, and the sound is swallowed up by the roar of bus engines spewing gritty fumes. Sunburned Brits in their Bermudas bump elbows, shuffling past fruit stands lined with cups of chopped strawberries, bananas, pineapples, and papayas, past streetfront cafeteria windows where tourists slurp guanabana ice cream and Cuban men in dark dress pants and white guyaberas sip cortaditos and bash Fidel, past newsstands where El Tiempo of Bogota and La Prensa of Managua are more plentiful than the Miami Herald. Flash go the strobes in the electronics-store windows. Flash-flash. Flashing oblivious to the rain. Flashing without change. Flashing tourists into their parlors, the merchant spiders to the shopping flies.

Here the Latin American weekend mercado has plopped down in a splash of vibrant color, where twelve polychrome signs are better than one, where it's not enough to flaunt just a single brand name; only every brand name in the store, from Aiwa to Zenith, will do. This is Flagler Street, the namesake of railroad pioneer Henry Flagler, a slow train from Latin America, from the Third World, on a different track than the suburban mall express. This is where the real "Gateway to the Americas" opens. It comes to life in the eyes of the dark-skinned Jamaican children laughing at the dancing Coca-Cola cans in the windows of toy stores, in the faces of the Day-Glo-clad Venezuelan teen-agers crooning over the $19.99 deal on a portable tape recorder, in the voices of the white-haired Cuban grandmothers oohing over bolts of cheap fabric and tiny pink, blue, and white children's dresses that look as if they were lifted right off the top of a wedding cake.

We're barely a block into the downtown shopping labyrinth when my mother says it's time to make a deal. A 59-year-old native of Colombia with 40 years of Flagler bargain-hunting experience, she originally intended to seek out only one pair of shoes on this Saturday, but the storefront temptations have proven to be too much. "Oh, let's go in here and see if I can get a cheap calculator," she says, steering us past the red-neon-ringed windows and the many-brand-name sign at 263 E. Flagler, into Jimmy's Electronics. It takes only seconds for Daniel Briff to swoop down, hungry for a sale. Behind him, colorful cartoons beckon shoppers to a bank of television sets; glass cases and shelves stuffed with cameras, phones, radios, watches, video equipment, personal computers, and other high-tech goods line the walls. Briff, a 35-year-old Argentine in black jeans and baggy pullover, pulls two calculators - a $49 Sanyo, and a $45 black Royal EZ Vue - from a glass-case island in the middle of the store. A quick sale? At Dadeland, maybe, but not here. On Flagler, if you want to buy smart, you've got to bargain.

"Those aren't fixed prices, right?" Mom ventures in Spanish, pointing at the Royal. "I'll give you $39."

Briff's mouth drops in mock disbelief. "How many do you want?" he queries.
"What do you mean how many? One, of course."
"I'll go to $44," says Briff.
"$42, and I'll take it right now."

A roll of the eyes and a rub of the grizzled chin. "Okay. I'll do it for you because you're simpatica."

Everything's cool until the time comes to charge tax. "What? The tax isn't included? You're kidding," says Mom. "That wasn't much of a bargain if you're going to charge tax on top. If I find the same calculator for cheaper somewhere else, I'll bring it back, right?"

"You won't find it, you won't find it. This is the best place," Briff retorts. "Man, she's tough," he whispers under his breath.

But Mom's not done. She decides she's been in need of a portable radio for quite some time. Briff darts over to a wall of waterproof yellow Sony boom boxes. "This is a very, very good one. This is the one you want," he says, pulling a $79 machine from a glass case. Mom isn't impressed. He shows her a smaller, black model. "It's $57, but I'll give it to you for $55."

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