Postcards from the Edgewater

Miami's slummiest oceanfront neighborhood could be the next big thing. It could also turn into the next condo canyon.

For these young Cuban Americans, Edgewater is not just an investment. The Rodriguezes also live here; they own an apartment in a 1920s-era building whose simple but elegant amenities include high ceilings, lath-and-plaster walls, and a foyer replete with fireplace and easy chairs. As members of the co-op's board (along with Alex Justo), they've begun a slow restoration of the property to its original glory. It's not the easiest route to riches, but Edgewater is where they hope to build a future.

We want to raise our children here, says Michelle.

And they may one day succeed in turning Edgewater into a safe and charming residential neighborhood. On the other hand, their efforts at gentrification could undermine those very hopes. The area has long been zoned for high-density housing, and commercial developers may figure out that Miami's last bit of waterfront acreage is the perfect setting for high-rise condominiums.

Alex Justo would like his neighbors to care for their buildings as much as he cares for his
Steve Satterwhite
Alex Justo would like his neighbors to care for their buildings as much as he cares for his
Eugenia Carriero has seen Edgewater go from ritzy to wretched
Steve Satterwhite
Eugenia Carriero has seen Edgewater go from ritzy to wretched

Eighty-year-old Eugenia Carriero rocks back and forth in her chair on a front porch lined on three sides by metal bars. The bars clearly aren't as old as the Spanish-style stucco house, which was built in 1927, and they give her the look of a jailed grandmother. Carriero and her husband bought the place in 1982. Since his death five years later, she has stayed on alone in half of the house; she rents out the upstairs for income.

Carriero was 36 years old when she first came to Miami from Cuba in 1956, leaving behind a husband she divorced a few years later. On the boat to Key West, she and a friend met a fellow Cuban who operated an Edgewater boarding house for students. Carriero had come with little money and open-ended plans, and the fee for a room -- a dollar a day -- seemed perfect. She thought she might stay awhile, find some work, and take a few English classes. The classes never materialized, but she took jobs caring for the elderly and flew home to Havana a few times a month. The flight took about 45 minutes; roundtrip airfare cost just $40.50.

The revolution put an end to her trips home, and Carriero never went back to Cuba. During a four-month stay in New York, she fell in love again; in 1967 she remarried and returned with her husband to Edgewater, which by then had a growing Cuban population. Now more than half her life has passed in this neighborhood, where links to her native island can be found just a few blocks to the south, beginning on NE Seventeenth Terrace.

In 1906 developer Fred H. Rand, Jr., laid out the southern edge of today's Edgewater to resemble Havana's tony Miramar suburb, renowned for its grand mansions and wide, tree-lined streets. In Miami's Miramar a main drive curved gracefully along the waterfront (where Margaret Pace Park is now located), and many of the streets carried Spanish names. Rand built an opulent estate for himself, which featured a conservatory and bird sanctuary, on NE 21st Street. (Today the house no longer exists; in its place stands Unity on the Bay church.)

Over the next decade, more great houses sprang up in Miramar as monied Northern industrialists bought up land beside the bay. The community was second only to Brickell in its concentration of Miami wealth and influence. If you had to pick an area to live in the early 1920s, that would be it, says local historian Paul George. An eclectic mix of local dignitaries, including at least one city commissioner, judges, bankers, and artists called Miramar home.

During a boom in the early 1920s, Hugh M. Anderson, another real estate mogul, extended Biscayne Boulevard further north from downtown, up to 55th Street, slicing through the Miramar district. Later developers dredged the bayfront to extend several streets, leaving small inlets here and there along the shoreline.

In the years that followed, Miami went through numerous housing booms and busts, hurricanes and Depression-era turmoil. Not until World War II, though, did the city's economy begin to take off as it had at the turn of the century. By the mid-1950s, when Carriero arrived in Miramar, the neighborhood had settled into its current borders: from 17th Street up to 37th Street, bounded by the bay to the east and the Florida East Coast Railway track to the west. In time people ceased to use the name Miramar and referred to the area as Edgewater. George notes that a nearby hotel and an apartment building both used the name; though no one seems to know for sure, perhaps that's how the change began.

Back then, Carriero says, Edgewater was enjoying the city's postwar boom. The anchor to the south was a four-story Jordan Marsh on Seventeenth Street (where the Omni shopping center awaits transformation), the most glamorous department store in Miami. She remembers the store's big picture windows filled with ornaments, dancing dolls, and elegant clothes. On the grounds were fish ponds surrounded by benches, where people could sit and enjoy the afternoons. It was so beautiful, she recalls, pausing to savor the memory. You don't have department stores like that anymore.

Carriero lived in three different houses in Edgewater, all within four blocks of one another. Her current residence backs up against the bay, and her husband loved to sit on the balcony for hours and watch the boats glide by. I never thought my husband would die and that I would stay all by myself, she says, shaking her head.

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