We're Number One - A Special Report

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When it comes to fame and glory for having produced world-class poverty, Miami is no overnight success. The recent distinction bestowed by the U.S. Census Bureau -- Poorest Big City in America -- was years in the making. According to census data and other research, Miami was showing precocious signs of degradation as far back as 1960. The next twenty years were so dynamic that by the 1980 census Miami had rocketed to near the top in national rankings of dirt-poor cities.

In fact that specific year, 1980, marked a kind of tipping point, the moment when the city's destiny became clear: Nothing would stop its headlong dash toward record-breaking numbers. That was the year Miami nearly disintegrated.

A dramatic influx of desperate, and desperately poor, Haitian immigrants reached its peak in 1980. (Roughly 60,000 Haitian "boat people" came ashore in Miami between 1977 and 1981.) That exodus, however, was overshadowed by the Mariel boatlift, which commenced in April 1980. Within months 125,000 Cubans had been brought here, most of them virtually penniless, many without relatives to take them in, a large number of them criminals yanked from jails or mental patients forcibly removed from asylums and expelled from the island by Fidel Castro. And just as the Mariel boatlift was getting under way, black Miami erupted in an unprecedented spasm of violence and destruction.

The McDuffie riots were sparked by a Tampa jury's acquittal of four Metro-Dade police officers in the beating death of black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie. Two days of rampage left eighteen dead, hundreds injured, more than 1000 jailed, and nearly 250 businesses battered or destroyed. Damage estimates ranged from $80 million to as high as $150 million.

Talk about serendipity. Any city with ambitions to greatness could only dream of such forces coalescing simultaneously. It certainly did the trick for Miami. Many of the city's black neighborhoods, seething from decades of economic and social segregation, were now literally smoldering ruins. The city's crime rate skyrocketed as Marielitos -- the hardened criminals and the merely despondent -- indulged in an orgy of lawlessness. Thousands of indigent Haitians, bewildered by culture shock and bereft of useful language skills, practically invited economic exploitation.

If ever there were a formula for a precipitous fall from grace, this was it. The white middle class, already in flight from the crush of Cuban immigrants, couldn't seem to get out of Miami fast enough after 1980. As noted by Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick, authors of City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami, Anglos constituted an absolute majority of Miami's population in 1960; by 1990 they accounted for only ten percent.

But it wasn't just old-guard Florida Crackers who were fleeing. The city's entire middle class -- Anglo, Hispanic, African American -- began to cut and run. With them went hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs. By official city estimates, during the Eighties alone a staggering 40,000 jobs were lost, more than eleven percent of Miami's entire employment base. Industrial and manufacturing endeavors, never a strong presence in the city's economy, were especially hard hit. In the Wynwood-Edgewater industrial neighborhood north of downtown, 13,000 jobs evaporated.

The vacuum created by all this "out-migration," as bureaucrats call it, was filled by an uninterrupted flow of immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, and other Latin countries. These newcomers, however, lacked the educational achievements or entrepreneurial skills possessed by many of their predecessors, most notably the early waves of Cuban refugees.

They crowded into neighborhoods already crippled by substandard housing and crumbling infrastructure. And they nearly overwhelmed the city's ability to deliver basic services, just at a time when the cost of those services was beginning to soar. Add to this toxic stew more riots (or "disturbances" as stricken city boosters called them) in 1982, 1984, and 1989 in the city's black areas, plus the financial meltdown of 1996, and the recipe was complete: rising crime, plunging incomes, spiraling unemployment, and deepening isolation among Miami's impoverished neighborhoods.

The 1990 census pegged the city at fourth-poorest in the nation, but those in the know say that had Miami's vast population of illegal aliens been surveyed, the results would have boosted the city to the number-one spot. Regardless, Miami hit the mark by the 2000 census.

In this issue and continuing next week, New Times explores the rich texture of poor Miami. The 2000 census has served as a guidebook (all statistics are drawn from it unless otherwise noted), but as often happens, the uncharted side streets have yielded a more vivid sense of the place.

 
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