San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Travis Cohen argues that the Welcome to Miami Beach sign deserves love all across Miami-Dade.
Who doesn't like a nice drive across the Tuttle in the later hours of the night? Once the traffic has died down and you can rocket eastward, basking in the brightly lit cityscape of Downtown in the distance, there's scarcely a drive this side of Old Cutler that offers the kind of joy you can find crossing the JT. And no matter how long you've lived in this city or how many times you've visited, it's impossible to stop loving the sight of the Welcome to Miami Beach sign when you come over that last crest on 195 and see all those palm trees with their glowing neon necklaces. It's a magic little forest, and the only way that doesn't make you happy is if you have no heart. Or if you're from Broward.
It may not be half as well-known as the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, but no matter whether you hang your hat on the mainland or the Beach, Miami Beach's welcome sign is an image that's inextricably tied to your memories of this city.
The sign itself has gotten toned down over the years. Back in the day it was twice as colorful and crazily tropical, but the letters have always been the same and so have the neon rings around the trees. For scores of Miamians who've seen the city evolve as they crossed the Tuttle on their way to one school or another, who've seen the popular hangouts shift from Lincoln Road in front of the movie theater to Wynwood to Downtown, the Miami Beach sign has been a fixed point in the day to day ebb and flow of living in this city for decades. Some nights the trees emanate a solid array of cool blue; on others, they've swayed in a rainbow spectrum of hues that hum in saturated fluorescence. Every year, this town changes, but those palm trees, they keep on glowing.
How many of Dade's born and bred degenerates and dilettantes have made the trek through the bowels of 41st street to find their way to that grassy knoll to smoke a joint or suck on bottles of cheap beer or just shoot the breeze beneath those brilliant halos, hidden behind the sign that beckoned us homeward, huddled between the buzzing traffic and the bay? If you haven't taken that trip, do yourself a favor and find someone who has. It's surreal to see that strange little patch of the city from within, and it's a rite of passage that will leave you with an even greater fondness for the all the luminous wonders that make this the one and only Magic City.
Some may say that it's hokey. Others may deem it little more than another unimportant banality along their daily commute. But for many, many more, the Welcome to Miami Beach sign and the neon grove of palms that stands behind it will always be one of the most comforting and familiar images that is associated with this unapologetically odd, endlessly interesting place we call home.
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