We're Number One! A Special Report - Part Two

The competition was fierce: Rust-belt stalwarts with years of experience.
The stakes were high: A celebrated national championship
But Miami had the grit to come out on top: America's Poorest City

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Last week Miami Mayor Manny Diaz unveiled an assortment of proposals he hopes will reduce poverty in his city. Not end poverty, just reduce it. This wasn't exactly a rousing declaration of war, and it was 30 years overdue, but at least he stood up and said it: Miami is the poorest big city in the nation and we must do something to change that.

For decades the city's leaders, in both the public and private sectors, pursued agendas that utterly ignored Miami's rotting core. Downtown sprouted a photogenic skyline. Brickell Avenue did as well, and soon became a center for international banking and a fashionable location for posh residential development. With the city's encouragement, central Coconut Grove shed its laid-back ambiance and was transformed into a bustling (and crass) commercial center. The waterfront neighborhoods north of downtown, one after another, have undergone rejuvenation -- always with the city's blessing and its assistance in upgrading services to satisfy the demands of more prosperous residents. Elected officials and their enablers in the business community also found the time and money to develop symbols of civic accomplishment: a money-losing James L. Knight Center, the prematurely obsolete Miami Arena, the hulking American Airlines Arena, a grandiose performing arts center.

Meanwhile poverty spread at an alarming rate through Model City, Overtown, Allapattah, East Little Havana, and west Coconut Grove.

Mayor Diaz's acknowledgement of the painful truth about Miami is a first timid step in a very long journey. If he has any hope for success in rectifying years of disgraceful neglect, he'll need much more than a task force and a couple of million dollars. Somehow he must persuade all of Miami, and all those who have a stake in it, that extreme poverty threatens to destabilize the city. The mayor must rally the public for intense and prolonged engagement with the city's most disadvantaged. But given the isolation of Miami's impoverished neighborhoods, that'll be difficult.

If you're not dangerously poor yourself, you probably know next to nothing about those neighborhoods. Miami's affluent bayfront communities are self-contained bubbles whose residents have no cause to visit areas west of I-95. Compounding that problem, a history of fractionalized relations has left the city's poor knowing little about themselves. By and large, African Americans don't mix with Cubans, who don't mix with Haitians, who don't mix with either. Everyone is the poorer for it, as isolation breeds ignorance, and ignorance fosters indifference.

Another challenge facing the mayor is the complex nature of poverty in Miami. It isn't solely the result of the city being a gateway for poor immigrants. Another major factor is its heavy reliance on tourism. In fact immigration and tourism have formed an insidious economic partnership here. The tourism industry abounds with low-paying, low-skill service jobs, and many new immigrants, desperate for work, eagerly fill those positions. Miami's appeal to immigrants isn't likely to change anytime soon. And diversifying the local economy will be a daunting task requiring years of sustained effort -- plus a much-better-educated workforce. City officials, however, have limited influence over the public schools, and Miami is notorious for its short attention span.

Formidable challenges, yes. But the city has already confronted them, as described in Kirk Nielsen's article "Looks Good on Paper," opening this second part of our exploration of Miami's poverty -- which also happens to end on a somewhat optimistic note. We discovered that there are plenty of bright people in town who care deeply about Miami, and as noted in "A Few Good Ideas," they have some provocative suggestions for fixing the place.

 
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